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I am often asked ... about how I approach my pairings, where I get my inspirations, and what my thought processes are. I recently had the opportunity to conceive and prepare a five–course prix fixe tasting dinner at Jimmy's #43, a craft beer bar and restaurant in New York's East Village. The occasion was April, which at Jimmy's is the inspiration for April Sours month - a celebration of sours, Lambics, and wild ferments. As I was working on the menu I made it a part of the process to be mindful in order to write this blog.

Preamble (With A Focus on The Amble)

Apart from having to incorporate sour beers, the only other limitations I faced were practical ones: everything needed to be prepared in Jimmy's (small) kitchen and even though the menu would be limited, dinner service was still going to be happening as we were preparing and plating the special menu.

There is also the consideration of ingredients costs, which I needed to keep in line with the number of people I was asked to prepare for - 30 - and the price being charged. Then there is always the fun of cooking in a foreign kitchen and plating for upwards of 30 people in the middle of regular dinner service. Plus, there is the basic desire to serve dishes that fit the oeuvre of Jimmy's and that could (and might) show up on the regular menu.

Finally, there is the logistics of preparation itself. I would be cooking in a working kitchen during service and couldn't command all of the space and all of the cooking surfaces. Therefore, on top of everything else, I would have to consider the timing of prep and what I could get done in advance. Techniques would need to be simple and accommodate the limitations of the kitchen - a small flattop, four electric burners, a full-sized, three-pan convection oven, and a buffet warmer. Thankfully, I would be able to call on the services of two of the chefs - David and Michael - who worked in the kitchen daily and who could take care of some of the more routine tasks while I concentrated on the non-standard items.

On To The Food!

With all the above in mind, my approach - in general - is to look for an anchoring dish that would act as the point of departure for the rest of the menu. Being a chocolate guy, I naturally wanted cocoa or chocolate to be in every, or almost every, dish. Working from the concept that, "Life is short, eat dessert first," that's where I started thinking about the menu.

At the Chicago Fine Chocolate Festival last November, I was introduced to a Lambic from Lindeman's. Most people know their raspberry Lambic but this one was called Faro and is made with Belgian candy sugar (which is caramelized). The flavor profile starts off with the caramel, quickly changes to green apple/unripe pear, and ends up on a distinctly sour note. I paired the beer with a Callebaut milk chocolate, and the combination reminded everyone of a chocolate-covered, caramel apple - a Granny Smith apple specifically.

Using that pairing as inspiration, and thinking that the dessert would be paired with the Faro, I was in familiar territory because I had a clear taste memory of the Faro with milk chocolate. Musing on this pairing I came up with the idea of roasting apple cubes tossed in cinnamon sugar (punning on confetti I referred to these apple cubes on the menu as "confitti") and serving them with vanilla bean ice cream and a salted milk chocolate burned butter caramel. My presentation concept was to put a ring mold in the center of a plate, put down a layer of the apple confitti, put the vanilla ice cream on top of that, remove the ring mold, scatter some confitti on the plate, and drizzle caramel all over the top.

First course done - dessert. Yay!

Now it was time to think about the menu overall and see how dessert would influence the rest of the courses, which were:

Amuse
Salad
Small plate
Mains
(Dessert)

Bookend The Meal - The Amuse

If I am going to be ending with fruit, why not start out with fruit? But which one? Raspberries and orange are pretty cliche when it comes to pairing with chocolate and not obvious for starting a dinner. Reaching into my Eastern European ancestry on my father's side of my family I was thinking of a cold soup as a starter. Not beets but … cherries. Cherries go with chocolate. Sour cherries. Sour cherry soup. (Okay, so we're going to be all over the map on this dinner; no cuisine theming.) Right. Cherry soup is easy to make, and the base can be made in advance, and there are dry cherry Lambics - so the pairing is obvious and easy.

But, how to incorporate chocolate into cherry soup? The recipes I found all call for sour cream as an ingredient and also for garnishing with more sour cream. Sprinkle nibs over the top. Might look nice, the contrast of the nibs over the sour cream. But I think that sprinkling nibs is lazy. Been there, done that. Do I need to go there again? Hmmmm.

