Have you ever eaten something in a restaurant and wished that you had the expertise to divine the ingredients, proportions and exact cooking methods used to prepare that dish? I have, many times, but I lack that expertise. Oh, I’m getting better at the main and obvious ingredients, but sometimes the more subtle flavors escape my naming them. Garlic, I know. Chervil, maybe not.
I remember many years ago being flummoxed by the difference in my homemade salsa and that of our local Mexican restaurant. I knew there was something in the “authentic” salsa that wasn’t in mine. I had the tomatoes, onions, jalapenos, lime juice, salt and pepper, but there was something definitely missing. With a little library cookbook searching (this was ten years before the internet made recipe searches so easy, and the Food Network was a decade away), I found that my missing ingredient was cilantro. I had heard of it, but didn’t realize that it was the taste I was looking for. In Ohio, it was a little hard to find at the time, and I had to wait to make “proper” guacamole and salsa until I had a source for cilantro. I have grown it, but it bolts quickly and requires successive plantings to keep one in cilantro for the whole season and it doesn’t dry well. Now, it is available nearly any time I need it, summer or winter.
Anyway, back to translating what’s on a restaurant plate to a user-friendly recipe to prepare at home. Sometimes, you can use the internet to search for a recipe with the same name as was on the restaurant menu. Other times, you can just use the main ingredients as the search terms. I had good luck a few months ago with that approach when I enjoyed a soup at a local establishment. Once home, and seated at my Mac, I entered the words, “sweet potato, chorizo, spinach” and immediately found the exact recipe used by the restaurant. I wrote about it earlier in this post.
A few years ago, after dining in a Cincinnati restaurant, my daughters and I were eager to devise a method of duplicating what we had eaten. It was a pasta dish with vegetables in a cream sauce. This was an easy one. We named it Café Pasta and have prepared it and elaborated on it several times. I present it to you here and hope that you make attempts at deciphering your own “dining out” experiences so that you too can replicate the experience at home.
CAFÉ PASTA – Serves 2 2 T. olive oil½ c. chopped onion2 garlic cloves, minced1 zucchini, washed and quartered lengthwise, then sliced 1/8 inch thick¼ c. white wine1 c. chicken broth½ c. heavy cream1 c. diced canned tomatoesSalt and pepperGrated or shaved Parmesan cheese for garnishFettucine, linguine, penne, any pasta
- Prepare large pot of water to boil for pasta. Cook pasta according to directions on package.
- Heat oil in large skillet. Sauté onion for 5 minutes, then add zucchini and sauté for 5 minutes more, stirring occasionally. Add garlic and sauté, stirring for 1 minute more.
- Stir in white wine and cook till nearly evaporated. Then add broth, cook for a minute or two, then stir in tomatoes and heavy cream.
- Season with salt and pepper.
- Serve cooked pasta with sauce and garnish with grated or shaved Parmesan cheese.
Obviously, this recipe can be altered pretty much as desired. Chicken breasts, either whole or cut in strips, red pepper pieces, chopped fresh spinach – these would be great as additions or substitutions. Sun-dried tomato bits instead of canned tomatoes would be good, also. For a special treat, try ¼ c. of blue cheese sprinkled into the sauce a minute or two before serving instead of Parmesan.
As another example of an easily adapted restaurant dish, here’s one that my daughter sampled at an Italian restaurant. It had been their “pasta du jour” and she wanted to try it at home. She described it to me and I fiddled with it a little. It could be an easy adaptation of the previous recipe. It had the onions, garlic and olive oil, but no other vegetables. Instead of Parmesan, it had Swiss cheese, something odd for an Italian restaurant, but it works, nonetheless. It was garnished with sliced plum tomatoes, snipped chives (green onions slices will do) and a few grindings of black pepper.
I can’t stress enough to the home cook the value reading cookbooks, watching cooking shows, and surfing through cooking websites and blogs. Just google a few food or cooking terms and have at it. You can pick up a lot of information that will come in handy sooner or later. I could have had great salsa a lot sooner with a little internet surfing. No worries, mate. I have more than made up for it.