Exploring the science behind creative dishes

BOOKMARK

February 19, 2003|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,SUN STAFF

Diane Forley's new book is about as easy on the eyes as her restaurant in Lower Manhattan, Verbena, where she spent the high times of 1990s New York rooting around in her garden and kitchen, evidently tracing connections between the two.

She emerges from her experiments with The Anatomy of a Dish (Artisan, 2002, $35), which she co-wrote with Catherine Young. It's Forley's first cookbook and it might as well be called her first botany book, too, as she is concerned with where the two worlds overlap.

Along with lush photographs of greens, grains, eggs, stalks of corn standing on end and other images one might expect in a cookbook, there are also less likely graphics consisting largely of charts. There's a taxonomic chart of the plant kingdom, plus charts on seasonal availability of produce, on the taste and textures of salad greens and the flavor profiles of sundry plant families.

All this somewhat scientific information is meant to support a particular perspective on cooking, one rooted in a keener awareness of vegetables, fruit and grains. For Forley, these three elements "define flavor, texture and sensibility in cooking."

Knowing a bit about the science of these elements, the logic goes, can only help make sense of how to use them in cooking.

"Poring over vegetal family trees," Forley says in her introduction, "I began to realize that there were culinary connections I had never considered but that reverberated throughout my kitchen."

She had, for example, been frequently pairing asparagus and leeks without realizing they were members of the family Liliaceae, which also includes garlic, chives, onion and shallots.

This is a good example, and it left at least one reader wanting more in the way of principles that might govern judgments about what goes with what. As it is, the book shows how plant flavor profiles compare, and gives recipes using some unlikely flavor combinations -- "pickled beet salad with oranges and taleggio cheese," for example -- but doesn't quite connect the dots between botanical and culinary relationships.

The nearly 150 recipes, however, may compensate for whatever else is missing. Starting with fundamental preparations that may be used to create more elaborate dishes, this collection of often unusual combinations -- "quinoa-crusted chicken," "pan-fried soft-shell crabs with jicama slaw" -- should get any alert home cook thinking fresh thoughts about the compelling plate and its roots in the soil.

Sauteed Scallops With Onion Pan Gravy

Serves 4 as an appetizer

GRAVY:

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 large onion, peeled and coarsely chopped

kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 teaspoon sugar

1 cup chicken stock

SCALLOPS:

3/4 pound large sea scallops

kosher salt and freshly ground pepper

2 tablespoons olive oil

2 tablespoons butter

1/2 lemon

Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the onion, season with salt and pepper, and cook, stirring occasionally, until soft and beginning to brown, about 20 minutes. Reduce the heat to medium-low, add the sugar and cook, stirring frequently, until the onions are well-browned, about 10 minutes more.

Add the stock and cook until the onions are very soft and the skillet is almost but not quite dry, about 15 minutes more. Transfer the onions to a blender and puree until smooth. (Add up to 1/4 cup water if the mixture is too dry -- you want the puree to be the texture of gravy.)

Wipe out the skillet and heat it over medium-high heat. Season the scallops with salt and pepper. Add the oil and then the scallops to the pan. Jiggle the pan for a few seconds to keep the scallops from sticking, then cook the scallops without moving them until the first sides are golden, about 2 minutes.

Turn the scallops, add the butter and cook, basting the scallops with the melting butter, until they are well-browned on the second side and beginning to firm, about 1 minute more (always cook an extra scallop -- the best way to check doneness is to taste).

Squeeze the juice of the lemon into the pan and baste the scallops with the lemon-butter sauce for about 30 seconds, then transfer them to plates.

Add the onion puree to the lemon butter left in the skillet and simmer for a minute or so. Drizzle the scallops with the sauce and serve.

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