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eGCI Team

Q&A -- Menu Planning

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Jinmyo   

Very nice and succint presentation, Janet.

I find that one common mistake that people I have taught make is to fail to understand the relationship between each dish or course within the meal as a whole. In fact, many people basically just think of one thing they want to eat or make and then what they can do to put along side that thing. Or at its worst, group together things that they like that have nothing to do with each other (eg. peanut butter on rye toast, mushroom pizza, chocolate cake).

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Thanks for the menu planning ideas and concepts, Janit. My mother and I usually plan our holiday menus together. Having a menu planned ahead really helps when creating the shopping list and order of work as well. But I'd like to share one of my gaffs with you in hopes of a better menu next time.

Shortly after returning from New Orleans a few years ago, we were very excited about bread pudding. I had never liked it previous to that trip, but tried so many wonderful varieties during the trip (for which I collected many recipes), that I just had to serve it as a dessert at Thanksgiving (just a few weeks away at that point). The problem of course being that the traditional Thanksgiving menu included bread stuffing and mashed potatoes. The starchy dessert was hardly touched.

Assuming I still wanted to serve bread pudding for dessert, how would you have adjusted the menu so as to have people excited by it rather than disappointed?

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Fat Guy   

Do you think there's a place for extremes that go directly against the grain? For example, 10 courses of mushrooms.

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JAZ   
Shortly after returning from New Orleans a few years ago, we were very excited about bread pudding. I had never liked it previous to that trip, but tried so many wonderful varieties during the trip (for which I collected many recipes), that I just had to serve it as a dessert at Thanksgiving (just a few weeks away at that point). The problem of course being that the traditional Thanksgiving menu included bread stuffing and mashed potatoes. The starchy dessert was hardly touched.

Assuming I still wanted to serve bread pudding for dessert, how would you have adjusted the menu so as to have people excited by it rather than disappointed?

Thanksgiving dinners are tough to plan, especially when you want to get creative. What with all the food traditions one has to deal with, it can get tricky when you try to add something new.

I think if you switched to a stuffing that was not bread based, the bread pudding wouldn't seem like such a duplication. I once made a Cajun-style Thanksgiving dinner from one of the food magazines that called for a rice and sausage stuffing reminiscent of jambalaya -- maybe something like that would get people more interested in the bread pudding for dessert.

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Jinmyo   
Do you think there's a place for extremes that go directly against the grain? For example, 10 courses of mushrooms.

You did that at Craft, didn't you?

I certainly think that occasional menus designed around single theme ingredients can be fun.

But then I like Iron Chef.

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Hal MacGee wrote somewhere that the brain gets fatigued easily with a taste sensation and "switches off" to some extent, reducing the intensity of the flavour. If true, is this something one should vector into a menu design?

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JAZ   
Do you think there's a place for extremes that go directly against the grain? For example, 10 courses of mushrooms.

I think the "rules" can always be broken successfully, if the cook is talented enough to pull it off. Sometimes the dinner is all the more striking and delicious exactly because it does break the rules.

But it takes more skill than most home cooks have (more than I have, certainly). One trap that home cooks can fall into, I think, is to try to do the sort of menus they read about or eat at high-end restaurants. So they read about a 10-course mushroom tasting menu at (for purposes of discussion) French Laundry, and think "that sounds great -- I'll try it." All I can say is either consult with Thomas Keller and enlist his help, or don't do it.

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JAZ   
Hal MacGee wrote somewhere that the brain gets fatigued easily with a taste sensation and "switches off" to some extent, reducing the intensity of the flavour. If true, is this something one should vector into a menu design?

That's exactly true, and it should be factored into menu planning. In my example with the cream-heavy menu (cream of mushroom soup, caesar salad, chicken with a cream sauce, polenta enriched with butter and cheese), that's what happened, and it was very deadening to the palate.

All of our senses respond better to changes in stimuli than they do to a constant; it's no different with the sense of taste. I'm not sure if this is the only reason that "small plates" and tasting menus are so popular, but I'm sure it plays a part.

On the other hand, as I mentioned in the class material, it's easy to take that to extremes and forget to keep some continutiy in the meal. So it's all about balance.

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slkinsey   

What are your thoughts about organizing a menu around a central theme?

I, for example, like the idea of "a journey through the fifth quarter." Perhaps starting with tripe in tomato sauce, then some chicken liver quenelles in broth, then some rigatoni with intestines and mint, then maybe a few pieces of head cheese with a tart little salad, then sauteed sweetbreads... That kind of thing.

