TND – Daddy always said, “An ounce of pretension is worth a pound of manure.”

August 10, 2011

For reasons that don’t need exploring at this juncture, I’ve been staring at a lot of upscale restaurant and catering menus recently. This is an activity which is mostly completely pointless because the event that I’m perusing them for isn’t happening for another three years at which point some of these restaurants may no longer be around/as good as they are now, and other new exciting restaurants will have opened. These facts have not stopped me in the slightest.

Having now looked at more menus than I can count I’ve realized several things. One, I actually have a better reason than I’m pretentious for liking farm-to-table restaurants. I find that their menus tend to be more imaginative and varied. Maybe it’s because they’re forced to be more creative to cope with the changing seasons, or maybe it’s because they have the option to constantly change their menu so they aren’t bound by required classics. Whatever the reason, they tend to have more interesting menus, plus I get to indulge in being pretentious and feeling virtuous about my food choices. So, that’s a win all ‘round.

Two, I don’t judge a menu on its meat dishes. Every restaurant is going to have steak and roasted chicken on the menu (well, unless it’s a vegan restaurant – but let’s assume I’m not looking at those). I judge restaurants on how inventive their vegetarian options are (and if they have more than one). If your vegetarian option is spinach ravioli, you’ve failed and I’ve moved on to another locale. If one of your vegetarian options is Summer Root Fritters, black bean sauce, housemade farmers cheese saag paneer, roasted summer squash salsa* I’m intrigued.

I also use the appetizer/salad course as a guide. If your salad could easily be a main course I’m not interested. A small portion of pan seared foie gras with a cherry gastrique is an appetizer, Smoked Duck Breast with Platine Bleue Poached Egg & Wildcrafter Herb Salad is dinner (also, not everything needs to be topped with a poached egg – and I say this as someone who loves poached eggs). I frequently order two appetizers for dinner, but if I do I want it to be because I can’t decide between delicious options, not because I think that if I have an appetizer and a main course I’ll need a fork lift to get me out of my chair at the end of the evening.

Three, I have come to a greater and greater appreciation for clean simple dishes. Not every dish needs to have fifteen ingredients. For example, Maine diver scallops with smoked tomato coulis, garbanzo beans, broccoli rabe, trumpet royales, pancetta lardons cauliflower duet, cipollini onions, minus 8 ice wine vinegar, and sunchoke puree is not a dish, it’s a grocery list. There is such a thing as overkill.

Four, just the one protein on the plate is probably sufficient. I don’t actually want my sea bass to come with chorizo, clams and salt cod. And, as a corollary, simply one version of the protein on the plate is plenty. Roasted duck breast with port-szechuan glaze, braised choy, and grilled plums sounds amazing; I’m just unclear as to why the chef then felt the need to add duck filled dumplings to the plate. Or, why a lamb sirloin needs to be plated with lamb sausage. Enough is enough already.

Five, dessert matters. I no longer read my menus backwards (so I know what to save room for), but if I’m going out for a fancy meal I want to end it on something that’s as interesting and satisfying as my appetizer and entree. Everyone can make a molten chocolate cake. I can make a molten chocolate cake. I’m looking to have a dessert that I can’t/won’t make at home with flavor combinations I wouldn’t have thought to try – peach brown betty with tarragon ice cream, milk jam and pink peppercorns** will keep me on the edge of my seat all the way through dinner. The prospect of ending a meal on a flourless chocolate cake will probably have me opting for just coffee. And seriously, where’s the fun in that?

* From last week’s menu at Black Trumpet in Portsmouth, NH.
** From the current dessert menu at Hungry Mother in Cambridge, MA.
*** Names of the restaurants who provided dishes I disapproved of have been withheld to protect the innocent.

(seasonal) Grilled Chicken Salad
Buttermilk Corn Popovers
Cherry Tomatoes (in a rainbow of colors)

(seasonal) Grilled Chicken Salad

This go around it features baby arugula (for those who like such things), baby spinach (for those who don’t), fresh nectarines, fennel, dried blueberries and pistachios with a light orange-honey vinaigrette. Plus, you know, grilled chicken.

Buttermilk Corn Popovers
from smittenkitchen
(makes 6 popovers in a popover pan / 9 popovers in a muffin tin)

So that thing I said about how when produce is at the height of its glory I have a hard time justifying doing anything to it? Clearly I was lying. Since I said that I have doused tomatoes in buttermilk dressing, turned corn into fritters, and now I’m pureeing corn and adding it to popover batter. Next week we’re just having corn on the cob and sliced tomatoes, I swear.

1 cup buttermilk
½ cup corn kernels (most of one cob)
3 large eggs
1 Tbsp melted butter, plus more for greasing muffin cups
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 Tbsp yellow cornmeal
1 tsp granulated sugar
½ tsp table salt
Generous pinch of black pepper
1 Tbsp snipped fresh chives

Place buttermilk and corn in a blender together and blend for just 3 seconds — you’re looking to break up the corn a bit, not puree it. Add the eggs, one tablespoon of the melted butter and blend for one second more. Add the flour, cornmeal, sugar, salt, a few grinds of black pepper and the chives and blend again until barely combined, some lumps are fine.

Allow the batter to rest for 15-20 minutes while you preheat your oven and butter your pans. Bake for 30-35 minutes (no peeking) – probably about 30 minutes if you’re using muffin tins/35 minutes if you have popover pans. (see comments below about baking temperatures)

Lengthy Post Game Commentary
My standard recipe for popovers calls for you to start them in a 450 oven and bake for 15 minutes, and then decrease the temperature to 350 and bake for another 15-20 minutes. When I saw that this recipe called for 30 minutes at a steady 375 I was a little surprised. The internet/cooking world seems fairly evenly divided on this issue – I surveyed about 30 recipes and came up with half that said to start them in a high oven and then decrease, and half that said to bake them all at the same temp at around 375/400. The cooking world also seemed fairly evenly divided on the importance of preheating your pans before you add the batter.

I dithered for most of the afternoon about which camp I was going to end up in, but eventually decided to follow the original recipe because in her notes she said she’d tried it out at various temperatures and this was the one that worked for her. I figured that even if they didn’t pop, they’d still be tasty.

In the interests of the scientific method (and because I was making two pans of popovers anyway) I stuck one pan in the oven to preheat for 5 minutes, and filled the other cold and then baked off both to see if there was a ‘popping’ difference.

The verdict . . . . . well, they definitely didn’t pop. They came out like a very eggy muffin. Don’t get me wrong, they were tasty and we definitely ate all of them, but they weren’t popovers. I liked the subtle corn flavor and I want to make them again to see if I can get them to pop if I bake them using the split temperature method. There was, incidentally, no difference in the pan that got preheated and the pan that didn’t so next time I won’t bother preheating the pan.


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