So many people have mothers who can make a dinner out of anything. Can of mushroom soup, peas, a bag of Funyuns, and mashed potato flakes? No problem. Midwestern Casserole.

Grape Jelly, Ketchup, Beef, onion, and a forgotten jar of cranberry sauce? That’s a recipe for Swedish Meatballs.

Can of Tuna, Tortilla Chips, Corn, Cream Cheese, Broccoli, Ham, and Paprika? I don’t know what to do with that, but I bet someone’s mom sure does.

One of the measures of proficiency in the kitchen is being able to create a meal out of ingredients that you have lying around. It happens in restaurants every day. That’s why we have the “Specials” Sandwich board out front. Veal Piccata didn’t sell well last night? Turn it into Vitello Tonnato for tonight’s new menu item. It’s all about opening up a fridge, and being able to see the possibility rather than say to yourself, “Why is there nothing to eat in here?”

***

My first year in Culinary School, the dreaded final exams were upon us. We were given a hotel pan full of ingredients tailored to the strengths and/or weaknesses of each individual student, and given four hours to come up with an appetizer, main plate, and dessert of presentable quality. We needed to utilize every item in the box. In addition to the ingredients found in our box, we would have access to pantry items such as herbs, garnishes, etc., but the end result was a full meal that was presentable and tasted good.

Some people got simple boxes. In one, there were three chicken thighs, slab bacon, thyme, a carrot, and fresh raspberries. Another held a Pork loin, basil, rice, eggs, a cinnamon stick, some chicken stock, and prosciutto. Simple enough.

I was the outspoken student of the class, surprising nobody who knew me at or around that point. In my box were these ingredients: what looked to be wild Mushrooms, Alfalfa Sprouts, Onion skins, Fennel tops and Celery Leaves, Cornmeal,  Figs, Chives, two Oxtails, an Apple, and a Pomegranate.

I knew it was coming. My attitude did not lend itself to buckling under the pressure, but I had no ideas for any recipe other than the Oxtails, which I knew had to get on the fire as soon as possible to allow maximum time for the oxtails to braise. Utilizing the knowledge gained in our studies over the semester on various cuts of meat, I recalled that I needed to trim the excess fat off of the oxtails, sear them, and then create a braising liquid that was flavorful and would lend itself to the rich flavor of the oxtails themselves.

To the pantry for some fresh thyme. In a pan, I caramelized my meager vegetables to a deep brown and added a bouquet garni, and set it to simmer for a half an hour. When it was done, I went back to the fridge for a ladle of demiglace to bulk up the flavor. In a separate pan, I seared the oxtails, and then married the stock and the meat, pushing it into the oven to forget about it for an hour or two.

In the meantime, I made polenta with the cornmeal, poured it into a sheet pan, and let it set for searing off right before service.

I looked back at my box. Figs, the apple, wild mushrooms, sprouts and the Pomegranate. Oh, that damned pomegranate. What was I going to do with that?

The figs and apples were easy enough. I sliced the figs in half, peeled, cored, and sliced the apple, and caramelized them in a simple syrup and a lot of butter.I made a pastry shell and set it aside to firm up, and an hour later, rolled it out for a fig and apple tart, which went into oven number two.

At my work station, the sprouts and pomegranate chided me. They prodded me. They impelled me to wrack my brain to come up with something that I could fabricate to make a dinner. What ran through my head?  “Who the hell puts sprouts on a menu?”

I cracked the pomegranate. If you’ve never used one, there are a lot more seeds in there than one would think. Cups. Hundreds.

I put some in a blender and strained it. Nope. This would not be enough juice to reduce down to a sauce for the tart. Hmm. There was no way that I could leave them whole, was there?

Sprouts and Mushrooms. Ah, mushrooms. I debated for a long time what to do with them, and as the oxtails were coming out of the oven to rest, I figured I’d just use them as a garnish on top.

I set up my pan on the fire, and threw a pat of butter in. I sliced the mushrooms and into the pan they went over a low to medium heat. A couple stirs, and I could forget about them for a while.

