Wednesday, March 2, 2011

New Directions

We've all heard the trendy culinary catch phrases before, like: "fat is flavor" and "everything is better with bacon". It is easy to fall back on these go-to ingredients for guaranteed good taste, but the true art of the craft comes when you work outside of these parameters to create something that is considered dull and flavorless into an intriguing dish that makes even a carnivore raise their eyebrow with interest.

I'm writing of course about tofu, which is essentially cheese but made from soy milk that's used as a meat substitute, though even some vegetarians find it boring. I've used a lot of it at home in order to eat healthier, but I must admit that I hated it in the beginning, but like anything that's difficult - if it was easy everyone would be doing it.

So I started my dish by marinating blocks of extra firm tofu - I find anything softer to be off-putting to those weary of tofu already - in a blend of olive oil, shallots, garlic and dried herbs de Provence, with an emphasis on the dried because after a few days marinating the tofu is marked on the grill, creating a wonderful char and smoky flavor that can't be achieved by fresh herbs alone.

To go with the bold flavor of the tofu I needed accompaniments that were equally as strong. While it may be presumptuous to think that vegetarians and vegans are missing out by omitting bacon from their diet, it is a fact that braised winter greens are greatly enhanced by the addition of it, so to split the difference I used a single malt scotch from Islay, which has a very smoky characteristic of its own, inspired by the flavors I got out of a dish at the Black Bottle (who's waiter said that there was no scotch added). The scotch flavor is assertive yet pleasantly familiar; not an imitation of bacon but an excellent alternative to it.

Lucky for me portobello mushrooms were available at a great price this week, and since they are commonly used in vegetarian dishes due to their meaty texture, I used them here to help give more sustenance and take on  flavor.

Mushrooms in general are like sponges, absorbing liquids with little effort.This knowledge led me to the addition of a marinade with the same foundation of olive oil, garlic and shallots but with the addition of mustard and fresh rosemary; both great pairings to the portobello. After several hours of absorption I roasted the large caps upside down so that the remaining marinade with continue to seep in.

Now that I had a foundation with the braised greens and the mushroom I needed something to finish it on top. Typically a sauce is used here, but since the center of the tofu is already soft and creamy, I went in another direction.

I had this idea for a Mediterranean "salsa" comprised of cherry tomatoes, shaved fennel and minced black, oil-cured, Moroccan olives that I seasoned with freshly chopped herbs like marjoram, oregano, parsley and chives along with a dressing made of preserved Meyer lemons and oil. I lean towards "salsa" as opposed to "salad" for this because sometimes customers tend to think that a salad is something comprised of lettuce.

I have been wanting to re-introduce a cocktail using cinnamon-infused tequila every since the outstanding success of the Cinnamon Pear Martini that utilized poached pears in two ways by churning the cooked pears into a sorbet that is floated in a mixture of the poaching liquid and cinnamon-infused tequila. Despite the quick time that the cocktail sold out and the many requests to put it on the menu I ultimately decided against it due to all of the processes that go into making and executing the drink. This is my attempt to rectify that dilemma.

For the past few weeks I have been steeping whole cinnamon sticks in Cuervo tequila, bringing even more complex flavor to an already interesting spirit, one that is only enhanced by the addition of the sweet and sour elixir of freshly juiced granny smith apples (aka green apples). With just a few dashes of bitters and a few shakes over ice the mixture is strained into a martini glass to make a more formidable version of the original, but with a great enough flavor to stand alone.

With Love,