Since I first learned how to cook by binge-watching all of Good Eats almost fifteen years ago, I’ve enjoyed coming up with creative cooking endeavors. More than anything, I like when there are specific constraints that require me to come up with interesting solutions. This began with early Lentil and Alphabet Challenges, although arguably the most significant has been Oscar Party, in which I put together a multi-course meal where each dish is themed around one of the Best Picture nominees. It began in 2008 as a five-course meal for perhaps 12-15 people, and by Oscar Party 8, it had ballooned into eight-courses (the Academy increased the maximum number of nominees starting with Oscar Party 3) for 55 people with accompanying video montages of the scenes in the movie that inspired the dish, all done in my 432 sq. ft. Austin condo.
But in the last few years, I haven’t done Oscar Party as my kitchen setup is even simpler. Most of my kitchen things are still in boxes in my dad’s basement, and aside from the side table I set up, my current kitchen has two crappy electric burners, counter space literally the size of a cutting board, and a dorm room-style mini-fridge with a missing freezer door such that nothing really freezes inside.
So while my current environment may not be ideal, that constraint may itself make it interesting. And thus when I told a friend that I would make us a ‘gastronomie’ dinner, I thought I would dip back into the constraint pool and ask her to choose just one ingredient around which I would theme the meal. She chose scallops (Coquilles Saint-Jacques) and so I thought to create a menu themed around that mighty mollusk.
A small hiccup
After coming up with a few ideas both traditional (simply seared) and unconventional (scallop roe tarama), I realized something the night before we had both overlooked: scallop season had ended a few weeks before. And thus, none of the local fishmongers were carrying them any longer. Even at the grocery store, I couldn’t find frozen ones, although I didn’t venture outside the city center to the larger superstores. So it would seem that I needed to modify my plan.
Even before this revelation, I had been trying to think of how I could incorporate scallops into a dish like dessert. While I briefly toyed with the idea of a fishy dessert, I thought the more prudent option would be to make something that looked similar to a scallop. In the end, I came up with a cylindrical panna cotta with a salted butter caramel sauce as the ‘sear’ on the top.
Now, I just needed to figure out how to create ‘scallop’ replacements for the other courses.
When is a scallop not a scallop?
In researching scallop alternatives, mushrooms (particularly king oyster) came up repeatedly. While none of my nearby markets carried king oysters, I did find some large white buttons (champignons de Paris) that I was able to cut into cylinders, marinate in a mixture of kombu, lemongrass, and garlic, and then score and sear. Then, I plated them in a similar style to a ChefSteps dish, with a spinach and radish greens sauce, fava beans, sliced radishes and green peppers, heirloom tomatoes, pickled onions, chive blossoms, and a little cilantro.
Next up, I went with a play on ‘scalloped potatoes’, but cut potatoes into scallop shapes, searing, and then finishing in the oven. They then were plated on a creamy mushroom and chard stem sauce with caramelized onions and chives.
Since we are in France, I included an obligatory cheese course of three cheeses that vaguely ressemble scallops, Rocamadour, crottin de chève, and fresh mozzarella cut into a cylinder, served with toasted blinis.
And finally for the dessert, I made the originally planned vanilla panna cotta with salted butter caramel sauce. This was paired with fresh strawberries and a canelé that I coated in white chocolate.
While trying to balance multiple dishes and come up with new alternatives on the fly can be stressful, it reminded me of why I did Oscar Party for so many years. High-pressure culinary constraints aren’t unique to my endeavors, as anyone who has watched chefs create elaborate menus from the ‘secret ingredient’ in Iron Chef America or a Chopped basket has seen. In fact, I think the time I used to spend watching the Food Network, from Good Eats to Cutthroat Kitchen (I guess really just all things Alton Brown), made this seem like a natural fit. Add to that my interest in plant-based, fungi-based, and cultured meat, and the single ingredient trompe-l’oeil just worked.
So I don’t know when or how often, but I’d like to bring this back in some format in the future. Although, unlike this time where I wasn’t initially planning on taking pictures or writing a blog post, I’ll put a little more effort into the photography.
As for the next ingredient: any suggestions?