What if I do some dairy swapping and replace the sour cream in the soup with non-fat "Greek" yogurt to lighten it up a little and then use creme fraiche for the garnish? Sounds good. But what about the chocolate? Thin the creme fraiche with some cherry Lambic, add cocoa powder, then put it into an ISI whipper, pressurize with N2O, and use that as the garnish.

That's the ideal. When shopping I couldn't find fresh or frozen sour cherries so I ended up using unsweetened organic cherry juice rather than making my own (saved me the time of pitting the cherries, too). For fun, and for presentation, I got some frozen cranberries and macerated them in the cherry juice for a while. Service was in beer glasses. I put three cranberries in each glass, garnished with the chocolate/cherry whipped creme fraiche, and then ladled the soup into the glass through a funnel to float the berries and whip garnish. Although not exactly as imagined, in the end the cranberries were a good choice because they popped when bitten adding a surprising textural element (much better than nib). Macerating the cranberries in the cherry juice mingled the flavors and made their introduction less jarring. But it was the chocolate/cherry whipped creme fraiche that added just the right touch as the opening course - setting expectations that this was not going to be dinner as usual.

The beer served with the amuse was Green Flash Rayon Vert, a Belgian-style ale at 7% ABV made with brettanomyces yeast. The slightly-sour fruity dry beer complemented the cherry and the sometimes lactic funk of brett yeasted beers was an inspired combination with the dairy in the soup.

Salad Course

One of the things I like to do in my menus is take one ingredient, flavor, color, or other element and use it as a bridge from one course into the next course. One of the things that's always on Jimmy's menu is beets in one form or another, often pickled, so there are always beets in the kitchen. The cherry soup is almost the same color as beet borscht and what about incorporating beer into the salad dressing by creating a mock champagne vinaigrette using a dry raspberry Lambic instead of champagne? I did something like this once before using a fizzy kombucha. Good olive oil, red wine vinegar, raspberry Lambic, and a small amount of whole grain mustard as the emulsifier. A salad with roasted beets and mixed baby greens. Solid, and an unusual use for beer and I had two elements - the color of the beets and the fruit in the Lambic - to bridge from the amuse.

And for the chocolate element? I like chopped roasted nuts or toasted seeds in salad -- something to add a crunchy textural element was a given as a counterpart to the roasted beets. Looking through my cupboard I found a bag of undeodorized cocoa butter. Toast the hazelnuts and remove the skins. Rough chop. Just before service pan fry the hazelnuts in a bit of the undeodorized cocoa butter and salt them lightly. The nuts in the salad provided just the right texture I was looking for and the aroma of cocoa was faint but unmistakeable when lifting a forkful of salad past the nose.

In this salad I incorporated chocolate by using the undeodorized cocoa butter. The twin elements of the beets (color) and raspberry Lambic (fruit) provided strong bridges between the amuse and the salad.

The beer served with the salad (and used in the dressing) was the Cantillon Rosé de Gambrinus raspberry Lambic at 5% ABV. The red fruit and wild yeast funk in the beer added all the sweetness necessary to overcome the earth-ness of the roasted beets. Several of the diners remarked that they didn't really like beets but found that the combination of flavors - including the beer - and textures overcame their antipathy towards beets. And for those that did like beets they were all happy that I did not go cliché and use either goat cheese or walnuts.

The Small Plate: Big Challenge

The small plate presented a real challenge in the menu and was actually the last dish I conceived. I wanted to do an unusual vegetable with a simple preparation with some kind of starch. Green(s) would be the bridge from the salad course. Jimmy's always has kale on the menu and so this led me to starting thinking about cooked greens other than kale and spinach - collards and the like. I remembered back to a dish I made a couple of years ago where I used some of the adobo in chipotles in adobo to provide a little smoke and some heat in a dish of collards in a menu where I needed a vegetarian item - the adobo replaced smoked ham.

I do like the texture of smoked ham in collards and thinking about how to get that texture without using ham led me to the idea of using bacalao - salt cod. The texture of salt cod is interesting and my favorite way to use it is in brandade, where it is mixed with mashed potatoes. Mashed potatoes were in my plans for the main course, so cod was making sense.

