What the heck? I thought. I've been doing this long enough. I'll just walk into the grocery and see what looks good.
Really? A tiny voice said. You think you're up to this? You think you have the nerve?
Shut up! I replied. This is no time to go weak in the knees. We've got a client to feed here.
So I walked into the produce department at Whole Foods with a sense of mission and a lazer-like focus. I began scanning the bins for fruits and vegetables. I placed one condition on myself: whatever I purchased must be seasonal. No tomatoes this time of year, no peppers, no eggplants or corn on the cob.
That would be just one of the complications. Something you need to know about this client is his diet. He's determined to lose weight. Everything I cook for him is geared toward reducing calories and cholesterol. But he won't eat beets or cucumbers or melons of any kind. He doesn't like spicy, and not too much seafood--no scallops. And his partner prefers salad over leafy greens. Oh, and ixnay on the chicken thighs, only breasts.
I dropped some bright red radishes in my cart along with red-tipped lettuce and purple endive, thinking of a salad. Then leeks, broccoli and fennel. Mushrooms would be easy, I thought. The creminis were MIA, so I chose shitakes. It had been ages since I'd cooked sunchokes, so I grabbed some of those as well.
On to the seafood counter. I had made a seared halibut the week before. I needed something different, but not too complicated. The jumbo shrimp looked good, so I took a pound of those. Strolling the Asian aisle, the soba noodles caught my eye, and suddenly I saw them mingling with the shrimp. So it was back to produce for some snow peas, carrots and fresh ginger to round out the dish that was beginning to take shape in my head.
On the way to the meat counter I snagged a can of artichoke bottoms thinking I would finally make that artichoke, fava bean and pea stew I'd been mulling since last year. I had been ogling the veal chops the week before, so I picked up a pair, very thick and pink and fresh looking.
I arrived home with three bags of groceries and the outlines of a plan. Another condition of my personal catering is the limited time I have to work with. Not only do the meals need to be fresh, seasonal, varied, portable and re-heatable, I can't spend too much time over them. I charge by the hour.
Perhaps you've already formed a vision for these two meals. What I came up with was this.
Jumbo shrimp with soba noodles, steamed vegetables and a soy-sesame-ginger dressing
Salad of julienned radishes and carrots
Grilled veal chops with rosemary-garlic rub and sauteed shitakes
Leeks braised with white wine
Sauteed fennel and carrots with grated Parmesan
I cooked the sunchokes and tossed them with garlic chives from the garden, intending to send them as the third item in the shrimp dinner. But I just couldn't reconcile the artichoke flavor with the Japanese theme. So the chokes ended up as a third side-dish with the veal chops.
I ended up with an unused can of artichoke bottoms that I'll turn into that spring stew next week. Meanwhile, the lettuce, endive and some of the radishes wound up as a salad in one of the lunches I prepared for this client the following day.
So I guess I passed my personal Iron Chef test. And isn't this the way we're supposed to cook, scouring the market for the best possible ingredients? If I were really organized, I would start doing my shopping at the local farmer's market. Too bad it falls the day after I usually make this client's meals.
Still, old habits die hard. I've gotten very comfortable designing menus on the computer, then buying ingredients to fit. It seems our whole culture is geared toward making lists, then going food shopping as if our food were on the same level as toothpaste and toilet paper. Like everyone else, I've been trained and conditioned to think in those terms.
I don't know if I have the nerve to improvise on a weekly basis.