Thursday, October 2, 2008
Jen and I have been getting asked a lot lately about the creative process chefs go through. It's not really something I have ever spent much time thinking about until very recently when suddenly it seems to be the topic of conversation when we are with people. Yesterday we were meeting with the publishers and the editor of the cookbook we are starting to work on when this topic came up again. I think the thread of conversation was on my insistence that food is to be kept as simply prepared and as close natural as possible. Heather, our editor, brought up a recent post where I am talking about pairing foods together and learning to "taste" them in our heads. I mentioned that I know rabbit and chocolate go together and I know rabbit and tomatoes go together, so with this knowledge I was willing to bet that chocolate and tomatoes would go together even though I have never tried the combination. I also mentioned off handily that the combination may take some tweaking to work but I think it would. Well, I was called to task about this. Heather was wondering if my insistence contradicted my comment on having to tweak something. I answered no. Natural means not forcing the dish to do something it doesn't want to. It doesn't mean not creatively putting things together that on the surface seems like it won't work. When I mean natural I mean in a Taoist sense. To do with out doing. To allow to happen on it's own. To follow the natural flow of the moment, not fight against it. I apply this principle to my cooking everyday. When I do a new dish I just let it happen. I try to let it come together naturally without my getting in the way too much. So what I want to do here is try to show the process I used to came up with a dish that has both chocolate and tomatoes in it but does not force them together. If I were to force the idea I could come up with something like Tomato Ice Cream with Chocolate Sauce. Simply gross. Instead what I did was start with the idea of pairing tomato and chocolate and let if flow from there. I have in front of me the paper I used to scribble down my idea process. I looks something like this: Chocolate Basil Tomato pepper chili pepper vinegar vanilla chicken nuts cherries salt tarragon onions So the above was my starting point. I listed out some things I know go with both of the ingredients. Most of the items listed pair with both and only a couple go with only one. Then I sat back and started thinking. What is natural about this list? What jumps out? For me four items stood out most: chili peppers, chicken, cherries, nuts. I know all four go very well with my idea and and would make a great bridge to link up the tomato and chocolate. OK, now I have some structure. I have chocolate, tomatoes, chicken, cherries,onions, chili peppers and nuts. There is most definitely a dish here, but where? Sounds to me kind of like mole, but I really don't want to re-create classic dish. I want something I can call my own, but it's a place to start. If truth be told, chefs borrow from the classics all the time. They give us a platform from which to jump. So at this point in the process I start to form a picture of what I would like the dish to look like. More often than not I have a picture in my head of the finished dish before I even know what I am going to do. It is a great guide so as to have some direction and keeps me from wandering all over the culinary map. So in my head I see a bowl with some stewed tomatoes in it. The tomatoes have been stewed with sliced onions and the cooking broth of the tomatoes are in the bowl also. At this point in the game there is nothing else but the tomatoes in the bowl and so I do know I want a pile of stewed tomatoes with the broth as part of the finished product. The chicken will be braised with the chocolate, cherries (I will use dried ones for this dish because of the braising and because they are not in season right now), and chili peppers. This part is easy. It's a simple braise using those ingredients. As part of the liquid for the braise I'll use....(thinking, thinking...)...it's a Mexican inspired dish so how about a Mexican beer? Since I try to use local ingredients I'll try to find a local beer that fits. So now I have the main part of the dish completed. The tomatoes are stewed and the chicken has been cooked with its parts. Now to plate it. Again I let this happen naturally. I want to use the braising liquid because it would be a waste not to. I'll scrap using the tomato broth and use the braising liquid instead. So as to not waste the tomato broth I'll pour it into the braising liquid and reduce the whole lot until I get what I'm looking for as far as taste and consistency goes. You know what would be good? What if I roasted some pumpkin seeds and pureed them into the sauce. This will be as good as nuts and a little different, but there may be a texture problem. Will the pureed seeds be to grainy? I would have to see, but I think if I were to use a blender it would make a nice smooth puree, and you have to admit the roasted seeds would add a nice dimension to the whole dish. So we have a bowl of stewed tomatoes with some braised chicken thighs resting nicely on them. I think a sprinkle of cilantro would tie the whole mess together nicely. There you have it, chocolate and tomatoes together in a natural, unforced way: Chicken Thighs Braised with Chocolate, Chili Peppers, and Dried Cherries and served with Stewed Tomatoes. Bon Appetit.