2011/11/28

Next aluminum chef

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.

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

Bacon freezes well - split a package and keep some in the freezer for the next time you have an urge to add bacon to the dish.

groovyfoody said...

I think you're well beyond aluminum already girlie! Sounds wonderful that shrimp dish. That is truly cooking at its best, playing with ingredients to find the best combinations of flavors and what fits your (and your sweetie's tastes.) Those rolls sounded yummy with your frittata. I always like to serve mine with something green and glass of wine -- makes it feel like something a bit more sassy than just eggs and veg. Topping it with arugula and a little peppery green olive oil and a grating of parmesan reggiano also satisfies.

I love how much thought and love you put into your cooking -- to me that is the point -- but then again, you are talking to the woman who best expresses her love for other human beings by cooking for them. I will have to cook for you some time, too. Thanks for the shout out, friend.

the PaperCraftLady said...

I really enjoyed your article and identified with much of it! As far as bacon grease goes, my Mom always had a cup of it in the fridge! She would start heating up her old cast iron frying pan (that my grandfather had made) with the bacon grease, I think no matter what she was cooking.

Me, I tend to stay away from bacon, though I could eat a whole pound if cooked til crispy! It is just so messy, no matter how you cook it! So, I just eat it out like on a big cheeseburger with guacamole and tomato!

Anyway, your pasta dish sounded YUMMY and I will have to try a version of it. That is what I love about cook books and hearing about recipes. I read about something that sounds good, then I ponder it and make a version of it based on ingredients readily available or that I think would go well in the dish. Sometimes I sort of combine the main idea of more than recipe. Cooking is so much fun! I don't have nearly as much confidence in baking as I do in cooking.

Well, I must apologize for taking up so much space. This is YOUR blog, afterall!! (I gotta get me one of them!) lol!

Véronique said...

@Anonymous

It's true about bacon freezing well. Just have to make sure to wrap slices so they aren't stuck to each other.

@Nessa

Thanks, hon. Your blog is one of my inspirations! And I would definitely love to taste your food!

@PaperCraftLady

I used to save bacon fat in a jar but I wasn't using it quickly enough. I think things might be different now! Mostly I would use just a little bacon and/or fat for flavour. I bet you'll come up with a great version of seafood cream sauce pasta that's all your own! I'm working on my baking confidence. As for space, no worries. Space is free. :)