Lunch and dinner recipes from two different sources yesterday, which made us ruminate about sourcing, what is at the core of each source and why finding good sources are so gosh-darn important.
If you're one of those people who believe that following a recipe doesn't teach you how to cook, then bully for you. Personally, for a good amount of such people, I think it's yet another example of the thoroughly disgusting and increasingly prevalent human trait of "Everything I do is awesome!" Food ain't cheap. Understanding ratios (may I recommend Ruhlman's book) allows you to find out what doesn't suck together and at what level. And taking the wisdom found by people that screwed around with levels is just smart business. Adjust according to your tastes but respect the core, modify judiciously down the road, find your place, but know that the source was your guide.
If someone wants to create their own test kitchen under the auspices of "putting their own unique personality on the plate," go nuts, I say. We don't have the funds for such things. Finding sources that cut out all the legwork, getting to what you like/enjoy/crave isn't just efficient and cost-effective, it's not being a dumb ass, which is half the battle in life.
So...thoughts on two sources.
Lunch: Salmon cakes and mâche salad with 2011 Regís Minet Pouilly-Fumé Vieilles Vignes ($20 - Binny's)
Salmon cakes from Cook's Illustrated, a big go-to source in our house with a few reservations. Cook's Illustrated, without fail, nails food balance like nobody's business. You taste their recipes and freshness and balance is what's in your mouth. And the recipes are so elastic, allowing you to adjust here and there according to taste, like amping up the cayenne and onion, without losing said freshness and balance. All of that is still there, just with a little amping up of what you...amped up. Everything springs back, though, to that original intent of freshness of balance more often than not, very much zeroing in on a 'greater than the sum of its parts' goodness.
But Cook's Illustrated recipes can be...ever-so slightly...tepid...at times. Making one of their recipes can be fussy and create a crapload of dishes, but it's also nearly fool-proof. The result is always delicious, you can taste why it's delicious and utterly respect and thoroughly enjoy its deliciosity. But typically, there's less of a tennis-like, fifth-set, aggressive volley back and forth between ingredients (something Michael Symon and Jamie Oliver recipes nail). Cook's Illustrated recipes are more about a settled mingling, more of a casual practice before the match designed to make sure all the steps, angles, form and follow-through are pumping on the proper cylinders.
The result is almost always flat-out good and these salmon cakes were. You can just sometimes taste the fourth attempt in a 10-step testing where they loved a certain angle of an interplay but had to take it out to reach an overall more stable dish.
Fresh stuff here, with everything that salmon is coming through at every turn (bit of dill added to the recipe). Tarter sauce whipped up using another quick Cook's Illustrated recipe as a base, adding dill again and a touch of basil mustard. Lemons to squeeze on top of everything. Mâche salad with white balsamic, olive oil and pomegranate seeds to finish. Better than hotel salmon cakes. If we got these in a restaurant, we'd think, "These are damn fine salmon cakes!" But I don't think it would extend beyond that to the point of remembering them a week after. That said, these were damn fine salmon cakes! If you get my drift.
The Regís Minet is a house favorite, though some bottle variation does exist here. The thinking behind the pairing was having the wine offer just the right snap, minerality and verve to food that felt like it would need it. Better than basic Pouilly-Fumé on its own, finding a solid SB typicalness with more grace than usually comes with just that. And a fine and dandy basic linkage between the food and wine but little of the secondary flavors that Regís Minet typically offers. Some minerality bursted through after the wine came to room temperature but not enough swirl of overall goodness to take this pairing to greater heights. Liked it. Was never close to Love it.
Dinner: Lamb curry, raita and naan with 2009 Quinta do Vallado Tinto Douro ($20 - Binny's)
Lamb curry with star anise and coconut chips from 660 Curries (page 213). First recipe made from this recently purchased book and if this result is any indication, more will be made tout suite. Seems to be very much a book that surprises in the details, the very specific levels of spice and enormous differences when adjusting those levels even a little bit. 15-20 ingredients with this recipe and similar to many of the other recipe ingredients in the book. It's in the levels and adjustments where it seems the glory lies. The first impression is that of a book that teaches you about those subtle yet huge differences, one recipe at a time, as you cook your way through it. With a tiny little story behind each recipe to boot. This one chronicles the recipe's origin of Syrian Christians migrating to Kerala. Who knew?
Both of us loved this, with me flipping over it a bit more than Mrs. Ney, a product most likely of who cooked it. The person who cooks the food, on occasion, likes the food 30% less than the people just eating it. When you intimately know the process, been around the development of the flavors, the mind can tend to take things down a notch. That said, Mrs. Ney was most taken by the result being nothing close to what she expected from simply reading the recipe.
This WAS bouncy, tennis-like flavors volleying back and forth quite aggressively in the mouth. Here, we could taste everything separately - the lamb spice blend, the raita, the naan, the cilantro (added) - and then the mingling would occur beautifully after a couple of chews, becoming so Indian in all its deliciously ancient Indian-ness. Could have been a Hema's Kitchen dish. A couple of alterations/thoughts: The whole spices called for were ground down but Mrs. Ney didn't feel anything was lost, fresh coconut used (98 cents at Whole Fresh Market on Devon!) but dried coconut could be used here with little loss of its intended purpose, she believes, she was skeptical of the sweetness of the cinnamon but needlessly so, adding something so subtle and seemingly important instead of sweet.
This was Great Food and entirely complete in the satisfaction realm. The thinking behind the pairing came from linking up the coconut and star anise in the food with notes of coconut and star anise often found in Portuguese red blends. the 2009 Quinta do Vallado Tinto, another favorite, just arrived in Chicago at Binny's. I wiped out the Lakeview location. Downtown still has some available. An hour decant. Needed it. Standoffish at first, forcing us to tickle a pinot noir curiosity with a cheap and representative pinot noir in the Picton Bay Marlborough Trader Joe's offering. Nice enough. But we continued to come back to the Vallado as it opened up, showing a perfectly dry and fiery blend of plums, underbrush, bitter dark chocolate and spices, finishing with everything that makes Portuguese reds so unique - that beautiful medium-bodied goodness teeming with a buck-wildness that is ONLY Portuguese. Not fantastic with the curry, but we kept returning, liking it more together with each successive sip, turning the meal into a lovely progression of pairing flavors that kept us interested, if not entirely blown away. Didn't matter. Drinking Vallado is increasingly becoming Special Dinner to us. At $20, this stuff is a steal. It's not the 2007 Vallado Tinto but if you want to know what Portuguese reds are like while not breaking the bank, here's your winner. Every time and always.
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