Designing a Dish

Thinking outside of the plate
Designing a dish isn’t as easy as picking a starch, vegetable, protein, and sauce. Chefs spend countless hours going over flavor profiles, tasty ingredients, and culinary techniques to write the menus you are given at the table. If you utilize a different perspective and a skewed viewpoint to look at writing your menu, you can find a whole new palette of flavors and ways to create a dish.

As a very young culinarian, the process of wine pairing was simply broken down for me. One can pick a wine to complement a dish. This would be a wine that is meant to feature the dish and its ingredients, mirroring similar flavors to that which are in the dish. Another idea is to select a wine that brings out a very certain characteristic. By this, the wine is selected and the dish I selected almost as separate ideas. Singularly, they are hopefully lovely ideas in and of themselves. The beauty of this pairing comes when the two are consumed in unison. The wine and the dish each develop a unique flavor that was absent before, making each dish a different and hopefully better or more unique rendition of their previous incarnate. The other of these rudimentary ideas was to provide what the other lacks. If your dish lacks acid, a wine can provide that. If your dish needs something bright, a wine can improve the food. Now obviously these are not the only ways to match wine and food. These simple three ideas could make you look with a fine microscope at the dishes you are designing, not just the way to pair beverages.

A plate of food, a dish, or a meal, should be viewed as a complete idea. A dish is not in need of wine to improve upon its faults or complete its sentences. If you consider the dish as a complete idea, a composition where all things lead to a whole that is better than its pieces, you may find that your traditional rubric may not be as essential as once thought. Most culinary compositions include a starch, vegetable, protein, and sauce, but all may not be necessary and may actually confuse the flavors or add unnecessary flourish.

Consider all of the taste sensations, being sweet, salty, bitter, sour, and umami, and what they provide. Recalling Goldy Locks and the Three Bears fable, guests want to experience all of these sensations as momma bear- just right. Salt brings out flavor. Seasoning of food is important not only for strength of flavor but also for clarity. The flavor of a strong broth sings of chicken only if it is properly seasoned. A steak connoisseur wants coarse salt and pepper crystals on the surface of their meat, for its strong dart of flavor. However salt, like any other of the five senses, can be used as an accent. Any chef worth his weight gently seasons the sliced surface of meat, fish, or protein, with a bit of finishing salt. The previously unseasoned surface is given a touch of the coarse salt for both seasoning and its pop of salinity.

The use of one of the five senses is quite obviously not limited to salt. When a jus is made in a restaurant, it is often adjusted with an acidic element. The vinegar, citrus juice, or other is used to cut through a bit of the richness. A dash of sherry vinegar in a duck jus can take what the palette might be perceived as sticky, rich, and heavy, and help is segue its way into new territory as balanced liquid used to moisten its muse with the essence of its flavor without masking it. The other senses can be used to do similar ideas.

Once you begin to layer and allow these flavors to coalesce as one idea, exciting and nuanced rollercoasters will be the norm for your dinner table. Curry, quatre epices, five spice, miso, and zatar can help you. Building flavor layers is the great task of any cuisinier.
However when thinking of the entire “canvas” as a dish, little punches that deviate from the norm can sharpen and enliven the senses of the diner. The addition of crunchy pine nuts to a pasta with pesto can break free from the tender and toothsome nature of the comforting pasta dish, and deviate to showcase something that surprises the teeth and again brings interest and focus back to food. A perfect showcase of a complete idea in a simple peasant style dish is the taco. Salty, unctuous braised meat is topped with raw onion for its texture and bracing onion flavor and acid, with shaved radish adding a peppery note, cilantro adding the fresh flavor only tender herbs can lend, and perhaps even a bit of sliced chili for again the spicy pop and burst of flavor excitement they can provide. Pickles and mustard cut through the fatty nature of your Cuban sandwich, while the crusty bread and the gooey and nutty swiss cheese round out the dish to make a complete idea.

When cooking at home, these principles can be applied naturally. When looking at complementary flavors you combine at home, take a step back and re-examine your culinary repertoire and pantry. A quick pickle for acid, a simple crouton for texture, a bolt of spice with a bit of espelette pepper, or a drizzle of saba or aged balsamic to elevate your vanilla ice cream. None of these are new ideas or revelatory; they are principles that have been realized and executed on many dishes that are classics today. However if the rubric of your dining arithmetic morphs from the traditional crutch of meat, vegetable, and starch, and turns into something focused more on flavor, texture, and excitement, you may have discovered a new way to look at your dinner plate.