I'm a long way from iron. Heck, I probably shouldn't have a metal at all yet. Maybe it should be "next parchment paper chef." Never mind chefs of the calibre of those competing to be the next Iron Chef. I look at the creations of my friend and food blogger Vanessa and I'm awed by her creativity. There are still a lot of places I fear to tread.
There are, however, fewer and fewer of those as time goes on. Watching so much Food Network Canada has certainly been inspiring. I learn specific techniques and food combinations from watching shows like Next Iron Chef and Chopped (I'm addicted to both). But more important for me, I learn to be less safe. It's not like I'm going for big risks when I'm cooking. Frankly, if I want to do that, I should do it only when I'm cooking for myself (at least the first time). But I find that I'm becoming less fearful about trying new things and more open to flavour combinations that I had not thought of before.
When I was being a care-giver recently, my charge made a request: some kind of pasta dish with shrimp and scallops. Not exactly the most difficult batch of mystery ingredients! No lychee fruit or cheese curls. But I wanted to use those three ingredients well. For some reason, I didn't do as I often do, which is to go look for recipe on the web. I've made lots of pasta sauces out of my head, so I figured I'd do it this time as well. And I had a model I vaguely remembered, which is a smoked salmon sauce.
I assembled my ingredients, a little clumsily. At first, I bought green onions, but later I realized I really wanted shallots. I got a red bell pepper for colour. I got some fresh basil (on the hoof, good for future meals if it grows). I bought a lemon for its zest. And garlic, of course. There were also some materials already in the fridge.
I chopped my vegetables. Then, in a very large sauté pan (a size I find I would like to have), I seared the scallops in a mix of olive oil and rendered bacon. I set them aside, and then quickly sautéed the shrimp. I never overcook my shrimp! At least not anymore. I set those aside, and then proceeded to sauté the veggies. I added a whole lemon worth of zest, some seasoning, and chopped fresh basil. Then I finished it with some light cream that was in the fridge. I didn't want to use it all (should have thought to get more), so I went a little skimpy. I worked with some of the pasta water when I mixed in the linguine, but it could definitely have used more cream. The dish was finished with a bit of grated parmesan.
My customer and I were both happy (and she was happy later with the leftovers), but I knew I had to do better next time. Learn learn learn! First thing was to make sure there was enough cream around and not to be afraid to use it. Fear of cream! Mostly, fear of it breaking or curdling. I did some reading, and apparently, three things make a successful cream sauce: high-fat cream, not too much acidity in the sauce, and not too much heat. Some disagree with that last one, because you actually can reduce a cream sauce. In this sauce, using only zest and no lemon juice or wine, the acidity was pretty low. Because of that, for a repeat I stuck with light cream. Heavy cream is 36 percent butterfat, and that's really rich for us. As well, this didn't need a reduction, just blending, so I didn't push the heat.
One other change I made was to use fresh thyme rather than fresh basil. Thyme and lemon zest and seafood all go well together. There was nothing wrong with the basil. It's just that I think thyme works better. I still have a lot to learn about herbs. Even some professional chefs do, apparently, because I've seen more than once when someone on Chopped overpowered a dish with sage, which even I know has a strong and distinctive flavour.
The final difference was a negative one—I had no bacon! One thing I've learned from cooking shows is that bacon is a very handy thing. But packages are generally at least a half pound, and if you don't use it fairly quickly, it won't keep. What I need to find is a shop that sells bacon by the piece. I know of one, but it's far out of my normal path. I need to check locally. And save bacon fat whenever I cook bacon! Fat is flavour, and bacon fat is especially flavourful.
Even without bacon, the revised dish worked very well. I think I have overcome my creamophobia!
These days, even when I make everyday dishes, I want to add a little something that I might not have done before. Tonight, I made a simple frittata with broccoli, mushrooms, and corn that I found on Cooks.com (although I substituted Swiss cheese for the jack in the recipe). I wanted something to accompany it. White potatoes are not the best thing for Sweetie, and I didn't want to run us out of regular bread by making toast. So when I was out getting some additional supplies, I found some seedy, whole-grain ciabatta rolls shaped like triangles. I sliced them in half and grilled them with a little butter. No big deal, but just a little more clever than I once would have done. I'd like to keep finding touches like that. Not only do I want to keep Sweetie happy; I want to keep myself interested as well. Maybe I'll earn my aluminum.