With more fresh produce coming to market, I’ve backed into new (to me) ways of putting ingredients together. I think I’ve learned something about composing dishes.A beginner’s plate (e.g. mine) looks like this: protein, vegetable, and starch. Each component is cooked separately and simplistically, and eating components together makes little difference or results in dissonances. On the other hand, many good restaurant plates are structured differently. Eating combinations of components is much more pleasurable than eating the components individually, even if the components themselves are individually great. I think achieving this effect is, in part, what culinary professionals refer to by composition.
I’m almost certain I’ve backed into lessons about it. I should thank the local farm stand. Armed with a steady supply of good ripe tomatoes I’m finding more ways to include them in simple meals, e.g. BLTs and vichysoisse, tomato slices with pate on toasted baguette. However, the learning has come from seeking new, less obvious (to me) combinations.
Below I describe two of my experiments and my thought process in each. The step forward for me has been to think, “If X and Y go together and Y and Z go together, all three may go together.” The seed was planted by my browsing a pair of books that survey chefs on what flavor pairings work: Culinary Artistry and the follow-up, The Flavor Bible. My post on thyme salt brussels sprout chips was based explicitly on a “flavor affinity” in Culinary Artistry. The difference in this post is that I’ve combined more than two ingredients based on such connections.
Clearly, I’m not a professional. But you’ll find plating instructions below. Why? It’s because each is a record of what I did and, I think more importantly, encouraged me to taste everything together. Since the lesson is learned in these cases, I’ll simplify where I can, e.g. platters, the next time I cook these. (Platters are friendlier and low-hassle.)
Roasted chicken with chard and tomatoes
Chard and early tomatoes overlap in my area, so I followed the adage “if it grows together, it goes together.” Chard benefits from garlic and especially acid. The lemon, balsamic, and tomatoes are acidic. The combination of balsamic and tomato is also pleasantly sweet. The juiciness of the tomatoes provides a nice counterpoint to the texture of the chicken and chard. Chicken goes with most things, and is especially complemented by and tied to the ingredients by the balsamic vinegar.
- 2 chicken legs
- Chicken fat or olive oil, for browining
- 1 lemon sliced into rounds
- 1 bunch chard
- 1 clove garlic
- Extra virgin olive oil, as necessary
- 1 ripe tomato
- Good balsamic vinegar, as necessary
- Salt, to taste
- Heat extra virgin olive oil in a pan on medium heat. Separate the chard into ribs and greens, clean, and dry. Dice the ribs and chop the greens. Mince garlic and cook until aromatic. Add the ribs to the pan and after a few minutes the greens. Season with salt and lightly with lemon.
- Remove the knuckle at the end of each drumstick. Season well with salt, sear on both sides, slip a lemon slice under the skin of each leg, and lay both legs on a layer of lemon slices in a roasting pan. Roast in a fast oven (e.g. 425 degrees F) until done (e.g. juices run almost, but not completely, clear).
- Dice the tomato.
- When everything is cooked and the chicken has rested, plate. Create a small mound of chard in the center of the plate. Place a chicken leg (including the lemon under the skin, but not the slices in the roasting pan) on top of the chard. Spoon diced tomato around the plate, taking care to add some where the chard is still exposed. Finally, without splashing or drenching everything, carefully add balsamic vinegar to the plate — e.g. several “drops” or a fine drizzle if you have the good stuff, or a very fine layer over the tomatoes for less good stuff.
Lobster and tomatoes
My in-laws had given us a couple of steamed, cooled lobsters. I committed to cooking them in the almost comical way below — I felt pretentious because it seemed way too involved — because nuking the lobsters in the microwave was a far worse crime. Happily, the result tasted good. I should read up on lobster cookery.
I started with the lobster’s liquid. When you break open a steamed lobster, some — and sometimes a good amount — liquid pours out. There’s flavor in there. Instead of ignoring the liquid or drenching my plate with it for the sake of the tomalley and eggs, I reserved it for a sauce.
Before starting the reduction, I sweated some onion (shallot would have been better, I think) in a little butter and added a splash of white wine, thinking, respectively, that I eat my lobster with butter anyway and sauces need aromatic components to lift them. The tomalley served as a thickener and also made the sauce pale green. Pale green seems borderline acceptable. And in any event taste comes first at my level.
The next question was how to connect the sauce and the lobster. The sauce would need to be seasoned with acid, most of this in the form of lemon juice. But, again, tomatoes are both acidic and juicy, providing a useful counterpoints. The tomato’s acid would also complement the lobster. Furthermore, the tomato was red (there are other colors) like the lobster. It sounds stupid to note, but the tomato hid among the lobster’s knuckle meat. This led to some pleasantly surprising bites.
Finally, deciding the sauce needed more lift, I stirred a few basil leaves from the garden into the sauce and then garnished further with a chiffonade of basil. I was lazy and didn’t fish out the wilted basil before bringing everything to the table. Next time I would.
I’m sure there are ways to improve the presentation — again, green sauce — but I’m still learning how to make things taste good. One day I’d like to learn how to make plates visually appealing. That day is probably many years in the future.
- 2 lobsters, steamed
- 1 tbsp butter
- 1 shallot, finely chopped
- Splash white wine
- Lemon juice, as necessary
- Few leaves fresh basil
- 1 large ripe tomato
- Remove the meat from the lobster (e.g. here, video also embedded below), reserving the liquid.
- Sweat the shallot in the butter, add a splash of white wine, and when most of the wine has evaporated add the lobster liquid. Reduce to a relatively thick consistency, adding fresh basil once close to the end. Remove the basil if desired, blend, and correct seasoning (with lemon and/or salt) and texture if necessary.
- Pour the sauce into a shallow, wide-mouthed bowl. Spoon most of the diced tomato into the center of the bowl and then pile the lobster onto the tomato. Dot the rest of the sauce with tomato. Garnish with a chiffonade of basil.
Here’s one way to remove the meat of a cooked lobster. I fish out stuff from the head too. In that case you want to be careful about pulling out things like gills, which taste bitter. If you’re not sure what you’re doing in that area, just taste. The gills don’t taste like death:
Here’s a demonstration of basil chiffonade: