Crusty Menu Infusion

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I love to eat! I love to cook, but I also love to go out to eat. Since I don’t go out that often, I hope I’ll get a great meal when I do. I always agonize over my choices, wanting to be happy with whatever I order. I hate it when I end up with something less impressive than it sounded on the menu. And these days, menu items seem to sound much fancier than they used to. When I was young, menus had the basics: chicken, fish, steak, pork chops, hamburgers, and maybe, if it was a “fancy” restaurant, prime rib. Things have gotten much more complicated.

First of all, you have to learn the jargon. Food just isn’t food these days unless it’s been encrusted or infused with something. Was it poached? Sauteed lightly? Is it al dente? Did the chef deglaze the pan? Was the tomato bisque perfectly emulsified? And if it’s not topped with a reduction, a glaze, or au jus, it certainly won’t make it onto the menu at a fine dining establishment.

Then there’s the presentation. If you order the scallops, you get them stacked in a pillar formation…just like Jenga! And of course, they are layered with some sort of herb or vegetable or crispy item, and drizzled with some sort of sauce, squirted over and around the food in a very artistic fashion. It’s not about covering the plate with food…it’s about having a pretty enough plate to leave most of it showing. It’s about making the food so delicious and such a delight to the eyes, that you will forget that you got 2 ounces of food for your $32.95. Yes, it was delicious, but was that it?

And now we come to the combinations. I remember the first time I had cranberries or nuts on a salad. I was skeptical. But I discovered that I liked fruit and nuts with my salad greens. And now it’s not just lettuce that makes a salad…we have arugula, mesclun, kale, chard, dandelion greens, and spinach to throw into the mix. I had a similar reaction when I first tried cayenne pepper, cinnamon, and brown sugar on my carrots. Feta cheese and sun dried tomatoes seemed strange back in the 80’s but now they are staples. Chocolate with chili peppers, salted caramel, bacon in your donuts…they all seem contradictory, but can be delicious, if you have an open mind.

I think several things have influenced this change in foods. It is partly due to the need to be unique, chic, trendy, and hip. And the movement towards a more healthy diet has driven many of us to work vegetables, fruits and whole grains into our meals, and to create low-fat, low-carb, low-calorie dishes. Or maybe we’ve just grown weary of the “plain old food” that we’ve been eating for so long. But I have to think that some of the crazy combinations I’ve seen were the result of some late-night, drunken bet between chefs. Beet pizza with caramelized onion and goat cheese? BBQ pulled pork cinnamon rolls? Peanut butter and bacon burger? Sesame kumquat pumpernickel ice cream? Really??

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