One of my favorite places to shop for food is down on Arthur Avenue in the Bronx. I've been shopping there for over 15 years and I have my fish guy (Frank Randazzo) and they always have really good salt cod. Knowing that it would take at least two days to prep the fish (changing soak water at least 2x daily), I saw Frank Saturday morning and got myself a lovely piece of extremely salty dried fish. The cooked cod would be flaked and mixed into the cooked greens making a vegetarian-ish dish of southern greens with the smoked goodness and texture of smoked ham, but without the ham. To preserve the texture of the cod I decided to poach it in olive oil.

Seeing as how the greens I was going to use are firmly rooted in southern cooking, the obvious (to me, anyway) accompaniment would be a hearty cornbread using coarse corn meal. I used a slightly sweet/sour recipe (adapted from one published by Alexandra Guarnaschelli) that called for buttermilk and cooking in a cast iron pan. That baking dish Jimmy's kitchen didn't have, just a full-sized hotel pan, but I did fry me up some bacon and use the fat to grease the baking pan. I didn't want pork in the greens but wasn't above putting it in the cornbread. After letting the corn bread cool I used a ring mold to cut the breads into rounds. Plating would be a simple matter of putting the cornbread round in the center of the plate and piling the greens on top so that the bread would absorb the liquid from the greens.

For the chocolate component of the dish I used the ISI whipper to perform a feat of out of the molecular gastronomy canon called nitrogen cavitation to infuse some white rum with cocoa with toasted cocoa nib. A small amount of this cacao rum was spooned over the top of the greens providing a slight kick to the heat from the adobo with the heat of the greens - evaporating the rum and scenting the first forkfuls of greens with the aroma of cocoa.

The beer served with the small plate was Jolly Pumpkin Weizen Bam, a farmhouse-style Saison made in Michigan that weighs in at 4.5% ABV. The Weizen Bam is known for some soft spice notes, particularly nutmeg and clove, that enhanced the nuttiness of the cornbread and complemented the cocoa aromatics of the rum.

The Main Course: Meat and Potatoes

For the main course, one of the primary considerations was service: how to do something substantial and elegant that could be prepped entirely in advance and cooked off fairly quickly while people were enjoying the small plate? Simple and sophisticated, elegant and substantial, is not the easiest thing to pull off in a kitchen kitted out like Jimmy's, but I used the limitations for inspiration not seeing them as limitations. Nonetheless, I fell back on a dish I've made a couple of times in the past for groups large and small with good success. I knew the dish, knew what it took to prep, and knew what it took to cook. The bonus was that it uses an inexpensive cut of meat so I was not going to blow the budget with it.

This dish is not something I would do if I didn't have a good butcher and fortunately mine, Sal (Biancardi, also down on Arthur Avenue) and his crew never disappoint. I went down to the Ave on Monday morning early and had Alfredo trim, butterfly, and pound flank steak. This gets salted and set aside for a couple of hours before the rest of the prep gets done. One of my kitchen "secrets" is to avoid using a plain salt. There's an herbed sea salt from Bologna I found about eight years ago that includes garlic, black pepper, sage, and rosemary, and this is what I used to salt the flank steak. I find that I end up using a lot less salt and adding more flavor. (And, for bridging purposes, it was the salt I used on the hazelnuts for the salad.)

After the salted flank steak had a couple of hours in the walk-in, I created roulades, stuffing them with goat cheese (tip: do not skimp on the quality or quantity of the goat cheese) and a mixture of baby arugula and chopped radicchio and then tying them and putting them back in the walk-in.

The roulades get seared on the flattop to add color and then put into a warm-ish oven to finish and hold. It's important not to overcook the beef: It wants to be definitely on the rare side. The goat cheese needs to be runny and oozing. For service, it's simply a matter of taking the roulades out of the oven, remove the twine, and slicing diagonally into rounds roughly one-half inch thick. It's the combination of textures of the rare beef and oozing unctuousness of the goat cheese coupled with the crispy bitterness of the greens that makes this dish work. They are beautifully colorful, too.

