On being ... a visceral reaction
I was going to title this: On being … soft porn-like, but given my recent concerns about anti-spam laws, I thought the better of it. (Not to mention that I didn’t want to shock my mother too much. As it is, I’m hoping she’s not fainted reading this first paragraph.)
It’s no secret that I love good food and cooking, but a couple incidents this past week have made me wonder if, by comparison to others, I have an unnatural interest in gourmet food and all that goes into preparing it. The first incident was a near obsession I felt wanting to know the secret to the most unusual (and simply divine) salad I had the other day at a new café.
I love salads and have them often -- at home and in restaurants. These days it’s easy to come by exquisite salad greens, so chefs have to be more creative to really stand out in the salad department. To me, for a salad to be noteworthy it has to feature an interesting combination of ingredients and a dressing that’s more than just a well-balanced drizzle of olive oil and balsamic vinegar. And of course, the amount of dressing is crucial.
When I ordered the salad, the server explained that day’s special ingredients: wild rice, walnuts, Gouda, and raisins. (I suspect she was mainly warning me in case I had a nut allergy.) When the salad arrived, two things struck me: first, it looked beautiful -- it was sprinkled with bright coloured nasturtium petals and topped with a few wispy ribbons of heirloom carrots. Second, and more intriguing, it looked like the chef forgot the salad dressing, since none of the greens had any tell-tale oil sheen.
Well, the salad was perfection. No ingredient overpowered or dominated, and each bite had an interesting combination of tastes and textures and the seemingly invisible dressing was delicious. When the server returned, I expressed my amazement and asked what the dressing was made of and how it could look as though there wasn’t any. She didn’t understand my bewilderment and she simply repeated the menu’s description for it: brown butter vinaigrette. Though I was hoping for more information, her reminder of the menu description was helpful, as I then realized that some of the greens had a slight dullness, which could have been the milk solids that separate when butter is melted (which is necessary to make brown butter).
When I got home I made a bee-line to the internet and began searching for a brown butter vinaigrette recipe. There were a few, but they all sounded more like sauces for fish -- certainly not light enough for salad. Ultimately, figuring I had nothing to lose, I wrote the restaurant (a real letter, not an e-mail) asking for the recipe. Unfortunately, no word so far, but I’ve got my fingers crossed that they’ll respond.
Obsessing about the salad dressing probably sounds pretty innocent and not that unusual, but when considered along with my fascination with a PBS show I happened to record called “Chefs of Toronto”, I must admit, my interest in gourmet food preparation might not be normal.
The show, which was produced by the Buffalo PBS station, was low-budget and was clearly meant more to showcase Toronto than to appeal to viewers interested in cooking. There was no host or emcee, just short segments featuring different well-known chefs standing in their own kitchens quickly demonstrating how they make one of their signature dishes. They didn’t really give recipes (certainly no specifics regarding measures or quantities) -- they simply described the key steps and showed how they plate the item.
I’ve always felt that what really differentiate chefs from good cooks are the care chefs take with food presentation and their artistic use of colourful, unique, and flavourful sauces when plating things. Indeed, I think that sauces are to culinary prowess what colour and light were to the Impressionists.
Watching a chef delicately place each individual piece of greens on a salad plate, and then add a dab of this sauce or a drizzle of that was simply inspiring. And watching another chef gently center a piece of fish atop a smooth sauce, and then spoon two or three other sauces elsewhere on the plate before topping it with a dash of julienned vegetable to add texture and colour left me drooling.
And I was simply riveted by one chef’s demonstration of how he makes gnocchi. Instead of making a potato-based dough, he used choux pastry (which is traditional cream puff dough). And, if that wasn’t unusual enough, instead of butter for the pastry, he used fat he drained from frying double-smoked bacon, which he ultimately used in the dough. Can you imagine? I know, me either! But the pièce de résistance had to be how he piped little nuggets of the dough right into a pot of boiling water. (I won’t tell you how many times I hit replay on that segment alone.)
Until I waxed poetic to a few friends about the salad dressing and watching the plating techniques and the gnocchi making demo, I didn’t really think there was anything odd about my interest or enthusiasm. But, the more I talked about these things, the clearer it became that my reaction to this stuff isn’t like others’ – mine is definitely visceral.
I don’t know… should I get help? Maybe…
Or maybe should I just consider enrolling in Le Cordon Bleu.
© 2011 Ingrid Sapona