Wednesday, March 30, 2011

CHAPTER 7: Seafood and a Story about Menu Planning

I usually cook two dishes for dinner: the main dish and a vegetable or salad. And perhaps some bread, as in the photo to the left. For a dinner party, I might add a first course and most likely dessert. How much and what you cook depends a lot on your guests. If they are dainty eaters, less is preferable. If they are teenage boys, quantity counts. So how do I go about creating a menu that is fun, beautiful, tasty, and doable?

Gathering information
First of all I ask the dinner guests about any dietary restrictions. Is anyone a vegetarian, a vegan, or gluten intolerant? And I think about what kind of food would appeal to them and to me. Next I look to see what is hiding out in the fridge that needs to be used. Finally I think about what is in season. Oranges, lemons, and sorrel are growing in my backyard. New crops keep showing up at the Farmers Market.

With this information in mind, I have two options:
1. I can consult a cookbook for menu suggestions, look at the Winter or Spring section of a cookbook organized that way, or cook a dinner I’ve cooked before and love.
2. I can plan a new menu using my own imagination and tastes. When I choose this method, I use a few guidelines to help me out. I love the imagining part—seeing the plate, tasting the flavors in my mind, envisioning the work flow. I usually start by choosing the main dish. As I add one dish after another, I ask myself some questions:

Color Will the plate of food be pretty and colorful? I love color. If I’m fixing a pasta with a cream sauce, for example, I might want a fresh green veggie on the side. Cauliflower wouldn’t work. Tomatoes, red peppers and carrots are great favorites of mine for adding color.

Taste/flavor How will the flavors work together? Most of us wouldn’t want to eat a meal where every dish contained cayenne. Our mouths would cry out for the soothing comfort of sour cream, avocado, cold beer. So I watch for balance in the hot flavors with the soothing ones. The same principle applies with sweet, sour, bitter, salty. Balance and contrast rule.

Migration Will the juices on the plate be compatible? A stew with a nice gravy works wonderfully with mashed potatoes. Most of the time a salad needs to be on a separate plate because the vinaigrette merging with the rest of the food would make it all taste like salad.

Texture How will the textures of the food work together? A silky-textured dessert is nice after a crisp salad. Polenta has a nice mouth feel with braised lamb shanks. Full-flavored dips are great with fresh crusty bread or crackers. You get the idea.

Timing Can I fix the meal without driving myself crazy? What can I fix ahead? I try to avoid dinners where too much has to be done at the last moment. I try to imagine the process of cooking the meal so that I can stay calm and collected. Sometimes that means waiting to have a glass of wine until dinner is on the table, as hard as that is. I know I need a clear head.

I love creating menus. But if this process seems too complicated, choose one thing, like Color, and put the rest aside. Keep it easy. Remember that you can BUY some or most of the add-ons so you can focus on the main dish. Most of all, cook with pleasure and have fun with your guests.

In the next seven recipes for seafood dishes, I have given you more suggestions about accompanying dishes.

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