Wusthof Cross-Post: How a Dish Comes Together

I'm doing an endorsement with Wusthof knives, and as part of our deal I've been giving them content to post on their site. Because they're made out of Flash, I can't link to it, so I'm going to be posting some of them here. If you want to read more, and get some recipes, both from myself and the other two chefs in this campaign, head on over to their page.

At Dirt Candy, the most commonly asked question is, “Do you have any tables for tonight?” but the second most commonly asked question is, “How did you come up with this dish?” After 15 years of cooking, coming up with dishes is second nature to me so it’s not a process that I’ve analyzed a whole bunch. Every single one of my dishes has its own backstory: Onion! came from having a sub-par scallion pancake in my take-out order one night; Corn! came about because I wanted to see if grits could be made gourmet; Fennel! which is a fennel soup came from a failed attempt to make vegetable sausages.

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     Believe it or not, this started out as a sausage.

But people aren’t asking to hear every single dish’s backstory. They want to know how they can get from point A to point B themselves when coming up with a dish. What I do in a restaurant doesn’t translate — I’ve got more equipment, more staff, and probably more time than you’ll ever have at home. But here are a few basic principles that’ll help anyone:

1) Focus - the first thing you have to do is figure out what you’re making. You need one ingredient to be the center of the dish, and you need to figure out how you’re going to cook it. This sounds obvious, but you’d be surprised at how many people skip this step and wind up with a dish that’s all over the place. So pick a single ingredient (potato, kale, broccoli, black beans), then pick how you want to cook it. Or, more importantly, figure out how you don’t want to cook it.

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Parsnip!

My newest dish, Parsnip!, is based around — surprise! — parsnips. I had parsnip gnocchi on the menu a few years ago and while I loved it, some people thought they were a little sweet for a main course. I wanted to return to them because I was wondering if there was a way to make parsnips that weren’t sweet.

The first thing I had to decide was how to cook them. Most people roast parsnips, so that’s the last thing I wanted to do. I was looking at my gnocchi recipe and wondered if I could make them more like dumplings, then I found a way to make parsnip balls that hardly used any flour. After a lot of experimentation I came up with something that was small, fluffy, light, not too sweet, and more like tiny parsnip pillows than anything else. That became the center of my plate.

Photo3Parsnip pillows

Maybe you want to do potatoes but you want to fry them instead of mashing them because you’re hung over. Or you want to make broccoli but instead of steaming them you want to roast them because it’s the middle of winter. But you need to decide: one ingredient and one cooking technique has to be the center of the dish. This lets you say “no” to everything else, to keep your focus, and to not get distracted.

2) More is More - you have a single ingredient, cooked with a single technique, but now you really want to taste the flavor of your main ingredient. With vegetables you have to realize that vegetables reinforce each other: more = more. Just cooking one vegetable and letting it sit on the plate all by itself will wind up underwhelming you because to truly taste all the dimensions of a vegetable you need to taste it with itself.

Photo4My Cabbage! ingredients

When I made my Cabbage Salad I wanted to take one of the most depressing vegetables on earth and make a salad entirely out of varieties of brassica, which is just the fancy name for cabbage. I added pickled Napa cabbage, choy sum flowers (which is from the same family), and roasted choy sum. I roasted some Brussels sprouts because they’re a form of cabbage, and I turned kohlrabi into noodles by cutting them into long, thin strips.

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Cabbage salad comes together.

That’s way more complicated than anything you’ll want to attempt at home unless you’re totally deranged. But it’s a principle you can adapt and simplify. If you want to taste the real flavor of broccoli in your roasted broccoli you should add as much broccoli as possible. Mix  it up with some grilled broccoli rabe before you serve it, or cube some broccoli stalk and add it to your roasting sheet to let it crisp up and develop sugars alongside the broccoli florets. Serving pumpkin soup? Serve it with pumpkin bread and maybe even make some pumpkin butter. When it comes to vegetables, too much is never enough.

3) Balance - at the same time, you don’t want it to be one-note. You need to balance the texture. Don’t just serve broccoli florets on top of broccoli florets on top of broccoli florets. Serve broccoli florets with some rabe and some broccoli stalk, too. Mix up your textures. Serving potato? Serve some roasted, some mashed, and maybe even cut some into strips, barely blanch them, and serve them with vinegar so you’ve got some crunch on the plate.

But it’s not just the texture you want to balance, you want to balance the flavor, too. Sometimes contrast brings out a flavor best. With my Parsnip dish I decided to cut the sweetness of the parsnips with some sourness. My favorite sour food is kimchi, so I decided to make it with grilled parsnips. But that was WAY too sour, so I balanced it with grilled watermelon radishes that had a cool, relaxed flavor. You want to be making balancing flavors like this, and it’s easier than you think.

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Grilled parsnip kimchi with grilled watermelon radish

The first thing you have to do is you have to taste what it is you’re cooking. So many of our preconceived notions about how this vegetable or that vegetable tastes comes from having had it prepared one way for years, or only being used to it in one dish, or from eating it only with condiments. But carrots are more than just raw sticks used to deliver hummus, potatoes can be more than fries, lettuce doesn’t have to be raw and in a salad or on a sandwich.

First thing you have to do is taste your ingredient. Taste it raw, taste it cooked, sniff it, make love to it, and really get a feeling for what’s actually there and not what you expect to be there. Broccoli stalks are woodsy and nutty when you eat them, parsnips have a lot of sugar, radishes have a peppery bite. When’s the last time you took a bite of raw potato? When’s the last time you sniffed a boiled carrot?

Once you know what taste you’re dealing with, you can balance it. The basic flavors are sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and heat. There’s also umami but that’s mostly just something made up by food bloggers. Are your carrots sweet? Then you want something salty on the dish to cut the sweetness. Is your arugula peppery and spicy, then you want to balance it with something sour, like a dressing made of yogurt. If you made something too spicy (and don’t worry we’ve all gone overboard before) you can cut through it with some acid or even a little cream.

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All you need to care about is being happy with your dish!

What I’m really saying here as I flounder about and go on and on and on is that if you want to come up with a dish, you need to stop, think about what you’re doing, figure out the one effect you want, and then do everything to get that effect. All the rest is noise.