Making it all work in balance


January 15, 2003|By Brian Boston | Brian Boston,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

A balanced plate is the cornerstone of a great dining experience.

During the past 20 years, from my very early days (before college) at Peerce's Plantation to my experience at the Culinary Institute of America and at several popular restaurants and country clubs in Baltimore, I have created my own philosophy about creating a visually enticing and palate-pleasing dish.

This approach -- which can work for the home cook as well as the restaurant chef -- starts by putting the essence of the food first. Don't fiddle with the food's natural shape and texture; try to complement its flavor rather than overpower it.

To achieve a balanced meal, begin by considering the play of taste, texture, temperature and eye appeal. Taste includes sour, sweet, salty and bitter. To me, these flavors are the same as primary colors are to a painter. Blend them together to create a satisfying combination.

Textures, such as crunchy, velvety, soft, crisp and firm, are also key components to a well-balanced dish. Try using at least two different textures to give a contrast-in-the-mouth feel.

Our raspberry salad is one of my favorite combinations of texture. The crispy lettuce and the crunchy pine nuts contrast with soft raspberries and creamy blue cheese. Texture plays a supporting role to the flavors of a particular dish.

The third element is temperature, hot and cold. A cold dish should be served on a well-chilled plate with a cold utensil. Hot food should be served on a hot plate.

Sometimes I bring hot and cold together for a wonderful sensation in the mouth. Our molten-chocolate dessert is a wonderful example of this. We serve a just-baked chocolate cake with a gooey center topped with vanilla ice cream and sauteed bananas Foster.

The final element is eye appeal. People eat with their eyes first, so make sure the platter is beautiful to look at. A dish should have different shapes, colors and textures. You want to be sure not to cover the whole plate, but at the same time you need to fill some of the empty spaces.

Think of the rim of the plate as a frame. Try to keep your "picture" inside the frame. A carefully arranged plate will have a guest anticipating the good things to come.

Usually, when creating an entree, it is best to select the main item first and add components from there. Think about what feelings you get from the item.

Recently, I developed a Kobe Beef entree. The first thing I thought of was Japan and then wasabi, ginger and anise flavors. I wanted to have a starch for this dish, so I added wasabi to mashed potatoes. To maintain the Asian influence, I balanced the dish with shiitake mushrooms and bok choy for vegetables.

Textures and flavors were working well. The sauce was next. I wanted a very classical-style sauce made from a veal-bone reduction but with Asian flavors. I reduced sake and soy and then added it to the veal reduction and finished it with some ginger and anise flavors to balance the wasabi rub on the Kobe steak.

Now for the plate. I chose a square plate. In one corner I placed the saute of bok choy and shiitake mushrooms. I placed a round cut of beef on top of this, then three potato quenelles (small oval shapes) were set down to radiate from the Kobe steak.

These were alternated with white and green asparagus to achieve a spokelike pattern. I then sauced the beef, allowing the liquid to drape delicately over the plate.

This dish features many shapes and colors. Though many of the colors are from the same family, they are different enough to work together like a well-composed painting. The plate looks full but not sloppy. Everything was harmonious, and the response from the guests at the Milton Inn has been overwhelmingly positive.

Over the years I have found that a well-balanced plate will put guests at ease. Visually, it will stop them. After the first bite, they will want to savor the moment. It brings joy to their spirit and puts them in a good frame of mind.

Brian Boston is executive chef of the Milton Inn.

Kobe Beef

Serves 4

2 tablespoons dry anise

1/2 tablespoon ground ginger

salt and pepper to taste

four 8-ounce Kobe steak or filet mignon

1 1/2 quarts shiitake mushrooms

1 bunch bok choy

1 clove minced garlic

3 tablespoons butter, divided use

2 Idaho potatoes

2 tablespoons powder wasabi

10 ounces sake

1 1/2 tablespoons minced fresh ginger

1 ounce soy sauce

1 quart veal glace

1 pound fresh steamed asparagus

Mix anise, ginger, salt and pepper to taste and rub on beef and refrigerate for 30 minutes.

Saute mushrooms, bok choy and garlic in 1 tablespoon of butter. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Boil potatoes until cooked. Strain and mash with 2 tablespoons of butter. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Mix wasabi with enough water to make a thick paste and add to mashed potatoes.

Create sauce by reducing sake by 3/4 then adding ginger, soy sauce and veal glace. Simmer for 10 minutes and strain.

Grill beef to desire temperature.

Divide mushroom saute among 4 plates. Place 1 steak on each plate. Divide mashed potatoes and asparagus among the 4 servings. Top beef with soy-sake glace and serve.

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