An 8-course tasting menu at home

A tasting menu is a multicourse dining experience where a chef has total creative control over the dishes presented and the ordering, instead of diners ordering à la carte. Often sold at a fixed price per person ("prix fixe"), menus can range wildly from 5 or 6 courses to over 20 (!). It's a chance for chefs to showcase their abilities, ideas, and ingredients to the maximum possible extent. Depending on the number of courses, guests may get several appetizers or single-bite introductory dishes to excite the palate, several larger main-course style dishes, and several desserts to close out the meal. Good tasting menus have a flow; one of of flavors, textures, temperatures, and timing. Ideally the diner is always enjoying themselves, looking forward to the next bite and wanting one more of the last one, never bored, overfull, or leaving hungry.

Set tasting menus are almost exlusively the format used in fine-dining restaurants, but there's no reason we can't prepare and serve a sequence of small exciting courses at home! Doing so requires intensive upfront planning and preparation but the rewards are well worth it. Recently to practice my skills I offered to cook an eight-course menu at home for my girlfriend and her best friend, and this post details the process in planning out the menu and the preparation ahead of time to make it a smooth experience (it was a smashing success!). The folks at ChefSteps have written an extremely detailed post on designing a tasting menu (complete with very difficult recipes, not used here), which served as my guide throughout the process, and is highly recommended reading for anyone curious about the process.

Designing a good tasting menu is an exercise in planning, balance, timing, contrasting flavors, textures, and novelty. Planning and preparing ahead of time is probably the most crucial aspect: as a home cook I have a finite number of pots and pans, one stove, and one sous vide circulator. To execute a series of dishes with many individual components, each pot and heating implement has to be accounted for; the last thing I want to do is be scrambling around looking for a free pan or burner. Flavors, portions, and textures need to be varied such that the diners are always amazed and excited but not overwhelmed, or bored by the same thing multiple times in a row. I wish I could say I designed this menu with a cohesive theme or showcase in mind, but in fact I designed more around my heating capabilities ("what do I want to showcase sous vide? What can be cooked in the oven?") and proteins (egg - fish - red meat), rather than any single overarching theme. Maybe as my ability progresses I'll be able to design such menus.

When serving a menu like this, mise en place, or preparing your work area, ingredients and tools ahead of time, is more important than ever before for things to go off without a timing hitch. The goal is basically to be applying heat and combining things at service time, rather than having to spend a bunch of time chopping vegetables and butchering meat. I also laid out a checklist of finishing steps for each dish just so I didn't have to keep everything in memory (i.e. what do I finish this broth with? What herbs do I need here?, and so on).

I cooked this dinner for 3 (two guests including myself, cook has to eat!), so the ingredient quantities often reflect that, although some make extra.

To add some elegance to the experience I printed up menus for the dinner. Here are the courses presented, with links to each one. Note that these are written in the order they were presented during the meal, NOT in the order it takes to prepare and cook them. Some of the dishes take days or weeks (!) of preparation in advance; if you choose to cook any of them you'll need to plan the time appropriately.

Small bites

Main

Part I: Small bites

This is a series of very small dishes intended to be eaten in a bite or two at most, to excite diners' palates and set the stage for the rest of the meal. This was directly inspired by an experience I had at Benu in SF, which "only" lists 9 courses on the menu, the first of which is "small delicacies" which is fast sequence of over 10 tiny bites that are each indescribably beautiful, composed, and delicious. My small bites only had 3 dishes which were considerably less stunning, but I absolutely love the format and plan to develop it more fully.

The first two dishes are (slightly-unusual-) versions of things you find on a charcuterie board - smoked or cured meats and cheeses served with crackers or bread. They're intended to be salty, flavor-packed bites that pair well with a first sip of wine. The chilled cucumber soup refreshes and relieves the palate a bit before the main courses to come.

I actually switched up the serving order from the order listed on the menu - I decided to serve the duck prosciutto before the tofu as I thought the mini-skewer placed onto the waiting saucer made for a more elegant introduction to the meal.

