25 April 2010

Things we cooked so far this weekend

Its been a rainy weekend so we been busy...

Chicken Stock
Baked Beans
Fried Noodles
Scrambled Eggs with Veggies
Devil's Food Cake
Coffee Cake
Grass Fed Prime Rib
Apple Crisp (those apples were not going to be thrown away!)

Yet to come:
Roasted root veggies with potatoes
Green salad
Green Beans

One More Undercooked Bean & Another Slab of Flesh

Harvest is a fine dining restaurant in Madison, Wisconsin that prides itself on serving seasonal and local / sustainable food.  It is the only such establishment in Madison that is open on Monday, which is the day of the week that the Nelson Institute Board of Visitors typically meets.  Hence I have dinner there about twice a year.  Following the most recent of those dinners, two things have stuck in my mind.  

The first is a Harvest-specific complaint related to the first course; the second is an observation sparked by the lack-luster presentation of the main course.  Before I continue, I should be up front with respect to a couple of details.  As I noted above, I typically eat there on Monday night so maybe the chef is not present and the staff are not on their best game.  A more likely factor is that I am usually with a large party.

So, on with the tirade related to my recent visit...

I ordered yellow split pea soup for the first course.  It was advertised as being prepared with North African spices which sounded nice. When the soup finally came, it was not pureed as I had expected, but the real problem was that the peas were well on the crunchy side of perfection. Now I might have over looked this as my own naiveté; maybe that was what they were going for.  But on two other occasions (likely also Monday nights) I ordered minestrone soup and the beans in each bowl varied from crunch to mush.  

Now I have been cooking beans as an amateur for 25 years; it is not rocket science, but it does take some attention.  Soak the beans, then cook them carefully ("until they are sure of themselves" as John Thorne says. (If more authority is need, McGee addresses beans from a theoretical stance.))  Harvest prides itself on fine dining; it seems that "cooking beans nicely" should be high in the kitchen's priorities. 

While it is unacceptable for a resturaunt of Harvest's presumed caliber to fail to cook the beans properly, the larger issue I am concerned with was prompted by the main course.

The menu offered a variety of slabs of flesh for the main course.  Each was to be complemented by something from the garden and a sauce.  I ordered a fish dish; I do not remember what I ordered because the kitchen didn't have it and substituted sea bass.  It was complemented with a few pieces of spinach and a sauce which, nearly a week later, was quite forgettable.  What I do recall, was the size of the plate and the sense of "is that it?"  There was no joy or beauty on that plate - only a sense of "lets get these plates out".

That disappointment prompted the realization that we have come to focus on the meat (poultry, fish) at the expense of other elements of a dinner.  As we learn to appreciate the fineness of grass-fed, wild-caught, free-range etc, those flavors and textures should be appreciated fully.  Just as a cake can be too sweet, a fine slab of flesh on its own can be overpowering.  To fully appreciate these delicacies we will need to eat less of them and to fully appreciate them we will need to learn to complement them with other elements. (I am sure Bittman has something to say about this.)  

I am quite pleased that there is such growing attention to food and its quality and the impacts of its production.  I am pleased that fine dining is coming more and more to imply high quality ingredients that are organic and local or sustainably grown / raised.  Thus I hope that Harvest and others in Madison and around the globe will rethink their main course plates.  Let us think of the protein bit as flavor and texture that compliments other flavors and textures on the plate. Let us imagine bellies and palates satisfied by beautiful combinations of the full cornucopia of what is available.