Monday, January 25, 2010

Cycles of Cool

Like fashion, food has a varying cool factor. Giant plates, towering constructions, tiny servings, set menus, no menus, share plates. Like acid-wash denim and shoulder pads, what is ‘in’ comes and goes. Sun-dried tomatoes were the new black, then semi-dried, then fresh, then heirloom*. Tomato sorbet, tomato powder, tomato foam.

My aunt recently complained that you rarely see cheesecake for dessert in restaurants anymore. Sure, it’s in cafes and supermarket freezers, but somehow it’s just not cool enough for places with tablecloths. On the other hand, once considered the domain of the children’s table, selections of ice-creams and gelati are appearing back on menus, at adult prices.

The prosciutto melon antipasto staple of, well, Italy since the Roman Empire, and the early 1980s everywhere else, has experienced a long and unjustified exile from the tables of the cool. More justifiably shunned is the shrimp/mango combination of the 90s, pineapple and ham in any combination (yes, including on pizza), fish with passionfruit sauce. Possibly the direst example of this is any salad featuring tinned fruit and/or tinned fish/meat. Like acid wash denim and leggings, some things will never, ever be cool in my book. Pairing fruit with meat is a risky and slightly naff thing to do.

And then, resurgence – the Moroccan tagine (my favourite combinations include lamb with both dried and fresh pears), Vietnamese green papaya salad with mackerel, Indian curries with pickle and Thai green mango salad with prawns or pork or chicken. Never really on the agenda, and therefore never really off it, are the placeholders like roast pork and applesauce, turkey with cranberry, ham and chutney.

I think that one of the things I find difficult about fruit and meat combination is that the sweetness of fruit, especially when cooked, can be cloying – far too sugary for my tastebuds’ savoury expectations. So the sweetness would need to balance with salt and sour and sharp – which is what the Thai and Moroccan and Indian fruit/meat combinations achieve so well. Something also achieved so perfectly with the Italian melon wrapped in prosciutto served with dry prosecco. The problem is – whilst it tastes great, it still sounds so uncool**.

Which completes the cycle – can it ever be cool? Modern, European inspired cooking that features fruit alongside protein? The answer is yes - in the hands of the masters. One example – Thomas Keller, genius behind the French Laundry, includes on the current tasting menu combinations including foie gras with apple relish; clams with pomegranate and rabbit with apricots***.

So I think maybe it’s ok to experiment a little with meat and fruit (if Thomas Keller is doing it, it must be cool). Besides which, I adore fruit. Especially summer fruit. Especially stone fruit. I have a theory that if you stick to what is in season, then pretty much everything you pick will go with everything else (this is also kind of like my approach to fashion, which is: providing everything in your wardrobe would be worn by Audrey Hepburn, then everything will go with everything. Frequently not on trend, but always approaching stylish).

And since I’m rushing headlong into what might be the kitchen equivalent of being a fashion tragic, I might as well add the culinary leg-warmers to my ra-ra skirt, in the form of roasted red capsicum. The cycle is complete.

* on this, I have a theory that people in Italy laughed at us the whole way through this experience – sun-dried and semi dried tomatoes traditionally being a way to preserve the abundance of summer over winter. Necessity and commonsense, not a fad.

** Also, devils on horseback. Dried prunes, wrapped in bacon (bacon, not something fancy like jamon) and then grilled until crispy. I recently went to friend’s place to play cluedo and consumed an entire plate of these. Which probably firmly establishes once and for all where I sit on the cool-uncool scale.

*** The fruit / seafood combination is one that I expected would never, ever, be made to work (except in limited, Asian inspired combinations, where I think the presence of ginger and/or chilli makes everything magical). However, a restaurant I am remarkable fond of serves an entré of smoked trout and thinly sliced nectarine and salmon roe, which is sweet and salty and altogether lovely.

Turkey and peach salad with roasted red peppers*

Peaches and capsicums are abundant in the market at the moment – the fennel is
not properly in season yet, but I craved the aniseed crunch to complete this flavour combination. On reflection, finely shaved celery tossed with toasted fennel seeds would be an excellent substitute and would keep the ingredients to fruit and vegetables at the height of their summer perfection.

2 for main course or 4 as an appetiser

2 yellow peaches (note that slip-stone peaches will be easier)
2 white peaches
1 red onion
1 red capsicum
1 small bulb fennel
Balsamic vinegar
Olive oil
1 ½ cups shredded cooked turkey (I slowly braised a 1 kg rolled turkey breast in the oven in white wine and verjuice for about 45 minutes, then rested it for 15 minutes. Smoked chicken or roast duck would also work)

Cut the peaches in half, slip out the stone, and then slice finely. Finely mince half the red onion. Combine with the peaches, gently toss with olive oil and balsamic vinegar until coated, season with sea salt. Set aside to marinate.

Roast the capsicum whole at 180ºC for about half and hour, until the skin is starting to blacken. Remove and allow to cool. When cool enough to touch, pull out the stalk and slip the skin off. This is very messy. Finely slice the capsicum.

Finely mince the remaining ½ onion, toss with strips of capsicum, olive oil and balsamic vinegar and sea salt.

Finely slice the fennel (you could use a mandolin). Toss with olive oil, balsamic vinegar and sea salt.

Arrange the peach slices on a plate, lay strips of capsicum on top, then place shredded turkey and carefully pile shaved fennel on top.

* With much drawn from Thomas Keller’s ‘Salad of Black Mission Figs with Roasted Sweet Peppers and Shaved Fennel’ in the French Laundry Cookbook

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