Muscovy duck prosciutto, aged gouda

I made this using the other half of the duck breast from my duck post a while back. It turns out that you can make your own "prosciutto" at home with relatively few ingredients and a little bit of patience! The process is very simple: cure the breast in salt to draw out some moisture, season with spices of your choice, wrap it up, and let it sit for anywhere from two weeks to a month (or more? I am not sure what the upper bound is!). The salt cure should more or less annihilate any bacteria on the surface and is a very old technique for preserving meat, so as far as I know this may last six months or more - use your sight, smell, and good judgement when evaluating food safety on your own.

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Ingredients

For the prosciutto:

1/2 Muscovy duck breast, about 1/2 lb

Kosher salt, for curing

Black pepper, cumin, dried porcini mushrooms (or your seasonings of choice)

Cheesecloth

For serving:

Toothpicks

Aged gouda (or other hard cheese)

Directions

  1. Depending on how long you want to cure the duck, begin prep two to four weeks before you plan to serve.
  2. First, salt-cure the duck breast: put it in a ziplock bag, and season very generously with kosher salt on both sides; you want to make sure as much surface area as possible is covered. We'll be washing off the salt later, so while the final product is still salty, it does not taste like biting into a salt block. Seal the bag, removing as much air as possible, and leave in the fridge for 24 hours.
  3. After 24 hours are up, remove the duck from the bag, discarding excess salt and expelled liquid. It's totally normal for the breast to shrink and firm up at this point. Brush and rinse off as much salt as possible, and pat dry with paper towels.
  4. Season the outside of the breast with the spice(s) of your choosing - what you use and how much is up to you. I used a mixture of freshly-ground black pepper, ground cumin, and dried porcini mushrooms ground into a fine powder, probably about a tablespoon or two to evenly coat the outside all around. I have seen other recipes such as this one and this one suggest spices such as thyme, dried Espelette chili pepper, paprika, and ras el hanout. Experiment and find what works for you!
  5. Wrap the breast in two layers of cheesecloth, and let sit in your refrigerator for two to four weeks.
  6. After the curing period has elapsed, unwrap the duck. It should have firmed up considerably and not have any strong odors. Slice it thinly with a knife, admire your creation, and serve on a toothpick with a cube of the gouda.

"Crackers and Cheese": Tofu misozuke cured 6 weeks, Maldon

After watching Enrique Olvera make 800-day mole at Pujol on Chef's Table, I was inspired to serve a dish that required a very long period of time to prepare, which I think presents an additional degree of "wow" factor normally associated with restaurant dining. I asked around online and was pointed to tofu misozuke, which is a very unusual "fermented" tofu preparation. Essentially, a block of tofu is cured in a miso mixture for many weeks until it softens considerably to a spreadable cheese-like texture, and picks up a nice flavor from the cure. The folks at Rau Om have kindly published a recipe online distilled from 18th-century manuscripts and other less accessible sources.

By the time I served it, the tofu had cured in my fridge for 6 weeks, although the recipe claims a minimum of 2 months is required for optimum flavor, and like the prosciutto I believe you can cure it for much longer periods of time without risking food safety; again use your judgement! I added some red peppers flakes to my miso mixture in an attempt to impart some extra flavor to the tofu; I was surprised at how mild the effect was.

Ingredients

1 16-oz package firm tofu

1 cup white miso

2 Tbsp sake

2 Tbsp sugar

1 tsp red pepper flakes

Cheesecloth

Directions

  1. Depending on how long you want to cure the tofu, begin prep 4 to 8 weeks before you plan to serve.
  2. Wrap the tofu block in paper towels and press it between weighed-down sheet pans for 1 hour to expel excess moisture.
  3. Combine all ingredients except tofu in a mixing bowl and stir well to make the miso mixture.
  4. Cut the tofu block in half, and wrap each half tightly in a double layer of cheesecloth.
  5. Evenly divide and spread the miso mixture on all sides of the tofu blocks.
  6. Line a tupperware with a double layer of paper towels, and place the tofu blocks on top.
  7. Let the tofu cure in your fridge for at least 4 weeks and up to 8 weeks or more, changing the paper towels once a week. Carefully monitor for signs of mold and excess moisture - the paper towels will be wet when you change them, but the tofu block should not appear wet or give off any strong odors.
  8. After the curing period has elapsed, unwrap the tofu and remove any trace cheesecloth fibers or curing mixture.
  9. Serve like a cheese with crackers and a small pinch of Maldon salt or other flake salt - the salt will add a nice hint of crunch and really bring out the flavors.