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Nice discussion of an often-overlooked topic.

You didn't touch much on the use of color in menu planning, though I note that the two menus at the end of the lesson were quite colorful.

It's on my mind because recently, I made the following menu:

- Watermelon-orange salad with citrus vinaigrette and red onion garnish

- Spice-rubbed filet of salmon with rioja reduction

- Polenta (a modest amount of blue cheese instead of the usual parmesan)

It was intended to be served family style, but due to an influx of teenagers, ended up as a buffet. I had set out salad plates, but teenage boys being teenage boys, they were ignored, and the salad went on the plate with everything else. As the filled plates went by, I was astounded at the colors: a study in the red-yellow corner of the spectrum, with great contrasts in the watercress and mint in the salad. I was unexpectedly impressed with myself.

Do you find that paying attention to texture and taste usually results in a pleasing range of colors, or do you find it necessary to plan for this, too?

(The polenta was a mistake, but that's another question.)

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(The polenta was a mistake, but that's another question.)

Spound.

(Sounds like a really pretty plate, Archie.)

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JAZ   
What are your thoughts about organizing a menu around a central theme?

I, for example, like the idea of "a journey through the fifth quarter."  Perhaps starting with tripe in tomato sauce, then some chicken liver quenelles in broth, then some rigatoni with intestines and mint, then maybe a few pieces of head cheese with a tart little salad, then sauteed sweetbreads...  That kind of thing.

It can work, with a lot of thought and care.

The thing about themes is that they're so often psychological rather than gustatory. And the success of that sort of theme depends a lot on your guests understanding and buying into it. In your example, the food itself is just too much -- it's, um, very challenging; it's very strongly flavored; and it's very eclectic. Some continuity is crucial. Yes, your theme provides that, but your guests really have to "get" the theme or there's nothing there but a bunch of dishes.

Another problem I have with this sort of psychological theme is that it's often a made-up theme that's slapped on after the dishes are chosen to disguise the lack of gustatory coherence of the menu (not yours, of course :cool: ).

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JAZ   

Menu Critique

Menus submitted by Byrdhouse

1  A Savory North Coast Winter Breakfast

Bloody Marys

Lemon-garlic cured olives

*  *  *

Humboldt salmon tartare

Poached egg

Caesar mayonnaise

Onion-dill croustades

*  *  *

Winter squash and macadamia-nut tart

Lemon-curd creme fraisch

French-press coffee

I really don' t have any suggestions for this one, except to say that the Bloody Marys might overpower the food in the second course. It's hard to say without knowing more about the tart, but it sounds like it might be on the more subtle side. Maybe you'd want to start with the Bloodys before brunch and with the first course, then switch to sparkling wine.

2  A Street Food Supper

Paddlefish caviar, on

Nancy's Sour Cream, on

toasted baguette rounds

Rain vodka

*    *    *

Carnitas, with pico de gallo, on

hand-made flour tortillas

Baked cannellini beans with basil-oregano pesto, on

whole-wheat slices

Lamb khorma, with lime-pickle and yoghurt, on

hand-made Indian fried bread

Selected local micro-brewery ales

*    *    *

Pecan shortbread cookies

Homemade raspberry cordial

The idea of doing "international" dinners can be difficult to execute. They always sound great, but I find that in practice they can be a bit disconcerting to the palate. I think this might work, but I would serve the carnitas, beans, and lamb sequentially rather than all at once. It would give the palate a little more of a break, since the three dishes are all strongly flavored and fairly rich.

Finally, because they are all so rich and flavorful, how about a lemon or lime sorbet before (or with) the cookies and cordial? That might serve to refresh the palate and cut through the richness.

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JAZ   

Menu Critique

Menu submitted by Jackal10

This may be over the top for the egci needs, but a gourmet friend requests a grand Scottish feast late September. "Dinner for an Auld Acquaintance", as the poet has it.

