Down East 2013 ©
How does someone create a new recipe?
In a given year, working on cookbooks, magazine articles, and this blog, I write hundreds of new recipes and am often asked a logical question: Where do my ideas come from?
Sometimes I’m inspired by a dish on a restaurant menu, or one I see in a magazine or newspaper. But more often it happens in a market. I’ll be in the fish store and see really fresh filet of sole. Then at the vegetable market there will be fennel and I’ll think: what if I thinly slice the fennel and roast it and use it as a topping for sautéed sole?
I also dream about food more often than I’d like to admit. Early in the morning I wake up and grab a pen and paper to jot down the dream. It sounds strange, I know, but recipes sometimes come to me in full form. I see the dish, on a specific plate, with a specific garnish, and when I get to the kitchen I somehow know exactly how to replicate it.
But most recipes come to me during waking hours. Take, for example, the salad I made last weekend: Roasted Beets with Winter Greens, Toasted Pistachios, Feta, and Meyer Lemon Vinaigrette. The title is a mouthful, I know, but the dish is delicious.
This winter I joined a local C.S.A. I’m a gardener with a large vegetable and flower garden, so I’ve never considered joining a C.S.A before. Community Supported Agriculture, for those unfamiliar with the term, is buying a share in a local farm. You are given a portion of the harvest each week. It’s a great way to support small local farms and get incredibly fresh locally-grown food. A winter C.S.A. sounded like an improbable idea in Maine. But twice a month I pick up a plain brown grocery bag filled with amazing food. Last week I found a dozen eggs, a bag of micro greens and baby spinach (grown in the farm’s greenhouse) and a gorgeous assortment of root vegetables including beets, potatoes, winter squash, carrots, Jerusalem artichokes, and parsnips. The root vegetables were harvested in late fall and kept in a root cellar to last the winter.
Here’s where the recipe was born. The beets — pink, red, and a deep golden mustard color — called out to me. It sounds dramatic, I know, but that’s how it is for a food writer. We see certain foods — the way a painter is attracted to certain paints or materials — and we get ideas. I grabbed a piece of foil, wrapped the beets tightly and put them in a hot oven to roast. An hour later the kitchen was filled with a sweet, earthy aroma. I peeled the tender, roasted beets and cut them into thin slices and tossed them with just a touch of olive oil and balsamic vinegar to keep them moist.
Friends were coming to dinner and I wanted a substantial salad to serve with the local fish and C.S.A. potatoes I planned on cooking. (For the record, the haddock was roasted on top of paper-thin slices of purple-tinged potatoes and topped with chopped cherry tomatoes, pitted black olives, capers, lemon juice, and the few leaves of fresh basil that have managed to survive on my window sill.)
I placed the mixed greens in a large terra cotta salad bowl. (The right plate is crucial for a cook. Choosing the right bowl or plate—with the right shape and color and feel — has a huge impact on how the food looks and how it all comes together.) I pushed the greens to the side and placed the marinated beets in the center. The salad was dark with red-tinged greens and the pink, yellow, and red the beets, but it still needed some lightness and texture. I opened the freezer and spotted almonds and walnuts. They would do, but I didn’t feel a spark. Just as I was about the settle on the slivered almonds, I discovered a small packet of shelled pistachios left over from my holiday baking frenzy — the cookie of choice this holiday season was pistachio and chocolate-dipped biscotti. I grabbed the nuts and toasted them in a dry skillet until I could smell their nuttiness. I scattered the warm nuts around the outside of the salad. Next I wanted something creamy. I found a chunk of blue cheese, but decided blue would overwhelm the delicate greens. There was also a block of creamy Greek feta. Perfect. I crumbled the white cheese over the salad greens and beets and knew I was almost there. Bitter greens. Earthy sweet roasted beets. Crunchy pistachios and creamy white feta. I made a quick vinaigrette by whisking a touch of Dijon mustard, sea salt, and freshly ground black pepper. I didn’t want a strongly-flavored vinegar that might overwhelm the fresh greens. I had one lone Meyer lemon in my fruit bowl; it would provide the perfect acidity—lightly sweet with a hints of orange and lemon and whisked it up with some good olive oil.
My salad was done. Or was it? I wanted one more element, sometime to lighten it up and balance out all the flavors, colors, and textures. Sitting on my kitchen counter was a crate of Spanish clementines. I peeled two, cut them into sections, and cut each section into a small one-inch piece. Scattered over the greens, beets, nuts, and feta they glistened like little orange jewels. I poured the lemony vinaigrette on top, heated up a loaf of crusty bread, took the fish and potatoes out of the hot oven, and dinner was served. February, suddenly, felt a whole lot sweeter. And, a new recipe was born.
Kathy Gunst is a cookbook author and the award-winning "Resident Chef" for WBUR's Here and Now (heard on over 60 public radio stations). Her newest books, Stonewall Kitchen Breakfast and Stonewall Kitchen Winter Celebrations will be published by Chronicle Books in September 2009.