Cucumber soup

As mentioned, this is a refreshing chilled soup meant to relieve the palate after the last 2 salty courses, and cucumber has a very nice mild flavor. I served a few sips in demitasse cups which I think are very cute, despite probably being pretentious or cliché. This can be prepared up to a day beforehand and is served chilled, making prep easy.

Having never made this recipe before, I improvised the quantities - the soup came out very well, and yielded about a quart. You'll have leftovers!

Ingredients

2 cucumbers

1/3 cup Greek yogurt

Few sprigs parsley

2 tsp lemon juice

2 Tbsp vegetable stock

Directions

  1. Peel, seed, and dice the cucumbers. Place the dice in a bowl, season with salt, and leave for 10 minutes to expel excess water.
  2. Drain the cucumber and place into a blender, along with the yogurt, parsley, lemon juice, vegetable stock, and a splash of olive oil.
  3. Blend very thoroughly until smooth, seasoning with additional salt, pepper, and lemon juice to taste.
  4. Optionally strain through a sieve for a smoother texture and chill in the refrigerator for at least 4 hours. Serve in chilled demitasse cups.

Part II: Main

This is a series of four slightly larger savory dishes, followed by a dessert course. Don't be fooled by the name - despite being main courses, each one is still only a few bites at most. With dishes this small, you have a chance to go big and bold with flavors, without risk of overwhelming or fatiguing the diner's palate. It's important to keep this in mind when seasoning with salt and spices - take care not to overdo it but not to underdo it as well!

While not explicitly called out in each recipe, when cooking sous vide and when plating intricate dishes, managing temperature and time is extremely important; oftentimes your window for food cooling down past where you'd like is very short. For this reason, it's a good idea to warm all plates and bowls used for hot dishes in the oven before serving, and this will be assumed throughout.

Carrot, sous vide egg yolk, candied walnuts

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This is a preparation very similar to a dish originally by ChefSteps. I've made many variations of it, using roasted beets instead of carrots, and accompanied by pickled mustard seeds, onion puree, or watercress coulis (also all on ChefSteps!), and candied walnuts instead of their hazelnut crumble. However because a dish later on in this menu uses mustard seeds and beets, I decided to stick with carrots. The original recipe calls for the carrots to be prepared sous vide, which yields tender and very carrot-y carrots. However my sous vide was already at work preparing the egg yolk (and the beef short rib), which require different temperatures than carrots, so I kept it simple and roasted my carrots in the oven.

The star of this dish is the sous vide egg yolk. Egg is possibly the best ingredient to showcase the precision capabilities of sous vide - you can prepare just-barely soft-boiled eggs, poached eggs, or perfect yolks that hold their shape and spread like a thick sauce or gel with a fork, as we're doing here. Yolks prepared this way are a gorgeous centerpiece of any dish - in my experience, 147F is the perfect temperature to cook them at. Note that ChefSteps calls for the yolks to be prepared "confit" in oil in a container suspended in the water bath; however in my limited experience this does not make an enormous difference on the end result as opposed to cooking in a ziplock bag if you're careful.

Ingredients

1 bunch heirloom carrots, about 1 inch in diameter, peeled

3 eggs

1 ziplock bag

Parchment paper

Canola oil

3 Tbsp chopped walnuts

1 Tbsp sugar

Butter

Thyme

Finishing salt such as Maldon

Fresh herbs for garnish such as parsley and watercress

Directions

  1. Preheat your oven to 425F.
  2. Heat your sous vide unit to 147F (if you're cooking this dish along with the beef, cook the beef at 147 and just drop the yolk in alongside).
  3. Very carefully separate the yolks from the eggs, and discard the whites (or save for some other dish). If the yolks break or puncture in any way they won't be usable.
  4. Place the yolks into a ziplock bag and add a splash of canola oil, making sure the yolks are not touching one another.
  5. Remove air from the bag using the water displacement method and drop in the water bath for 45 minutes.
  6. Place the carrots onto a baking tray lined with parchment paper and toss with olive oil and salt. Roast the carrots for 30 minutes or until tender when pierced with a fork.
  7. While the yolks and carrots cook, prepare the candied walnuts: melt 1 Tbsp butter in a pan over medium heat and add the walnuts and sugar. Toss to coat the walnuts and heat for about 5 minutes, making sure the sugar doesn't burn. Remove to a piece of parchment paper and separate the walnuts to prevent a clump from forming.
  8. To finish the carrots, melt butter in a pan over medium heat and roll the carrots with the butter, thyme leaves, and salt.
  9. To serve: place a spoonful of candied walnuts into shallow bowls, and place a yolk on top, topping with a pinch of the finishing salt. Slice the carrots into 1-2 inch segments and line the edge of the bowl with the segments, around the yolk. Finish the carrots with a squirt of olive oil, garnish with the herb leaves, and serve.

