Bridging the Gap

In this post I'd like to discuss the art of culinary composition as it applies to connecting ingredients that wouldn't normally pair very well. Say you're at the market and you see 2 things that look absolutely perfect but there is no cultural cooking style or flavor "synergy" between the 2 items. For an example to this I'll site the meal at a recent meeting of the Estate. One component was a light and creamy Red Currant risotto, sharing the plate with a Bacon and Crimini mushroom sauce. The lightly sweet and mildly bitter Currants generally aren't seen on the same plate with heavy, rich flavors like Criminis or bacon. But the meal was a smashing success. The key to making a square peg fit in a round hole, so to speak, is to add an ingredient or preparation that acts as a "bridge", as I like to call it.
Sauteed dover sole, ginger whipped yukon golds, harico vert, champagne beurre blanc. The ginger and champagne work together to bring all the ingredients closer and add elegant complexity.

Sauteed Dover sole, ginger whipped yukon golds, harico vert, champagne beurre blanc. The ginger and champagne work together to bring all the ingredients closer and add elegant complexity.

The reason these seemingly disparate ingredients worked so well was the bridge, they were served with a Mustard Crusted roasted Pork Loin and Spaghetti Squash roasted with cinnamon and maple syrup. The mustard was the key, it bridged the gap between all the other flavors in play. It goes well with mushrooms, bacon, cinnamon, and the fresh Red Currants used in the risotto. There are still pairings that should be avoided, mind you, a bridge isn't always possible to find or implement. For instance, if you have ingredients that have a strong cultural tie, say wasabi and cous-cous. When ingredients such as those is mentioned you immediately associate them with their place of origin, and no where else. Cous-cous is born of the Mediterranean and the Japanese brought wasabi to the world stage. Food items with such strong ties to their cultural roots shouldn't really be swapped around, the results usually seem imbalanced and out of place, even in the hands of a pro. That aside, the result of such bridges, when they work, will provide a wonderful contrast and scope of flavors within the confines of a single plate or over the courses of a meal. Any single part of the plate could be the bridge, too. I once had on a menu (at the now defunct Too Chez, r.i.p.) a blackened Mahi-Mahi with ginger/sesame rice and soy based sauce. The bridge was the Chinese 5 spice that was in the blackening mix. Or the Lamb chops I currently serve at Ignite, Mediterranean marinade with an Argentinian sauce, bridged by the mint used in the sauce and the cumin added to the marinade. Some ingredients are easy. Like Tuna. The Japanese use it, the Italians use it, even we in the States use it. Finding precedents for cultural cross-over in this case is easy, so Tuna makes a great bridge. As do lemons or citrus in general. Mustard makes a great bridge as well. Be it in the sauce, the starch, or in the case mentioned above, slathered on the meat before roasting. I mentioned Tuna as a bridge, but keep in mind that the protein is usually the focal point of a dish, and therefore not usually used as the bridge. Ideally the bridge should be an additive, a background ingredient or technique that's a bit more subtle than the main attraction. The term "bridge" in and of itself should be considered here. A quick way to join large, and otherwise unconnected masses (in this case flavors). This concept can also be implemented to "tighten" a dish, or make all the components of a plate work closer together. In this case repetition of seasoning ingredients could be the key. Say you wanna grill a chicken breast and serve it with rice. Tarragon or Rosemary on the chicken and in the rice will bring them closer and tie them together, lending a sense of continuity to the whole dish. Another way to go about this would be to tie things together in the sauce. A nice seared venison loin and mashed sweet potatoes will be nicely rounded out by adding berries to the sauce and straining out the skins at the end (blueberries, blackberries, huckleberries, or even quince, though not a berry, would work wonders). To further expand the scope of this technique, you could use it to tie together separate courses over the duration of the whole meal. In fact, in true haute cuisine, this is imperative. However, this is the highest and most complex undertaking a chef can face. Because of that very few restaurant chefs take this approach. The main reason being once you've decided to go this route you've pretty much also decided to serve one, and only one course spread to everyone that walks in the door. For a chef and/or restaurantuer to take this path it requires amazing confidence and balls you could ride like a hippity-hop. Thomas Keller of the French Laundry in Yountville California and Grant Achatz of Alinea in Chicago are probably the most recognized chefs that do, and in fact their ability to utilize this concept is part of what makes them such icons in the culinary world. That said, it's still not an unachievable goal for the home cook. The easiest way to make this work is to keep all dishes being served within a single cultural theme. Indeed, this route is nearly fool-proof. To go beyond that, though, the cook needs to keep in mind every aspect of every ingredient being used. Full flavor profile, texture, aroma, cultural roots, and appearance all need equal consideration to unify the whole spread into one seamless "symphony", to borrow a musical term. Thinking like a musician can help in this regard, actually. There needs to be an easy intro, something that sets the tone for the song (a light appetizer), a crescendo (soup and/or salad courses) that builds up to the climax (main course), and a soft landing at the end (desert, cheese course, aperitif, etc.). No course should be heavier in flavor than the one coming after or the preceding flavors will drown out the next. Unless you throw in a "palate cleanser" such as an intermezzo, or bread course, or something acidic. This is the same concept employed at wine tastings. Whites first, then reds, so you don't burn out your palate. Giving examples of this in action would seem a bit redundant, since it's the same idea that I've already described earlier in this article, just with an expanded scope. For further reading on this subject I would recommend the book Culinary Artistry (see my review of the book here).
Mussel soup with avocados, tomatoes and dill.

Mussel soup with avocados, tomatoes and dill.

The possibilities are endless, it just takes some imagination and a good knowledge of the ingredients you're working with. So the next time you're at the market and see a great batch of mussels, and those avocados look amazing, don't be afraid to use them on the same plate! All you need to do is find an ingredient that goes with both (like tomatoes!) and let your creativity run free! Live well and eat better.... Jack

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