I’ve cooked for a long time, and I’m pretty familiar with many of the basic techniques in the book (roasting, braising, etc), but I realized it’s really tough to create new cooking experiences for yourself without some guidance to do so. Recipes can help, but they don’t really encourage the mindset that allows you to expand your creativity. That is what Think Like a Chef does.
I approached the ideas enthusiastically – maybe too much so. I tend to cook things I am comfortable with, old favorites and familiar ingredients. While I improvise now and then (Mike says I can never follow instructions), I am practiced at following recipes, enough so that I can improvise. But that is still following a recipe. Colicchio’s book took me out of that, and it was definitely worthwhile because this is not just another recipe book — it’s about how to approach cooking creatively.
I may have started a bit too ambitiously. I wanted to make fish, so his Pan-Roasted Fish recipe looked doable.
I needed something on the side (normally I would probably just make some rice and a vegetable, but I was trying to be more creative), so I decided to take his advice and find some things that seemed to go together, in this case, Spring/Summer vegetables, with only a loose idea of what to do with them.
Surprisingly, walking into a store and picking out items to “build a dish” and also to try some new things was a bit bewildering (especially since Mike doesn’t like asparagus, and neither one of us likes brussel sprouts, both of which are out now). I ended up getting ramps, which I know about, and some Hen of the Woods Mushrooms – because they were the only wild mushrooms Wegman’s had. I had cherry tomatoes on the shelf back home that had been sitting there getting ripe, and so I figured I would roast those. The mushrooms were the only unknown, but I liked the looks of them.
I went to our local fresh fish place and picked up two six-ounce pieces of Halibut.
From the get-go, this was new for me, since I never would have considered having mushrooms with fish, but TLAC has a recipe that puts mushrooms with scallops, so I thought, why not with Halibut? The ramps gave me something green and garlicky (and familiar. The tomatoes were an impulse – some color, and something acidic – and Colicchio talked a lot about roasted tomatoes, which are also one of my favorite things.
The actual cooking was, to say the least, chaotic. I made a mess. I would go so far as to say I was completely flustered, and I can’t remember the last time that happened. It was not fun, but like that rollercoaster ride you are terrified of the first time, when it’s done, you want to go again.
I apologized a lot to Mike, though the meal came out fine (maybe even better than fine), and I still am a bit embarrassed to post the picture of the final plate, because as usually happens, you can see all the stuff you should have done after the fact.
But guess what? That’s called learning.
I’d forgotten how uncomfortable it can be, yet really worth it.
The thing is, I got really lucky – this dinner turned out very tasty, and my fish, I will say, was cooked perfectly. Really, really delicious fish.
It’s another sign that regardless of watching every season of Top Chef, I was too stressed and had no idea how to put this stuff on the plate, so I completely buried that gorgeous Halibut under all the vegetables! But this is our home, not a restaurant, so you know…no one told me to pack my knives and leave. (Next time, I would put the fish on the vegetables, and chop the tomatoes and put those on top).
Probably the most stressful part of cooking the meal was trying to figure out how sauces worked into it all – I tried a Beurre Fondue for the vegetables, and then a Buerre Blanc because it’s supposed to be good with fish. Guess what? It’s not a good idea to get these two things going at the same time. I can make great tomato sauce and Bechamel, etc — but this butter sauce thing was all new (Mike wants to learn sauces, and I am happy about that).
My theory was that with the water in the fondue, the ramps could poach and soften and get a buttery flavor. While it didn’t follow the recipe, when they were tender, I planned to let the water evaporate and then add the mushrooms so they could roast briefly in the remaining butter. The Beurre Blanc would be for the plate and the fish. For the most part, this plan worked. Well, sort of.
I started the Beurre Blanc, but was so frizzled by too many things going on that that I ended up thinking why have two butter sauces? So, I dumped the simmering base of the Beurre Blanc (wine/vinegar/shallots) into the fondue with the ramps. After adding the mushrooms, I took it off the stove, put them in a separate bowl, and then planned to roast the fish in the same pan so it would get some of those flavors. In the end, this ended up being delicious, but clearly a sauce fail (you can see it broke quite dramatically, though it still tasted great).
Then, the fish. I added peanut oil, as instructed, dried, salted and peppered the fish and put it in the pan – which is supposed to sizzle not sputter, and mine was sputtering. I turned the heat down. Following the directions in the book, the fish cooked very nicely, but I learned yet another lesson.
The fillets the store had pre-cut looked nice, but they were hard to cook. They were about 1” thick, but cut long, so I was trying to stand them up on the skin side, which wasn’t easy. They kept falling over, and the skin didn’t cook. Next time, I will ask for 3-4” square cuts (flat, with one flat side having skin), not long ones. The long ones were impossible to turn, and fell apart, which was unavoidable. We ended up with large chunks of fish on th plate.
Also, I think while cooking it in the same pan (my usual cast iron) was a good notion, next time I would use a larger pan, maybe not cast iron, I’m not sure. It got too hot.
In the end, however, the fish, though you can’t see it, was amazing. Maybe some of the best fish I’ve ever had (certainly the best fish I have ever cooked) and the mushrooms were heaven with it.
The soft, delicate Hen of the Woods were the reason for that – I opted to pluck the feathers from the base and it ended up being a good decision. But now fish with mushroom is something I want to explore more.
Now I am intrigued with – and even more respectful of – this process of thinking like a chef. I haven’t felt “over my head” in a long time (and so thankful I didn’t wreck $30 of fish).
Tom Colicchio’s Think Like a Chef has recipes and you can just follow them, but that’s not what the heart of the book is about – it’s about trying new things and stretching – and maybe even over-stretching a bit.
I appreciate Think Like a Chef because it’s a cookbook, but it’s also a set of lesson plans to learn how to create things and how to think about food differently .
I also appreciate that this first exercise made me try something (well, several things) I never would have before — and I can’t tell you how much I love those Hen of the Woods mushrooms. They make other mushrooms pale in comparison. They are everything a mushroom should be. Tom talks about creative process in that one idea turns to dozens – it’s true – I keep thinking about how I can use those mushrooms (ravioli, toast, soups, sliced thick and roasted instead of plucked, etc).
So, in short, whether you are a new cook or an experienced one, Think Like a Chef will help you get out of your comfort zone if you truly take the lessons to heart. It may almost be easier for people who are new to cooking than those of us with well-worn habits.
The final take: If you want to expand your mind and your cooking, get this book and jump in.
Don’t be afraid to be uncomfortable — you might end up with something truly delicious.