Market fish, cherry tomatoes, cranberry beans, tomato "consommé"

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This is a dish inspired by David Kinch of three-star Manresa in Los Gatos. His dish is an immaculate piece of white fish in a red pepper "gel" broth, served with cranberry beans cooked till tender and creamy, heirloom cherry tomatoes, and finished with a vibrant green herb oil. The kicker is a hidden bit of garlic puree underneath the fish for the diner to discover, which really adds a novel element to a dish. Unsurprisingly his preparations are shockingly difficult, so I mostly used the components as inspiration and substituted the red pepper gel with tomato "consommé", which is a term for a traditional clarified stock or broth and used here as a silly way of saying clear tomato water (I'm sure every chef in the world would roll their eyes at this trend, but at home you can say whatever you want!). I prepared a watercress coulis to finish the dish, but forgot it during service and the dish came out fine, so I'll omit its recipe here (so much for my checklists!).

I intentionally didn't decide on a fish in advance and bought the best-looking white fish at the market the day of the dinner. I recommend doing the same in general, as you don't want to be thrown off if your chosen fish is missing or of low quality that day.

This dish also reflects a technique I see often when I eat in nice restaurants: concentrating a particular flavor with multiple preparations. In our case, we're serving cherry tomatoes alongside a tomato broth to really highlight the flavor of fresh tomato with the fish.

Ingredients

3/4 lb white fish (I used halibut)

2 cups vegetable stock

1/2 lb cranberry beans

Heirloom cherry tomatoes

Fresh herbs for garnish such as parsley and watercress

Finishing salt such as Maldon

For the tomato water:

1 1/4 lb plum tomatoes

Soy sauce

Champagne vinegar

Cheesecloth

For the garlic puree:

8 cloves garlic

1/2 cup milk

1 tsp lemon juice

Small pinch xanthan gum (optional)

Squeeze bottle, or ziploc bag with the corner cut off for piping

Directions

  1. 1 day in advance, prepare the tomato water: hull the plum tomatoes and cut X-shaped slits into the top. Blanch in boiling water for 45 seconds and remove into an ice bath to prevent further cooking. Peel the tomatoes, discard the skins, and chop into medium dice. Line a fine mesh strainer with a double layer of cheesecloth, and set over a bowl. Place the tomato dice into the strainer and salt very generously to extract their water. Let sit overnight in your refrigerator to drain.
  2. 3-4 hours in advance of service, prepare the garlic puree: peel the garlic cloves and place in a shallow pan, cover halfway with cold water, bring to a boil, drain and repeat 3 times to mellow out the garlic a bit (David Kinch recommends 10 times, but I maxed out at 3; it's still delicious and not too sharp). Barely cover the garlic with milk, bring to a simmer, then blend very thoroughly with the xanthan gum (which will thicken the puree) until smooth, adding the lemon juice and salt to taste. Remove to a squeeze bottle and reserve for service (reheat the puree when serving).
  3. 3-4 hours in advance of service, start the cranberry beans: Shell the beans and soak in water for 1 hour. Drain the beans and simmer in the vegetable stock with salt to taste on low heat for 2-3 hours or until tender and creamy.
  4. Preheat your oven to 350F.
  5. Cut the fish into portion-sized servings and season both sides with salt and pepper. Place on a baking tray lined with parchment paper, and drizzle with olive oil. Bake in the oven until their internal temperature reaches 130F, roughly 20 minutes.
  6. While the fish cooks, heat the tomato water on low heat, and season with a few drops of soy sauce and champagne vinegar to taste.
  7. Prepare the cherry tomatoes: cut in half and drop in with the tomato water to heat and tenderize.
  8. To serve: place a small dollop of the garlic puree on the bottom of each bowl, place a piece of fish on top and top with a pinch of the finishing salt. Place a few cherry tomato halves and cranberry beans around the fish, and garnish with the herb leaves. Spoon a few tablespoons of the tomato water into the bowl and finish with a few drops of olive oil which will bead in the broth.

