On most days we are influenced by easy recipes by Martha Stewart, Julia Child's attitude to cooking and Rachael Ray's busy-but-nice style, but on some days we like to indulge our sensibilities and cook our way.
I've always been excited by recipes and have often cooked difficult dishes with little experience. Complicated recipes make me think about the pleasure that I'll get from eating it.
Evolution of the Menu
Our perspective on planning a menu is more the individual parts than the sum. Naturally you want the dining experience to mean something as a whole, but, for us, that whole experience starts small. Maybe it’s a dish and maybe it’s just an ingredient.
We planned simply to have a nice meal we could cook at home rather than going out to a big anniversary dinner. That started with one dish: a Caesar salad. It remains a favorite and each time we make it we discover something a little new about the process and the flavor.
It’s easy to be daunted if you start out with six courses with wine pairings. Our first big menu grew gradually. What would be the next course? What would complement something on the side? The surprises (and even the mistakes) can be the real evolution of cooking.
Designing a Tasting Menu
It's the final hurdle in your culinary toolkit and it's a high bar!
We'd usually celebrate our anniversary at a high-end restaurant, but this year we decided to put our skills to the test.
We didn't start with the idea that it had to be monumental for our anniversary, we started with a main course and a appetizer that we thought we'd enjoy. We used the New York City Restaurant Book as a cheat sheet! They have great recipes that you'd want to order for a special occasion and some of them are surprisingly easy to cook.
When you first start out you should remember that you aren't a chef and this isn't a restaurant. You aren't under any time constraints to prepare the meal and the purpose of cooking together is to have fun and let the other person know how much you enjoy being with them. We planned a whole evening to cook together.
You can do some preparation in advance, but it's never as much fun if you have to cook two days in a row. In this menu there is a Granita that was prepared the day before. It's a really easy process, you just mix the juices and sugar together and freeze it overnight. It lasted several months in the freezer and we ended up eating, or is that drinking, this by the pool during the summer.
You don't have to plan a 7 course tasting meal just because that's what your favorite restaurant does. Plan as many courses as you feel comfortable cooking and remember that you don't have to make them all if you want to abandon the menu.
Dessert usually gets dropped when we make an overly ambitious menu. If we have company, I get some great ice cream and serve that instead.
The idea that to be sophisticated it has to be expensive, which usually means a well known restaurant or chef, but you can choose your dishes and enjoy the menu a lot more when you cook at home.
It can also be about technique. Learning to cook with a cast iron skillet suddenly elevates your steak from blah to sublime! The biggest cast iron surprise for us was the vegetable oil roux that transformed our gumbo from blah to delicious and now we would never start with stainless steel.
Each dish is a reflection of our tastes. We cook together and this menu is designed for us to share the preparation of the dishes. Kim likes to cook for me and I enjoy sitting with my glass of wine on the other side of the kitchen island watching the meal being made.
If you choose bold dishes that stand out it helps make the experience special. In this menu, the Caesar salad and the Cod Fish with Chorizo Essence were the stand out dishes and we raved about how easy they were to make and how great the taste was.
Our desire to create menus again and again over the years stemmed from the success of this evening.
Starting Out Pairing Dishes
Without the experience of the sommelier how do you pair wines for a tasting menu?
For our first menu, I spent hours reading the Total Wine catalogue choosing the pairings and asked myself the question how would it taste together? Now, I often ask wineries on twitter what they would pair with a dish I'm making.
First Course: Lobster Cakes with Cucumber and Ginger Salad
Wine Pairing: Ben Ami Chardonnay
Lobster pairs well with tropical fruits! Looking for complimentary wines, I imagined the fruit notes in the wine as another ingredient in the dish.
This selection was inspired by the wine Ronald Reagan served at his inauguration dinner, a sparkling wine from Hawaii!
The pineapple and guava notes in the Ben Ami Chardonnay compliment the lightness of the lobster and the ginger in the salad.
Making it Memorable!
You don't have to have a matching dinning room set to make a tasting menu memorable. Try to create a space that represents you and the person you are dining with.
A great idea is to use a frame that you have for an everyday picture and put a blank piece of paper in it. That way when you cook and talk over the meal you can record your thoughts and your, hopefully, fond memories of the experience.
When we made our first menu, it was our anniversary and I staged the table with an ordinary black frame with a print out of the menu on one side and the flowers Kim had given me on the other.
During the meal we both expressed how much we enjoyed the courses and how happy we were to be together.
I used some poetry books to set the mood for romance. Books are an easy way to open your mind to a new adventure, and share the moment.
Setting the Table
Lots of us struggle with table settings, its tough to use your everyday dining room set and feel it's special. So why not try mixing and matching plates, or ordering edible flowers and throwing them over the plates. That way you can disguise the everyday and focus on the special.
You don't have to buy everything new, you can use that cute toothbrush holder you have to create a candle holder. It doesn't have to be from the kitchen to be part of your table setting.
Don't feel constrained by the store's style! If you can't find what you want drop in to a fabric store and choose the pattern you want. Get them to cut it to the same size as your table and then drop it off at your dry cleaner to be hemmed. Voila! Your personalized tablecloth.
How Did The No-Fuss Gourmet Happen?
As we learned to do this with our dinner parties, we learned how to translate this experience from dinner for us to large groups.
I remember the first time I threw a dinner party in Manhattan, it wasn't any fun. I planned badly and I was used to other cooks being around to pick up the slack. When no-one helped and no-one understood what was required I found the experience frustrating and daunting.
So eventually we've thrown out the dinner party as being the standard for entertaining and brought our philosophy on cooking for fun, fine dining at home to designing menus and feeding friends and family in a low pressure way.
If you don't want to create your own menu, you can use our createamenufor.me service to design a menu that incorporates your taste and that you can cook with friends or family.