The flank steak roulades were arranged over quenelles of roasted garlic smashed potatoes and then garnished with parsley. The potatoes were made with the olive oil used to pan roast the garlic, finely chopped bacon I rendered down for its fat (the fat was also used in the potatoes), creme fraiche, and a small amount of the seasoned salt used on the steak. The bridging elements here were the creme fraiche, the salt, and the bacon. In the end, I decided not to complicate things by adding in the planned chocolate element - cocoa nibs sprinkled on the goat cheese (which combination I like on its own merits) in the roulade.

Were I to do this again, I would use the olive oil and bacon fat with the fond on the pan used to cook the bacon to make a gravy and use it as a drizzled garnish. The dish did not need moisture, but I felt the presentation was a little lacking is all. I would probably also use the nib. The bitterness and crunch would have been a nice added touch.

The beer served was another Cantillon, their Lou Pepe Cuvee (2009) Gueze (5% ABV). Guezes are a traditional Belgian blend of young and old Lambics, which are then bottle after blending, and aged for 2-3 years to produce a dryer, fruitier and more intense style of Lambic without any hop character. The second of the two Cantillons served, this one is generally considered to be one of the finest beers of its type and was very eagerly anticipated by the guests. The tartness cut the richness of the dish while the beer's barnyard earthy/hay funk highlighted that aspect of the goat cheese spectacularly well.

Dessert: The First Goes Last

Dessert came off exactly as envisaged, not really. The dessert itself was I imagined but the Lindeman's Faro Lambic did not get delivered. The replacement the Cuvee d'Erpigny from Picobrouwerij Alvinne, a quadrupel at 15% ABV that is aged in wine barrels. Quads tend towards moderate levels of phenols with a sweetness that is not masked by bitterness and that are perceivably alcoholic. The d'Erpigny was an almost syrupy mouthfeel with pronounced caramel/burnt sugar/toffee and vanilla that made it a perfect foil for the burnt caramel and vanilla ice cream in the dessert. The sweetness can be overwhelming in large amounts, but when served as one might an after-dinner port as an accompaniment, the sweetness is held in check - and the salt in the caramel that tames the sweetness there carries over to the beer.

A very special ending to a memorable meal.

Postscript

In the end, the number of people that showed up was smaller than the number of RSVPs. While that plays havoc with the budget, it does make service easier. I ended up trusting the plating to Michael after putting together a "model" plate for each course and did all the food running myself, explaining each dish as I served each table.

This made for a very informal evening which turned out to be quite nice - it sort of unfolded unpredictably and the focus on personal interaction rather than addressing the group turned out to be the right approach. Fortunately I had a mole among the guests, my muse during menu creation and in many other areas of my life, my friend Diana (whom I met at a craft beer festival where I was cooking about a year ago). She's fearless in these situations and just jumped right in engaging everyone at the table where she was seated. It's also nice to have someone "on your side" at the table - seeing a smiling face of encouragement made a huge difference.

As for the budget. I was asked to shop for, cook for, and serve 30 people. The two most expensive items were the flank steak (which ended up costing me a very reasonable $6.99/lb plus a nice tip) and the ice cream, which we purchased from Van Leeuwen's just down the street from Jimmy's on Monday afternoon. I ended up spending about $8 per person (for 30 people) on ingredients, not bad when you consider I purchased everything at retail. My shopping list did not include the beets, potatoes, apples, creme fraiche, cream, and butter that are kitchen staples at Jimmy's, or the beers. Other ingredients not in my $8 p/p spend were two-dozen very excellent eggs (for the corn bread) and smoked bacon ends that were supplied by Flying Pig Farms.

It's also important to recognize that events like these are quintessential team events. The kitchen staff, servers, bar staff - everyone at Jimmy's played an important role in pulling the dinner off. There was no way I could have done this myself in the time available to me walking in cold into a kitchen I'd never worked in before. And, of course, many, many thanks to Jimmy for giving me the opportunity to plan the menu and cook as well as for sharing his knowledge and opening up his cellar and serving some awesome and very special beers.

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