20 Nov 2016
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.
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.
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.
1/2 Muscovy duck breast, about 1/2 lb
Kosher salt, for curing
Black pepper, cumin, dried porcini mushrooms (or your seasonings of choice)
Aged gouda (or other hard cheese)
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.
1 16-oz package firm tofu
1 cup white miso
2 Tbsp sake
2 Tbsp sugar
1 tsp red pepper flakes
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!
1/3 cup Greek yogurt
Few sprigs parsley
2 tsp lemon juice
2 Tbsp vegetable stock
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.
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.
1 bunch heirloom carrots, about 1 inch in diameter, peeled
1 ziplock bag
3 Tbsp chopped walnuts
1 Tbsp sugar
Finishing salt such as Maldon
Fresh herbs for garnish such as parsley and watercress
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.
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
1 1/4 lb plum tomatoes
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
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.
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.
1 cup lentils, mixture of green and Le Puy
1 cup crispy rice
1 tsp rendered duck fat
4 cups water
1 sheet kombu
7 dried shiitake mushrooms
4 torpedo onions, mixture of red and white
1/2 cup champagne vinegar
1/4 cup water
1 tsp kosher salt
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!).
1/2 lb fresh strawberries
1 tsp sugar
1 tsp lemon juice
Fresh sliced strawberries
Mint leaf (optional)