Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Mixed Plate: Test Kitchen Musings and the Gauntlet of Tasters

I'm extreeeeeemely fortunate to have the opportunity to develop recipes for publications now and then, which is a really nice combination my favorite things: creativity, food, and EATING. I  usually try to make the recipe a couple of times, making modifications and adjustments, and if I'm under the gun, as is the way of most deadlines, I'll do a Test Kitchen Tasting day, inviting a couple of friends over who will sample and provide immediate input. They're also there to just help eat because you can never make just a little of anything and food somehow always tastes better when shared. On a recent TKT, the Gauntlet of Tasters gathered, and yes, there were Milanos to be had.

Test Kitchen Tasting session and scrapbook mania at Casa de Wasabi - Photo by Wasabi Prime

The dangerously addictive entity known as Pepperidge Farm Milanos aren't just for bad breakups and Molly Ringwald movie marathons anymore! Their oblong sandwich cookie-ness were a welcome guest at the latest Test Kitchen session. Which I realize is a little redundant, since the subject of the Test Kitchen Tasting was a dessert dish. But whatever! Consider it the sweet amuse-bouche for the main course of sugary tooth-rotting!  We even had some bacon chocolate, care of a Vosges bar -- gotta have the savory, right? Generally, these days are set up to where the recipe is tested and sometimes a food photography session takes place if the mood is right. I was particularly pleased with the latest recipe, a special bread pudding that will be featured in an upcoming magazine, which I promise to give more details on when it's published. I knew this was a good recipe because the Gauntlet of Tasters indulged in seconds, and this was after we had a full lunch (and Milanos).

Along with eating, the gathering also included a bit of cut-and-paste activity. I know it sounds kind of juvenile, but I scrapbook. And I don't mean I spend $400 on pre-cut shapes, stickers and prefab decorative doo-dads that are a choking hazard waiting to happen. I really do collect scraps of things that I like or that inspire me and slap them in big, crazy collages with the ol' glue stick. I'm a big fan of miscellaneous ephemera and likely a borderline hoarder, so I'll keep ticket stubs for events I've gone to, wine and beer labels and tons of things from magazines. I have a big book that's full of different themes, whether it's fully-formed ideas, color palettes, or often times -- food. I've got a whole layout just devoted to pizza. It may look like a junior high nightmare needing a shot of Proactiv, but it makes sense to my brain when I look at it.

Peer into the twisted mind (and stomach) of The Prime - Photos by Wasabi Prime

These periodic gatherings of the Gauntlet of Tasters and our stacks of old magazines become a flurry of cut paper and food. For what seems like chaos, this is where the seeds of inspiration are sowed for future projects. The epicenter of blogging, as the Gauntlet are bloggers as well. Having a gathering of like-minded creatives and sharing our thoughts, likes and latest gossip helps get the post ideas going. I'm sure everyone has different sources for getting the creative spark, but this is a peek into one of my favorite ways to brainstorm, plus copious amounts of carbohydrates are often consumed to much food coma pleasure. Win/win, right?

Even when I don't get a chance to run a dish past the Gauntlet, it will still evolve in different ways. Some of the things I tend to focus on if I'm developing a recipe are: level of complexity, obscurity of ingredients, and just the basics of will people actually want to eat this thing? Desserts are often an easy sell -- who doesn't want sweet? But I don't like making something so sweet you just feel the grit of sugar between your choppers. In terms of complexity, I've changed ingredient lists out to use simpler items or include shortcuts for finding prepared items to save on time. I know this is kind of a "duh" thing, but when you have the luxury of time to develop something from scratch you have to realize that the rest of the world has other crap they're dealing with and not everyone wants to fuss around in the kitchen. They probably don't want to make their stock from scratch or gather fresh eggs from their backyard chicken coop. I don't have a chicken coop, mind you, but you get my drift that sometimes concessions are made for the sake of making a recipe approachable.

I'm definitely no expert in recipe development, these are just some of the things that go through my head when I'm working on new things. I also find that there's recipes and methods that really break the Mach-10 eating barrier, and the ones that just modify the familiar or update the old-fashioned favorites. While I completely respect and admire the former, my speed is is more the latter. I'll never be the one to reinvent the wheel, just figure out ways to pretty it up with a bit of parsley, but that's fine by me. I recently worked on a risotto dish which wasn't so much about bedazzling it with different ingredients, but trying to dial it back further and further until a single ingredient could be the featured taste. I was removing instead of adding in that case. Sometimes you have to go to Vegas first before you realize you should be in Kansas... if that even makes any lick of sense.

At the end of the day and lots of barely legible chickenscratch in my recipe notebook, I'm reminded I still need to eat the thing and periodically present it to friends just looking for a good nosh and ample table space to scrapbook.

A "Round One" version of a basic risotto recipe - Photo by Wasabi Prime

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