Amuse 1: <things with drinks>

-- Finnan haddy fritters or choux

- Potato scones w/fish eggs or marinated herring

- Shot glass: mock turtle consomme

-

Amuse 2: Peat Smoked salmon, cucumber jelly, dill foam

Amuse 3: Oyster grantinee

4. Soup: Cock a leekie (chicken and leek)

5. Fish: [scotch Salmon/Chips/mayo]

6. Interlude: salad greens/ toasted cheese/wild mushrooms

7. The Haggis /Chappit Neeps/Bashed Tatties

8. Interlude: Sorbet (whisky/chocolate)

9. Meat: Saddle of Venison/red cabbage/Cumberland sauce/pommes dauphinoise

10. Desert 1: Heather honey ice cream/ port jelly / shortbread

11 Cheese Oatcakes Celery

12. Desert 2: Cranachan/Athol Brose (Raspberries/Cream/toasted oatmeal)

13 Savoury: "Scotch Woodcock" (scrambled eggs/anchovy)

14. Coffee, petit four, Whisky

Not sure about the potatoes with the venison. France and Scotland form did form the "Auld Alliance"

I would definitely not do the potatoes dauphin with the venison; in fact, I think I would just serve the venison with the cabbage. You've already got potatoes in two courses, and overall, it's a heavy menu. I doubt the potatoes will be missed.

Beginning at the top, I would drop the mock turtle consomme from the first amuse. Since you're planning to serve that amuse trio with drinks, I don't think a soup is a good match. I'm assuming that you'll be standing around, and not at table, for this course, so from a practical point of view, it's too many glasses to juggle. And it just somehow doesn't seem to me to fit in with the other two components.

I've seen recipes for cock-a-leekie soup that are cream enriched and some that are not. Given the richness of the following course (the salmon and chips), I'd stick with a non-enriched version.

I'm not sure how well the chocolate and whisky sorbet would work as an interlude between the haggis and the venison. You've got a lot of flavors going on in both the preceding and the following courses, and both courses are quite heavy. I think you need something lighter -- a cucumber/lemon sorbet, instead? Maybe even infused with dill? It would be reminiscent of the second amuse, but not, I think, in a bad way.

Is the savory after the desserts a Scottish thing? (I really don't know -- sorry). I'm not sure why it's there.

And finally, I realize you're planning a big feast, but do be careful not to go overboard. As it stands, you're on the brink of stimulating the palate a little too much, so, if anything, pull back, either on the number of courses, or the complexity of some of the individual courses.

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JAZ   
You didn't touch much on the use of color in menu planning, though I note that the two menus at the end of the lesson were quite colorful.

-

Do you find that paying attention to texture and taste usually results in a pleasing range of colors, or do you find it necessary to plan for this, too?

Yes, the visual aspect of the plate is something that definitely requires attention (shame on me for not including that in my class material). Thanks for bringing it up.

I think that if you pay attention to variety in flavors and textures, color usually comes along for the ride. I remember reading an article from some women's magazine from the 60's about choosing accompaniments for main dishes. It gave something like the following example: chicken with a cream sauce, mashed potatoes and boiled cauliflower, and went on to talk about adding some color to the plate. Now obviously it's a very monochromatic plate, but that's not the main problem. The bigger problem is that there's very little variety in flavor and texture. If you add some crunchy vegetables to the plate or minced herbs to the sauce, you'll not only make it more interesting from the gustatory side, but you'll get the color as an add-on.

Still, it's good to visualize how the food is going to look on the plate.

However, there's a danger in thinking about it too much -- I don't think elements should ever be added to a plate just because of their color. Think of the dreaded sprig of parsley we all grew up seeing on every plate in fancy restaurants. And there was a tendency among some chefs, which fortunately seems to have passed, to sprinkle everything (plate and all) with chopped herbs or little squiggles of sauce that didn't have anything to do with the rest of the dish.

So, yes, think about the color, but don't lose sight of the flavor. Thankfully there's a wide variety of colors in the foods we eat, so you should always be able to come up with a combination that looks great and tastes good.

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Just one comment on the closing of the proposed Scottish feast.

In some dining circles in the UK the cheese or savoury comes after the sweet, a sacrilege to those accustomed to the French order of things, which puts cheese before sweet

It would seem eccentric in the extreme to have two full cycles : sweet-savoury-sweet-savoury. I have sometimes been served in the following order:

- dessert 1

- dessert 2

- savoury (anchovy toast, cheese, etc.)

- coffee

- chocolates

or, more rarely, the savoury arriving after a pause following the coffee.

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jackal10   

It depends on the wine.

In France, the cheese is served after the main course to provide something to finish the main course wine with. On the whole, except in Paris, only the wine of the district would be served.

In England, in the old days, the cheese (or savoury) is to go with the port or Claret for the gentlemen after dinner (followed by cigars), while the ladies retired to eat sweetmeats.


