When our kids were growing up, I sometimes fussed at them at the dinner table, “Don’t play with your food!” That was usually when they didn’t want to eat the broccoli and so moved it back and forth on the plate.
We’ve been in the Bay Area (again) for the last several days. As usual, that has given us the opportunity to eat out a lot, as well as to do some cooking for our family. What I have taken away from all of this is that you want professional chefs to be creative while – even if the cook wants to experiment – home meals suggest not so much.
One night I made bucatini all’Amatriciana for my son’s family including 7- and 9-year old girls. The recipe was from Diane Darrow’s wonderful Italian cookbook, La Tavola Italia. I knew it was delicious because I had made it before. I also knew that the girls preferred very little to no tomato sauce, so I cut back on the tomatoes. At the same time, they both insisted that they loved pasta, so I felt reassured. When the dish arrived at the table (delicious, I might add) they both recoiled in horror. Bucatini was not pasta to them, and so they wound up eating something else.
The next experience was at a wonderful bistro, Cuisinett, in one of the towns of Silicon Valley. It is run by two French ex-pats, one of them a classically trained chef who simply grew tired of cooking in white-linen-tablecloth restaurants. The two owners take pride in offering French comfort food along with a big selection of French wines by the glass. They usually have croque monsieur on the lunch menu, but the day we visited, they did not. The waitress said that they did not have the appropriate ingredients. Instead, they had what they called a French-style grilled cheese sandwich. It turned out to be thick slices of crunchy French bread filled and topped with melted Brie. Lamb merguez on a bun was slathered with mustard. Salmon was served with a sauce Provencal. Delicious and creative! That’s what I call playing with your food.
Finally, we ate one evening at Rich Table. Everything was excellent, and everything was a play on old standards: the “carrot cake” was deconstructed and unlike any carrot cake I had ever tasted, topped with a carrot ribbon turned into fruit leather; the New York strip steak was topped with broccoli chimichurri , shaved crispy caramelized onions, and coriander flowers; their signature chocolate sable came with drops of chocolate ganache that looked like Hershey kisses; chicken liver mouse served on plancha bread with fruit preserves and micro greens did not taste like my mother’s chopped chicken livers; avocado and trout roe was delicious; sea urchin was almost too beautiful to eat. But perhaps the most creative dish was the “fish and chips”. The fish was a creamy brandade de morue made with cod and potato and seasoned beautifully. The chips were kale, but not your usual kale chips. The kale had been lightly steamed, then pureed and mixed with a tapioca binder, dehydrated on parchment, and seasoned with a dried malt-vinegar powder to capture all of the flavors of traditional English fish and chips. That I call playing with your food – all with a special outcome.
I think that all of this is well beyond my skills, but for the home cook, regular kale chips and brandade would likely be a delicious and worthwhile substitute.