There is nothing more satisfying than creation. To take knowledge, skills, and imagination and from them synthesize something that hadn’t existed before is an extraordinarily precious experience. When it works it’s even better.
Creation can take place at the level of interpretation, as a musician interprets a Chopin nocturne or James Taylor song. It can occur at the level of Chopin or James Taylor taking raw ingredients and assembling them in new ways. Sometimes it even takes place at the level of an Albert Einstein or a chef like Ferrán Adrià and produces a fundamentally new way of looking at the commonplace.
As a cook and one-time musician, I’m much more likely to interpret someone else’s work than create my own. But sometimes, I do manage to work at a more imaginative level. I don’t claim, even as a cook, to operate at the level of a James Taylor, much less a Chopin. The culinary ideas of Daniel Boulud — and the skills and knowledge and imagination he brings to his ideas — are as far beyond my poor talents as Einstein’s equations. Yet, why should Boulud have all the fun?
I was cleaning my refrigerator the other day and realized I needed to finish off the last of the pork confit I’d made a month or so ago. Confit has a long shelf-life, but it’s not infinite. What should I do with it?
The first and most critical decision I made was to do something different. Something I hadn’t heard of. It didn’t have to be completely unimagined by someone else, the idea simply had to be my own initially. My approach in such a case is to spend some time actively thinking about the problem, then park it in the back of my head for a day or three. I’ve learned to trust my ability to do background processing. Some part of my brain, once suitably focused, would take the problem to the next level, and I’d check back later to see what it had come up with.
When I returned to the question, I found the solution appeared to be Pork Confit Ravioli. Hmm, I’d certainly never heard of that. This confit has a really potent flavor and more than about three ounces will rip your head off. The pasta would tone it down some and would probably stand up, in its own way, quite nicely against it. But a chunk of confit in a pasta envelope isn’t really a dish, and perhaps another idea would occur to me. So after a bit more conscious thought, I shoved it to the back burner again.
Revisiting the idea a couple of days later, the answer was still ravioli and rummaging around in the back of my head I found that pairing it with goat cheese was part of the mix.
At this point it was time to bring the problem to the front of my head and start thinking consciously instead of subconsciously. The pasta still made sense because it would tone down the intensely flavored confit somewhat. Also, the more I though about it the more sense using a goat cheese (chèvre) made. These are typically piquant cheeses and the tartness would be a good foil for the saltiness of the confit, not toning it down, but making it less prominent.
But what else? Nothing except an egg for binding the filling is required, but at this point the dish is the culinary equivalent of a Chopin melody line. It will be compelling whatever else I do, but surely adding some chords would make it more aesthetically appealing.
A bit of sweet might be good. The five tastes are sweet, bitter, sour, salty and savory (umami). The pork provides salty and savory, the chèvre, sour. Something sweet would make four out of five in one dish. As a Southerner, fruit immediately occurred to me: apples, peaches, apricots — we love pork and fruit. But I recalled that Vidalia onions are in season. They’re an exceptionally sweet variety that’s grown in a soil that promotes their natural tendency toward sweetness. Add a touch of seasoning and the filling should work.
Moving on to the sauce, one of my first thoughts was a mushroom sauce. This would accentuate the savory character of the dish, and add a number of complex flavors that would, nevertheless be interpreted as a single flavor. It would appear to the diner’s mind as a single flavor while hiding great depth. Shallots instead of onions, for the sauce, thyme because (mushrooms love thyme), and white wine to add acidity (sourness).
The dish was planned. I would write out a “recipe” in advance and then, as I cooked it, I would taste and sniff and tweak it to get it right, taking notes.
Creation isn’t easy. According to reports even God spent 6 days at it and then needed a break. Coming up with a fresh menu for a family every night terrifies me. And yet, when creation is approached not as a task but a pleasure it can seem effortless. You have to trust yourself, you have to be willing to take the time needed, and you have to be Ok with screwing up and failing. You don’t need a recipe. Create.