Edited by jackal10 (log)

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Bux   

I've only learned recently of the custom of serving cheese after dessert and it seemed odd then and odder still that it might actually be any savory course after dessert. There are wonderful dessert wines that can finish off a meal, including port with a chocolate dessert. I'm much more inclined to stick with the French on this, but it's hard to argue with local traditions.

Local regard for the concept of a "proper" menu varies as well. Americans are far more likely to throw a dinner together with less regard for the composite whole, than are most Europeans and certainly the French, or so my experiences lead me to believe. There has been at least one thread here that focused on learning how to eat at the hands of a French waiter. Many of us were able to relate incidences of being told by a waiter in France that we had ordered poorly and how that waiter improved our meals by making suggestions of a first course that would compliment our main courses for instance rather than letting us, as novice diners in France, choose poorly. There was never a question in the minds of the contributors to that thread that any of the waiters acted out of turn, or didn't know his place. We were all grateful for what we considered an introductory lesson to the art of dining.

I have one question for Janet regarding "continuity rules." It would seem to me that having a summery salad followed by a "wintery" stew with root vegetables may well be a bit jarring, but rather than matching the dishes to each other, I would feel the need to match both dishes to the current season. Do you agree or disagree and to what extent?

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JAZ   
I have one question for Janet regarding "continuity rules." It would seem to me that having a summery salad followed by a "wintery" stew with root vegetables may well be a bit jarring, but rather than matching the dishes to each other, I would feel the need to match both dishes to the current season. Do you agree or disagree and to what extent?

Yes, I do agree, for the most part, and I probably should have made that point explicitly in the course material.

I do think that in certain circumstances you can successfully serve dishes that are "out of season." Living in San Francisco, for example, we can't always count on "summer" weather during the summer months. Sometimes, even in the middle of July, it'll be so foggy and cold that a nice stew seems like just the thing. It's not so much that I'd serve vegetables that are completely out of season, but rather that I'll serve a dish that feels more like winter.

But those are rather rare circumstances. Usually it's best to go with the actual season.

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futronic   

I'm having my neighbours over on Monday evening for a long-weekend dinner and am perplexed about what to do for an appetizer. They love my bruschetta, and have asked me to make that for them, but I would prefer to mix it up a little bit for them. Here's what I was thinking:

Grilled vegetable (zucchini and yellow squash) napoleon with creme fraiche and chevre

Filet mignon with green peppercorn/cognac/cream sauce, grilled radicchio, blanched haricots sauteed in butter

Assorted cheeses (Will likely stick to hard cheeses such as parmigiano-reggiano and peccorino)

Fruit pie brought by my neighbours, maybe strawberry-rhubarb

Now, should I make bruschetta instead of the veggie napoleon, make both, or just stick with the plan? I just don't see how the tomatoes would work in the progression of dishes, going from acidic to a real savoury dish with the filet.

Any input on flow would be appreciated.

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JAZ   
I'm having my neighbours over on Monday evening for a long-weekend dinner and am perplexed about what to do for an appetizer.  They love my bruschetta, and have asked me to make that for them, but I would prefer to mix it up a little bit for them.  Here's what I was thinking:

Grilled vegetable (zucchini and yellow squash) napoleon with creme fraiche and chevre

Filet mignon with green peppercorn/cognac/cream sauce, grilled radicchio, blanched haricots sauteed in butter

Assorted cheeses (Will likely stick to hard cheeses such as parmigiano-reggiano and peccorino)

Fruit pie brought by my neighbours, maybe strawberry-rhubarb

Now, should I make bruschetta instead of the veggie napoleon, make both, or just stick with the plan?  I just don't see how the tomatoes would work in the progression of dishes, going from acidic to a real savoury dish with the filet.

Any input on flow would be appreciated.

I can't see that the bruschetta would clash with the rest of the menu (I assume that you're thinking of a pretty traditional tomato topped variety?). In fact, a bit of acidity might be just the thing to set up the palate for the richer courses that follow.

If the napoleans are to be served as a plated first course, I would think that you could present a smaller version of the bruschetta as a sort of amuse before or just after you're seated.

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futronic   

Sounds like a plan. Thanks for the advice JAZ. I'll likely serve a sparkling wine with the amuse and first course then and move onto a full-bodied red for the main and cheese. It should work out nicely.

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JAZ, I see that you have recommended Culinary Artistry as a good book to learn more on the subject. What's your opinion of The Elements of Taste by Peter Gray?

PS Great eGCI course-thanks!

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