by John Ryan
In one of the unlikely turns that conversations sometimes take, I recently found myself discussing the different expectations we have of chefs and bartenders. I was making the point that chefs are expected to create, while bartenders are expected to recreate. For instance, only on St. Patrick's day is a bartender supposed to concoct a novel green drink. But it's the opposite with food. Nowadays a diner is more likely to find a fettuccini Alfredo with sun-dried tomatoes or chipotle chilies than a simple, good Alfredo.
Why? Because chefs dread the words "What, $12.95 for plain old Alfredo." So they dress up a dish in whatever finery is trendy at the moment. It's like rock and roll. If rock doesn't reach new levels of loudness and outrageousness, it's used to sell minivans. Likewise, chefs constantly have to turn up the volume on flavor or they wind up cooking in country clubs.
Not so with drinks. Real drinkers don't want to order a scotch rocks and find a slice of kiwi in the glass. (If you're thinking that the rage for oddball martinis is proof that I'm wrong, forget it. The current fad is due to the large number of thirsty people who simply haven't found their drink. You can bet when they do--even if it's a chocolate martini--that they won't tolerate any deviation from the favored formula.)
But eaters are a restless bunch, convinced that the ultimate combination of taste, texture and appearance is just around the next pine nut. Chefs who pull off something spectacular like flourless chocolate cake or deep-fried iced cream are rewarded with celebrity status. Granted, those dishes are passe now, but the current crop of chefs is concocting and garnishing with hopes of creating the next flourless chocolate cake. The problem is that even though many of the experiments taste pretty good, a lot of them are the culinary equivalent of the latest fashions from Milan--they're often weird to look at (architectural things done with fish roe), it's hard to imagine a situation where you'd want to eat them (venison with vanilla sauce), and they are always astronomically expensive.
But let's bring this home.
Whether the IRS thinks of you as a chef or not, the anxiety about hearing "Not that again!" probably throws you into chef mode. So maybe you do something simple like throw green peppers into macaroni and cheese. If that flies, things might gradually escalate to jalapeños, chipotles, and then, when everyone's mouth is cauterized, Scotch bonnets or habaneros.
But wherever you end up, you'll eventually find yourself in front of a plate of plain mac and cheese. And despite its lack of frills, it will taste incredible. It's a little like clothes: after all the patterns, prints, new colors, and unusual fabrics, sooner or later you re-discover how good you look in a simple white shirt.
In this spirit, the recipes this month spring past the weirdness and trendy ingredients. They are simple, almost off-hand, but when you taste them, it'll be like that white shirt—the combination of taste, texture, and good looks was there all along.
Both chef and musician, John Ryan wrote the Just Good Food blog from 1996 through 2001.
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