Saturday, April 21, 2007

The Nerve to Cook

It was time to make meals for one of my personal chef clients and this week I would do something I had never attempted before. I just didn't have time to sit down at the computer and design menus for two dinners.

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.

Dinner #1:
Jumbo shrimp with soba noodles, steamed vegetables and a soy-sesame-ginger dressing
Salad of julienned radishes and carrots
Lemon-scented broccoli

Dinner #2:
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.


christine (myplateoryours) said...

Our farmers market gives us a third alternative. They canvas the famrers and send out a list of what's available in the market early in the week. That way I can plan at the computer and still stick with what's fresh and wonderful.

That's how it's supposed to work, anyway. This week the pork family didn't show and my carnitas plan had to go out the window, so I punted and went with grassfed beef instead, completely winging the menu and backtracking all over the market. I prefered it, actually. Very liberating, composing a menu on the fly, and knowing it will all be delicious, however it goes.

Where does Whole Foods get their shrimp?

Ed Bruske said...

VEry interesting idea, what your farmer's market does. I don't believe that's done here, but I'll have to check into it.

Ditto the shrimp. Whole foods carries different varieties. I'll have to check their sources.

Thanks, Christine

christine (myplateoryours) said...

Domestic wild shrimp, that's what you want. The imported buggers are filled with antibiotics to keep them alive because they are farmed in super-crowded conditions. Besides, buying local helps keep the American fishing industry healthy too. Those poor gulf shrimpers have taken hit after hit.

Ed Bruske said...

My goal eventually is to take an inventory of the seafood selection at Whole Foods and see how it stack up against the Monterey Bay Aquarium recommendations...

La C. said...

Congrats on finding your nerve. Also, congrats on avoiding the tomatoes. This time of year my tomato withdrawal hits full force. They sit in their bins looking so very red and so very ripe. And every year I buy them prematurely and suffer the mealy, tasteless mush that is an out of season tomato. I did it this year but I have made a pact with myself to NOT buy a melon before it is season.

Ed Bruske said...

I can certainly second that emotion, la c. Subscribing to a CSA and growing our own garden have been a revelation as far as becoming intimate with the seasons and familiar with the way food is supposed to taste. You can grow a tomato in a greehouse in January and you can import melons from Chile. But once you taste them from a farmer, picked at the peak of ripeness, you won't want them any other way.

I suggest making a pal with someone at the local farm stand and keeping your ear to the ground for the next crop to be harvested.