The oxtails, in the meantime, were resting on the back burner. I pulled out the meat, defatted the liquid a bit, and let it reduce down. As I checked on my mushrooms, they were still tough. My exposure to mushrooms had been moderate, but I had never dealt with them under the gun, nor had I anticipated the problem that arose when they failed to become tender. Wasn’t that what mushrooms were all about? Being tender?

I pushed them off to the side in the pan, and brought out squares of now firm polenta to sear. I deglazed the pan with some white wine, and scraped all the little bits of flavor off the bottom. It wasn’t really hot enough to do so, but I did anyway, because as my deadline approached, it became quite apparent that I was getting a little absent-minded over certain things.

The pan was now hotter than I wanted, but I threw in the polenta anyway. It sizzled and crackled, and within three minutes, it was ready to flip. Upon flipping, however, I noticed that the black and brown bits had flecked themselves rather unappealingly over the golden brown surface of the polenta. It wasn’t going to be the most pleasant looking of dishes, but it would have to do. I could always drench it in sauce.

When it came time to plate, the mushrooms still weren’t ready, but the plate had to go out. I started with a dab of the sauce from the oxtails, then put the polenta on top. Straddling the disk, I balanced the oxtails on top of that, and put a spoonful of the mushrooms and a sprig of fresh thyme sticking up from the blob. I dressed it with sauce, attempting to salvage flavor and aethetic points, and then I looked back at my box.

Pomegranates. Sprouts.

Damn.

The maroon jewels were already shelled from the pomegranate rind, so against my better judgement, I sprinkled them around the edge of the plate. I put tufts of sprouts along the rim. Bad choice.

My plate, looking more languid by the minute, was brought to the panel of tasters. They took one look at it, and then read over the list of ingredients on my black box.

“Tell us what was in your box.”

I listed them.

“And tell us what you did here.” (Pointing to the plate with the butt end of a disappointed pencil)

“Well, I have braised Oxtails in a Demiglace with Sauteed Wild mushrooms over seared polenta with… pomegranate.”

“We’ll just move on from the pomegranate. It looks like discarded Mardi Gras Confetti. Did you realize that the mushrooms you used are actually mushroom stems?”

Oh, no. All my plans died at that moment. I realized what they wanted me to do. Mushroom stock with the polenta. Fig Bordelaise with the Oxtails. Pomegranate sorbet with Apple Strudel. It was all based around competencies, competencies that most of us had forgotten under pressure. That was the most important lesson that I could have learned that day. It wasn’t about the end product. It was about using your knowledge, but more about using your confidence in the kitchen to put together the pieces of the puzzle to make a fully realized piece of art.

I use the metaphor of the plate as canvas quite often, and perhaps too much, but it’s true. Start with a white plate. Your blank slate. With your meal components in hand, paint the picture. Great art has balance, whether it’s in the composition of subject matter for photographs or the contrast between light and shading in a woodblock print. You even hear people speaking of abstract artists and the balance that their paintings carry. With paintings that have gone on to become exhibited in galleries, you don’t hear, “Oh, there is too much red on this side of the painting.” It’s because they’ve practiced, and tucked away somewhere, there are hundreds of works that lacked that. When my instructors made the comment about the Mardi Gras confetti, I finally grasped what the whole balance thing was about.

A Well Balanced Plate

Garbage Plate. It even says it right there.

Garbage Plate. It even says it right there.

***

When I watch Iron Chef, I think about that day in my culinary career. I also realize that you can’t do everything in an hour, but that’s just the magic of television. The rapid fire challenges on Top Chef (I’ve heard. Never seen the show) test the mettle and quick thinking of those who have been in the kitchen for years. They know what to do in the blink of an eye. I’ve slowly been testing myself over the years to figure out if I’ve still got the eye for culinary creativity. I might be slower than I was in the past, but I think I’m more deliberate and careful about what goes on my plates. For the most part, I want it to be artful, have color and health, and taste good. I just want it to have balance.

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