Monday, June 8, 2009

More cooking for looks: beets and salmon salad

Following a recipe is not my strongest point. When you have read a recipe and have the idea of the dish in your mind, there are so many variations, adjustments to be made for the personal taste and the preferences of the guests, ingredients on hand or in season, the market, the weather, the mood, other recipes that you read or cooked recently and got some ideas and techniques from, the colors and textures that you want to see on the table, and the wine selection, that you usually end up cooking something remotely resembling the original dish, but essentially your own. Sometimes I don’t read the recipe at all, just look at a picture, or taste a dish in a restaurant, and go from there.

So all the cookbooks that I own are for inspiration and reference, not for recipes. They reside on a shelf in the bedroom, not in the kitchen, and they may have wine and coffee stains on their pages, but rarely olive oil or tomato sauce.

Recently my pillow book has been Suzanne Goin’s Sunday Suppers at Lucques. It’s organized by the season, uses our local California produce (although Lucques is in LA, and I am in Northern CA, the seasonal differences are minor), and has beautiful photographs, modern and stylish, that appeal to my new found food styling passion.

This is how when the assignment for the food styling class came in, to find a photograph that you like and to try to reproduce it, my choice was easy. I will make the wild salmon salad with beets, potato, egg, and mustard vinaigrette. It’s one of the most beautiful photos in the book, with the summer sunrise colors of the beets offset by the delicate dandelion greens, dark and handsome herbed salmon creating the shadow against the all-white plate and the background. I always wanted to make this salad. The season is just right; I will find all the ingredients on the farmers market on Thursday. And this is my rare chance; I’ll try to follow the recipe to a letter.

I ran to the market on Thursday morning before work, got tiny new potatoes, three bunches of beets in different colors, herbs, and fresh and delicate dandelion greens from our friendly Northern California farmers, who don’t look like farmers at all – they are so bohemian that you guess that they probably have PhDs from Berkeley, and teach yoga and feng shui in their spare time, – but they do grow the finest organic produce and bring it to the market the day they pick it; somehow survived a few hours of meetings and user requests in the office, and rushed home for the lunch break to prepare the ingredients for the evening styling session.

I live 5 minutes from work, and sometimes come home for lunch. Every time I plan to do a little homework – laundry, dishes, clean-up, roast coffee, marinate meat for dinner – and then relax in the backyard with a cup of coffee, and every time the homework eats up all the time. Sometimes I get a few minutes left to pour and drink a glass of mineral water before returning to the office. This time was worse than usual, but I managed to clean and roast the beets (all of them, I will be eating roasted beets marinated in olive oil for weeks), roast the potatoes, and get a wild king salmon fillet from my neighborhood market. Back to meetings and users.

I knew there was some artistic license involved in styling this photograph, but I didn’t realize how much until I actually started cooking. Every time there was a variance between the picture and the recipe, I went with the recipe, but still tried to style as close to the picture as possible. There were some problems to solve and hard decisions to make:

- In the recipe the salad is arranged on a bed of dandelion greens; in the picture the greens are scattered on top – it’s easy to see why, they are so pretty! – I did both.
- I don’t understand why the salmon, covered with fresh herbs and baked at a low temperature until medium, looks black in the photo. Mine came out bright emerald green. It must be the light.
- My nine-minute extra-large egg was so runny that it was difficult to cut, and how are you supposed to present it facing the viewer? The photo stylist obviously cooked her egg a little longer, and it looks great. But mine is tastier.
- If I were making it just for the picture, I would skip the dressing, that is done with an egg yolk and mustard and starts to turn yellow and dry on the surface right away, and replaced it with store-bought mayonnaise. But I actually wanted to taste this dressing, so I made it according to the recipe and just kept stirring it every couple of minutes while taking pictures.
- The salad looks much better with the dressing on the side. When I dressed it for a more real-life shot, the dressing covered some of the pretty colors of the vegetables, and I also messed up and applied more dressing than needed, using a spoon instead of a squeeze bottle.
- It’s very difficult to style beautiful food when you are hungry. I actually devoured some of the less-then-perfect looking ingredients in the process. And I had to take the pictures fast, while the food was still good to eat. I was in no condition to toss the photo food and to start over for dinner.

Overall, I learned a lot from this one exercise, and the final result looked good enough for the first time, and was not just edible, but delicious.

The leftover ingredients, kept separately in the refrigerator and added together in the last minute, made an excellent Beets and Salmon Salad, Office Edition, serving as my dinner the next day during an after-hours system maintenance.


Michael Walsh said...

Nice picture, and wow alot of work went into that!

I know how you feel about recipies, and with the abundance of 'crap' on the internet there are alot of bad recipies out there, even in print!

But as a professional chef I think there are some basic recipies that you should have a grasp on which will allow for alot more success in the kitchen. Vinagrette, fresh Mayo, pate choux, pancake or quick bread ratio, breading procedure, blanching vegetables, searing protiens in a pan/grill, braising tough meats, seasoning with salt and pepper, and stock making all provide a backbone to cooking that you can't live without in my opinion. Perhaps you have mastered these skills and to that...Cheers!

amarillo said...

I agree about the basics, but I rather see them as techniques, not recipes. And as a home cook, I have much more freedom even with these, since I don't have to be consistent. Even for a stock, I can use different aromatic vegetables every time, depending on the mood and availability, or, say, add roast duck bones to a chicken stock to make it more interesting.

Michael Walsh said...

I see your point, and the idea of technique is perfect. For example, the list of ingrediants for a stock might change, but how you make a stock doesn't. Interesting way to think about things.