Cooking by Design

Chef School Deux Week 8


I had to miss last week’s class because of a keynote speech I was hired to give. The class was all about buying and cooking fresh, local foods. My friend, Cathy, told me all about it. You can read her version of the class here.

Chef Carol had everyone meet at the Wednesday Santa Monica Farmer’s Market, where they got a tour of the local farmer stalls and learned about the local produce. Meanwhile, Chef Carol and her assistant, Beth, bought a ton of goodies that they cooked after going back to the classroom.  

This week is an extension of that lesson. Carol is all about expanding our creativity. As we get to be a better, more confident cooks, we will need fewer “recipes.” When one has a good foundation of cooking techniques (knowledge about spices, cuisines, etc.) and a true point of view, the world of imaginative cookery is his or her oyster. This class was about putting it all together.
She started by showing us how to create a menu that made sense.

“The menu,” Carol explained, “is the artistic expression of your food.” While buffets are visually nice and can showcase a lot of dishes, you as the chef have no control over how the food is eaten. It is nearly impossible to regulate the balance of flavors and textures for your diners.

Carol suggests writing everything down first. Jot down ideas for dishes and courses, then make a large circle on paper and divide it into as many courses as you’re going to serve. When you write a singular item into a menu dish, it becomes part of the whole menu. This becomes more exciting as a starting point and helps in not overdoing a single item. If you have garlic in the main dish, don’t use it for the appetizer. Using orange in the dessert? Change your side dish to something without citrus. Menu planning is more about the position of the ingredients and dishes. The textures, tastes and flavors need to make sense. You don’t want a super powerful appetizer that will overshadow the main course or a dessert with such sweetness that it literally sours the dining experience altogether.

You can tell the age and experience of a chef by the number of ingredients used and simplicity of the menu. If someone can create a fabulous menu using simple, fresh ingredients without relying on a ton of fat, salt and sugar, you know you’ve found someone very special. Not to say that one can’t have a phenomenal dish that’s a bit more complicated, but even those menu items need the correct balance of flavors. Ever have a chicken dish that just screamed “THERE’S LEMON IN HERE”? Then you get the idea. Harmony is the key ingredient in any menu.

So, our assignment for this week was to keep that in mind while coming up with a menu based on trays of food. On one of our prep tables was a huge line of trays, each one with different ingredients. Just like on “Top Chef” or “Chopped” (but without the weird “twist” ingredients), we had to create an appetizer, a main with side and a dessert. There was a pantry with herbs, spices and some basics including onions, garlic, some cheeses, etc. The only rule was that we had to use everything on our trays. Of course, Chef Carol and her assistant Beth were there to help us and give us ideas.

We picked numbers from a hat and walked to the corresponding tray. On mine was pork tenderloin, 2 oz. of goat cheese, heirloom tomatoes, fingerling potatoes and beets. My mind started working like crazy, should I make a napoleon of roasted beets and goat cheese? Then what do I do with the tomatoes? Should I make a side dish with the tomatoes and potatoes? What the heck do I do for a dessert?!  

I started to write down my ingredients and look at the pantry. Pork loin goes so well with fruit that I thought of making a nice sauce to go with it, but didn’t see any that worked. So, I opted for pork loin medallions with balsamic caramelized onions. That took care of the main course. I love roasted fingerling potatoes with salt and pepper, and I thought of sliced heirloom tomatoes with goat cheese and basil to start. I could make Champagne vinaigrette. This would work for an appetizer. It wouldn’t overpower the main course and I wouldn’t be reusing ingredients. That left beets. What the heck was I to do with those?

My big conundrum was dessert. I’m not a big baker. If I bake, I eat, so I just do neither. Because of that, there’s no way I can whip up pastry dough without a recipe. CAROL, HELP!

After approving my written menu so far, we stared at the beets.

Carol said, ”Well, beets are sweet and even sweeter after roasting. So, what can you do with soft, roasted beets?”

I thought pudding. How do I do that? Then she said the magic words, “What about ice cream?” My eyes lit up. YES! That would be awesome! So, that’s what I did. I’ve included the recipe for you below. The school has a top-of-the-line ice cream maker, so all you have to do is throw the ingredients in and 17 minutes later you have ice cream. If you have a basic ice cream maker, you should be able to do this easily, too. It’s not too sweet and if you like ginger, throw it in with the other ingredients, it adds a little zing. The color is really cool, too!

Beet Ice Cream

Serves 4


2 medium sized beets
1 C heavy cream
1 egg yolk
1/4 C sugar
2 t vanilla
½ C milk
1 T ginger (or candied ginger)-optional

Preheat oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit. Wrap beets in foil and roast until soft, about one hour. While cooling, heat heavy cream until just boiling, then take off heat. Whisk sugar into egg yolk. Then, slowly whisk the cream into the yolk mixture until smooth. Set aside.

In a blender, puree the peeled beets with ½ C milk until smooth. Add puree and vanilla to the cream mixture. Add ginger if desired. Pour mixture into ice cream maker and let it do it’s thing. When the ice cream is the consistency of thick soft-serve, take it out and place in the freezer until ready to serve.

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