The appearance of ingredients within a dish contributes greatly to its overall attractiveness. Food and cookbook writers rightly champion the virtues of uniformly cut, diced or cubed meats and vegetables. There are, however, ingredients and dishes where pulling products apart by hand gives a nicer appearance than diligent knife work. Its de rigueur for pull-pork and pull-beef barbecue preparations. Less obvious, are chicken dishes, mushrooms and greens.
Many dishes call for the addition of precooked chicken or, as a result of their preparation, end up with well-cooked whole chicken legs, thighs and breasts. Stew-like dishes, such as coq au vin, chicken curry and chicken pot pies are not only easier to eat when the cooked chicken pieces are de-boned and broken into bite-sized pieces, but the presentation appears more finished, refined and attractive. When the dish is nearly completed, take the time to remove the chicken pieces and, when cool enough to handle, shred the meat by handpulling the dark meat off the bone and breaking apart the white breast meat. Trash the bones, return the meat to the pot and finish the dish. Chicken salad spread for sandwiches and wraps also is more attractive if the meat has been shredded by hand rather than sliced.
The mushroom is another case in point. The cultivated white mushroom, most common in the supermarket, is appropriately wiped clean, sliced, sautéed in butter and then added to a dish. Or they are just cleaned, dried, sliced and tossed into the pot or a salad. However, the exotic mushroomsthe chanterelle, moral, oyster and even the ortobelloshould
be treated with more respect. Here’s why: (1) their tastes are unique, (2) their appearances are distinctive, (3) they cost a lot and (4) on the chance that your guests missed (1), they will miss (2) and (3) as well if you slice them up like so many white mushrooms. So, for whatever dish is in preparation, clean and dry exotic mushrooms, prepare them whole or break them up by hand. And, since their tastes are subtle, add them to the dish in its final preparation. (I caught hell at school for adding whole chanterelles to a braising pot of rabbit. Complete waste of money, shouted the chef. Who will taste them? he hollered. Next time, add them, sautéed, as a garnish when plating, he commanded. Yes, chef,
Less obvious, is the approved appearance of greens torn by hand. The tough stems of spinach and aragula should be removed by hand, so too
the midrib of leaf lettuces, if tough. Despite their high cost and ready to serve labeling of those pre- packaged salad mixes, spring medleys and mesclun, they too should be picked over. Ive prepped boxes of the stuff and, without fail, find tough stems and the occasional strange piece of vegetation that should not make it to the table.
So, to recap: A food editor from the Washington Post once asked Chef Francois Dionot, founder and president of LAcademie de Cuisine, to
name the most important tool in the kitchen. Hands, said he, hands are the chefs most important tool.
For related recipes:
See: Korean Chicken
See: Curry in a Hurry