Friday, March 28, 2008

Basic Instinct

They say that instincts are unlearned, innate actions instilled in us to ensure our survival. This can apply to every aspect of our lives, but for me serves a great purpose in the kitchen. While I do believe that culinary instinct is learned (since we must all learn how to cook), repetitive reactionary behavior can also be classified as instinct. I mention all of this because I recently came face to face with the result of doubting my culinary instinct. Although I am not a professional cook, I'd like to think that over the years I've developed an innate ability to understand the basic elements of cooking including seasoning, timing and balance.

Ninety-nine percent of the time I am able to listen to myself when my instincts tell me that something about a recipe is off, and I adjust accordingly. I don't know what it was about the recipe for the dish pictured above, but something kept me from making an adjustment when I thought I noticed a miscalculation in the recipe. I'd been longing to make Jacques Pepin's chicken tonnato for some time and finally got the opportunity this week. This dish is a take-off on the Italian summer classic veal tonnato--veal served cold and drizzled with tuna sauce. The components of the sauce are fairly generic from recipe to recipe: tuna, anchovies, egg yolk and olive oil, along with a few others. When copying down the recipe I noticed that it called for salt despite also containing an entire tin of anchovies, and their oil. I remember noting that I should probably not add the salt, or at least make sure and taste for seasoning first. But somehow when I got to making the dish, I decided to go with Chef Pepin's measurement, and added the 1/4 teaspoon salt despite my instinct.

This was a huge mistake, as not only did it make the sauce incredibly salty, it also completely threw the flavor off balance. The anchovies took on that fishy, salty flavor that so many people fear, and the tuna fell flat. To remedy the situation I added a tad more lemon (but not much), and decided that I needed something slightly sweet to balance out the intense saltiness. So, I added a tablespoon of honey and a teaspoon of balsamic vinegar. This mellowed out the sauce a great deal and gave it more depth of flavor, but it needed to be less pungent and a bit thinner, so I added a few tablespoons of water (the recipe called for only one), and it finally came together. The chicken clearly needed more than just the poaching that the recipe suggested, so I decided to grill it simply with salt and paprika, hoping that it would bring in some flavor of it's own and stand up to the tangy sauce. This was a great move and mostly made up for my adding the salt in the first place.

According to Charles Darwin, having doubted my instinct could very well lead to my being the inferior of my species. Hopefully my ability to acknowledge and correct my mistake will make up for it and ensure my survival. No recipe today folks (it was only a mediocre dish anyway), but hopefully this blog entry has served as a lesson for my fellow home cooks to follow their instincts in the kitchen. Have a great weekend, and I'll be back on Monday with a recipe post.


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