We go to great restaurants for magic, for an extraordinary experience that is beyond our reach as home cooks. And so how to explain that the single most memorable dish I had at Alain Passard's Michelin three-star restaurant l'Arpege in Paris was a salad, and one that you could make quite easily at home?
Passard is undoubtedly a culinary magician, but of a decidedly subtle sort. Rather than creating elaborate constructions, his gentle touch coaxes out flavors that can change the way we look at ingredients.
Particularly at this time of year, when the markets are lined wall-to-wall with some of the best fruits and vegetables you'll ever taste, this is the kind of cooking that resonates.
And so, yes, Passard's guinea fowl roasted in hay was spectacular, and so was the slow-cooked turbot. But the dish that I haven't been able to get out of my mind was an assortment of spring vegetables served with a sweet-sour dressing he calls aigre-doux.
There was a bit of beet, a couple of slender carrots, silken leaves of cooked onion, thin slices of cucumber and a few stray leaves of various greens. Simple, right? Yet it perfectly captured on a plate that exact moment of spring.
Each element tasted so clearly and deeply of itself that it seemed like it must have been some kind of magic. In reality, of course, there was no hocus-pocus, just perfect technique, and a little bit of that sublime sauce, which seems to amplify the flavors of everything it touches.
And here's the best part: If you've got an immersion blender, you can make that aigre-doux quite easily at home. In fact, you probably have all the ingredients in your cupboard. Blend honey and acid until smooth, and then slowly trickle in oil until the sauce has a consistency somewhere between heavy cream and mayonnaise.
You can vary the dressing by using different acids — substitute lime for lemon, or sherry vinegar for Champagne. And experiment with different oils. Unless it's a mild Provencal-style, straight olive oil might be a bit too strong; cut it with neutral vegetable oil.
I'll be the first to admit that this isn't my usual style of cooking. I'm much more comfortable with salads piled on platters than this kind of intricate ikebana type of plating. But I've also got to admit that it is growing on me in a kind of shocked "wow, did I really make that?" kind of way.
A couple of important things I've learned: With a dish this simple, every ingredient has to be perfect or you wind up looking like a jerk; there's a thin line between artistry and pretension. Make sure each element is of the best quality and cooked just to the exact point. And remember that less is more; you don't want a heap of ingredients piled on a plate, just enough to make your point.
Though it seems like it couldn't be more different, a great cobbler works the same way. Think about it: Perfect seasonal fruit complemented by a simple, endlessly mutable uniting element.
A cobbler topping comes together in just a couple of minutes. It's basically just a cream biscuit dough that you drop by large spoonfuls on top of the fruit before baking. If you've got great berries, flavor the dough with orange zest or slivered basil. If you've got peaches or nectarines, maybe chop in almonds or minced fresh ginger. You get the picture.
It's simple enough — an everyday kind of magic when you compare it to a meal at a three-star restaurant. But sometimes that's all that's necessary.