Beef short rib, pumpernickel crisp, pickled mustard seed, red beet

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This is the richest course of the meal - a single bite or two of beef short rib that's been cooked sous vide for 24 hours to tenderize and finished with a nice sear in a cast iron pan, served atop a pumpernickel crisp with red beet puree and pickled mustard seed. I've already written a separate post for this dish, so I won't repeat the recipe here.

Onion broth, sprouted lentils, pickled scallion, crispy rice

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This is another David Kinch/Manresa dish I saw on an episode of Mind of a Chef. It's a brilliant and elegant dish, and was one of the surprise favorites of the night. Sprouted lentils, pickled scallion, and crispy rice add interesting textures and flavors to a fragant dashi broth flavored with onion, which is a comforting way to wind down the main meal. The broth gets a rich umami flavor from the kombu and dried mushrooms, saltiness from soy sauce, and sweetness from onions and mirin. The dish is finished with beads of rendered duck or beef fat, which do miracles for the "professional" feel of the dish.

Torpedo onions are a very interesting variety with an elongated bulb. I've never worked with them before, but was able to find some at my local farmer's market. If you're unable to find any, I'm sure a standard yellow onion would be an acceptable substitute.

David Kinch's original recipe calls for puffed buckwheat, which I had a surprisingly difficult time procuring. I substituted a crispy rice cereal (yes, basically rice krispies), which held their texture and worked perfectly well.

Ingredients

1 cup lentils, mixture of green and Le Puy

1 cup crispy rice

1 tsp rendered duck fat

For the broth:

4 cups water

1 sheet kombu

7 dried shiitake mushrooms

4 torpedo onions, mixture of red and white

Soy sauce

Mirin

For the pickled scallions:

2 scallions

1/2 cup champagne vinegar

1/4 cup water

1 tsp kosher salt

Directions

  1. 48 hours in advance, prepare the sprouted lentils: Soak the lentils in water for 12 hours. Drain well and remove to a baking tray lined with paper towels. Let sit in a dark place for 36 hours - they should develop tiny sprouts and soften pleasantly despite not being cooked.
  2. 1 day in advance, prepare the pickled scallions: trim the scallions down to the whites. Mix the champagne vinegar, water, and salt, bring to a boil, and pour over the scallions. Seal and let sit in the refrigerator for 24 hours.
  3. Prepare the onion broth (this can be done ahead of time and reheated for service): wipe the kombu with a damp cloth (don't rinse), and bring to a simmer in the water. Simmer for 20 minutes, making sure it doesn't boil, remove and discard the kombu.
  4. Add the dried shiitake mushrooms, and simmer for 15 minutes. Remove and discard the mushrooms.
  5. Thinly slice the torpedo onions, and add to the broth. Steep for 15 minutes, seasoning with the soy sauce and mirin to taste.
  6. Remove and discard the onions.
  7. To plate: thinly slice the pickled scallions, and add a small spoonful to each bowl, along with a spoonful of the sprouted lentils and crispy rice. Add just under a cup of broth to each bowl, and finish with drops of the duck fat.

Strawberry granita

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My challenge in coming up with a dessert course was that one of my guests eats a low-sugar diet. However, berries were okay so I decided I wanted to showcase the natural sweetness of strawberries. This is a simple granita preparation, basically a strawberry ice, topped with fresh sliced strawberries (again concentrating flavors!).

Ingredients

For the granita:

1/2 lb fresh strawberries

1 tsp sugar

Balsamic vinegar

1 tsp lemon juice

For serving:

Fresh sliced strawberries

Mint leaf (optional)

Directions

  1. Wash and hull the strawberries for the granita. Place in a blender with the sugar, balsamic vinegar, lemon juice, and a very small dash of salt, and blend very thoroughly until smooth.
  2. Place the puree in a large-bottomed tupperware or baking dish, and put in the freezer until needed.
  3. Every 45 minutes, scrape the granita with a fork to get good crystal formation.
  4. For service, use a fork to scrape the crystals into a glass (ideally chilled in the freezer), and top with the fresh sliced strawberries and mint leaf.

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