Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Menu Mimicry

Rock fish with braised fennel and potatoes

Last Saturday we had an amazing dinner at Nostrana in SE Portland with our friends Sara and Courtland. It was the first time we’d eaten there and everything was delicious. The food was simple, but what made it memorable were the choice ingredients and inventive combinations. For example we started with pizza topped with shiitake mushrooms, arugula, house mozzarella, lemon oil and pecorino cheese. The Insalata Nostrana was an interesting twist on a Caesar salad — it featured just slightly bitter radicchio instead of romaine lettuce.

Between all the food and the wine, we had quite a hefty bill, which was somewhat alleviated by a $50 coupon and some well-spent roulette winnings. Still, it was a splurge and the kind of dining experience we could not replicate every night. Until Trevor had an idea. We’d scour the menus of the best restaurants in Portland and try to create dishes based on the brief descriptions in the menus.

This has been our first week of cooking off the menus without any sort of recipe. And so far, we’re four for four. We look at the ingredients and descriptions (braised, crisp, roasted) and try to imagine how the chefs would prepare them.

We started with halibut with braised fennel, green garlic and gold potatoes from the clarklewis menu. We substituted rock fish for halibut, since halibut was $20.99 a pound at the farmers’ market. Trevor’s not working for Persephone Farm this season, but we always stop there first to load up on organic vegetables when we hit the PSU farmers’ market. We got our fennel there. Trevor followed Martha Stewart’s Cooking School directions for braising fennel and potatoes. It came out silky and creamy. We dredged the fish in flour and pan fried it. The slightly crisp exterior played off the creaminess of the rest of the dish. I also made a little kale on the side.

Next we made a roast chicken salad with peppered bacon and avocado from the menu of Bunk, our favorite sandwich joint. We cheated and bought a rotisserie chicken for the salad, which we shredded and mixed with mayo and some fresh rosemary. Then we fried up thick-cut pepper bacon and sliced the avocado our neighbors had given us. We threw a little Persephone speckled lettuce on there for good measure. It was a big, delicious sandwich.

As I was shelling the fava beans I thought
of that line from Silence of the
, "I ate his liver with
fava beans and a nice chianti."
The next dish was a real stretch because neither one of us has ever eaten or prepared fava beans. I’ve seen several cooking shows that showed how to prepare them, so I knew it was an involved process. We were going off the Nostrana menu, which listed a fava bean salad with prosciutto, lemon and pecorino. Fava beans are in season and cheap at the farmers’ market. To prepare them, you shell the beans from the pod, then boil them for about 10 minutes. Then you remove the tough outer shells from the beans. We may have overcooked the beans slightly, because we had to remove the skins very carefully or the beans turned to mush. Then we tossed the beans with lemon juice, olive oil and grated Parmesan cheese (We were buying lots of pricey specialty cheese for this experiment, so we decide to swap good imported Parm for pecorino.) Then we topped the beans with crumbled pan-fried prosciutto. Yum.

Orecchiette with polpetinne and arugula
Last night we made orecchiette, a small ear-shaped pasta, from scratch just like they do at clarklewis. (We tried a new recipe for the pasta, and weren’t completely happy with it. The pasta was a little too chewy.) We also made pork polpetinne (tiny meatballs) to throw in the pasta. For the meatballs, I put one boneless, country-style pork rib in the food processor to grind it up. To that I added the little bit of ground beef we had in the fridge, dried breadcrumbs, grated Parmesan, minced fresh sage and parsley, one egg, salt and pepper, and some water. We made tiny little meatballs and cooked them in a pan with a little olive oil. I also sautéed some shallots. We mixed the hot pasta, shallots and meatballs with arugula, grated taleggio cheese, parm and some pasta cooking liquid. The taleggio is a really good melting cheese, so it blended with everything and made a thick cheesy sauce.

Despite a few smushed fava beans and not-to-tender orecchiette, we’ve considered our menu mimicry a success. By trying to think like the top chefs in Portland we’ve tried new foods, learned new techniques (braising fennel), and picked up great ideas for simple quick dinners (store-bought pasta mixed with taleggio will make a fast, satisfying weeknight dinner).



  1. I've missed salivating over your blog posts.

  2. I love this idea! Can't wait to hear what you guys try next.

  3. Thanks! This week we are trying to cooking interesting and tasty meals from stuff we already have in the pantry. I'll write about it soon!