On being … chef-y

By Ingrid Sapona

As I was sitting down to write today’s column, it dawned on me that readers may end up thinking I’m a chef wanna-be. My immediate reaction to that is a simple No. But then I realized perhaps I should reflect on that a bit, as maybe there’s something to it. So let me get back to you on that later…

I don’t know about you, but my friends and I seem to share more meals over the summer. There’s something about sunshine and all the fresh fruit and vegetables that inspires me to invite friends over and to trying new recipes. And, this summer I’ve been working on upping my game by trying to be more “chef-y”. Ok – that’s a term I’ve coined – but I’ll explain what I mean.

Obviously, chefs have specialized training and know a whole range of things about food. They also know where to find all sorts of exotic ingredients. For example, not too long ago I had a pasta dish that had little teeny tear-drop shaped peppers that I had never seen before. Turns out they were Sweety Drops from Peru.

But, I’ve observed a handful of things chefs do that I think end up making a big difference and I’ve been focusing my energy on these. The first has to do with planning the meal. I used to decide what I wanted to serve and I’d go in search of the necessary ingredients. The past few years I’ve taken a more chef-like approach. Now I narrow it down to a few different recipes and I don’t make the decision until I’m at the market. Then I choose whatever seems the freshest and best value. It seems a no-brainer, I know – but it does require a level of flexibility.

I’ve noticed that chefs also pay a lot of attention to texture in dishes. For example, a sprinkling of pine nuts on a plate of pasta or a handful of shredded cabbage tucked inside a pulled pork sandwich is probably more about adding crunch than about adding flavour.

Colour is also something I’m sure chefs consider and it’s something I’m paying more attention to too. While you won’t catch me adding squid ink to make my risotto a dramatic black, I do look for ways of adding colour. For example, I may add sliced red pepper on top of a green bean salad, or a spear of roasted carrot alongside a scoop of rice. I also try to make sure there’s colour contrast between the main and sides.

Another chef-y thing is how they combine interesting, unexpected flavours. Pickled veggies seem to be a favourite way of adding a bit of tang, while chutneys and compotes are often used to add some heat. While I enjoy some chutneys, I’m not keen enough on them to bother making them. But, I’ve been playing around with quick pickling things ever since I read somewhere that it’s a great way of using up leftover veggies. My current favourite is adding quick pickled corn to arugula salad – it adds colour, zest, and interest. Very chef-y, don’t you think?

Mind you, some combinations chefs come up with seem to work better on paper than in reality. The other day, I ordered a burger because I was intrigued by one item in the description: tomato jam. I’d never heard of that and so I was curious to see whether it was just some fancy catsup. Turns out it was truly a jam – very sweet. I’m not a fan of mixing sweet and savoury, so it kinda ruined the burger for me. So, it’s not something I’m going to try to imitate, but I don’t mind saying it’s nice to know that not every combo a chef comes up with is necessarily a winner either!

And of course, there’s plating the food, which chefs have raised to an art form. Whether it’s a thin streak of pesto along the edge of the salad plate, or a carefully sculpted pyramid of saffron rice next to a flakey piece of fish – chefs clearly have an artistic vision for each dish. And, when they plate something, they always manage to add a few little grace notes – perhaps a couple wafer thin radishes or a curly garlic scape for good measure.

Of course, because a restaurant menu features many different dishes, a chef has all sorts of interesting ingredients on hand that can be used to add pizazz. It’s a bit more of a challenge to have a variety of little things to add to make a plate look interesting when you live alone. But, if you were to peak inside my refrigerator this summer, you’d see that I’ve been making quite an effort in this regard.

So, I’ve been having fun playing around with all these things – from planning the menu, to adding texture, to trying unusual combinations and being more creative in how I plate things. But, does all this mean that somewhere deep down inside I wish I’d have become a chef? I honestly think the answer is no. I love learning about cooking and I enjoy trying to make different things. But, I wouldn’t want it as a career because I’d hate for it to start to feel like a job. Instead, I’m happy just trying to be more chef-y.

© 2018 Ingrid Sapona


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