I have a friend that plays guitar. He can hear a song and figure out how to play it. This has always impressed me. I watch him intently listening to the song, nodding his head, humming a bit, and then his fingers go to work. The left hand forms chords, the right strums or picks at the strings. “Oh, it’s A, then C, then D,” he mumbles.
Because my friend knows HOW to play guitar, because he knows the basic chords he can recreate any song he hears. Why doesn’t he just buy the sheet music.
Have you ever gone to a restaurant, had a fantastic new dish, and wanted to re-create it at home? It’s so good, you think you could eat it every night, but just being able to have it again without making reservations and paying the bill would be enough.
I do this all the time. I get most of my best dinner ideas from restaurant menus. I can save myself a long waiting time for a table, and a lot of money by cooking the same thing at home. I just need some basic cooking methods and a keen eye.
Here’s how I go about recreating restaurant meals in my home:
First, read the menu description. It will tell you the major ingredients. “Chicken and shallots in a white wine sauce” gives you three good clues as to what is in the dish. I’d start with chicken, shallots and some white wine. Often, there are culinary terms used like “en croute”, or “provencale” that give clues as well.
Next, examine the dish for a hint as to the method they used to cook it. If the chicken breast has grill marks on it, then it’s obvious that it was grilled. If the chicken is totally white and very moist, it may have been steamed or poached.
If it has a brown, crunchy skin, it was cooked with direct source heat, like sauté or broiling. The attractive caramelization of sugars on the chicken also shows that some fat was added, like being brushed with butter or cooked in oil.
Third, examine the sauce. Is it a thickened sauce or a jus? It’s pretty easy to tell when a sauce was made with milk or cream rather than broth or stock, it’s white. So, did they use milk and a thickener to create their sauce?
Lastly, taste for seasonings. This can be the most difficult part and takes a trained palate. Try to identify the dominant seasonings in the dish. Do you taste salt and pepper? Is it Italian inspired with basil and oregano? Or maybe it has an Asian feel with ginger and soy sauce. You might also get others opinions as to what they taste. This way, you start to imagine the flavor profile that went into seasoning the dish. Don’t over think it. It’s usually simpler than you taste.
So, if I dissect my favorite dish at my favorite restaurant, “Chicken and Shallots in a White Wine Sauce”, and I see that it’s a boneless chicken breast with a brown, crunchy skin and a white sauce that tastes like shallots and butter, with a hint of thyme and sage, I can start re-building the recipe.
It appears to me that the chicken breast was sautéed in oil with a hot pan, then was removed to finish in the oven. Shallots were added to the pan until they were soft, and white wine was used to deglaze the pan. After the wine has mostly evaporated, butter and cream make up the sauce that’s seasoned with thyme and sage.
How do I know this? It’s because a basic sauté method is the same, regardless of the ingredients used. Once I can identify HOW the item was cooked, the combination of ingredients are easier to estimate.
Just like my friend who enjoys recreating songs with his guitar, it’s a lot of fun for me to figure out restaurant recipes. It’s a challenge that helps build and strengthen my cooking skills, but it does take up a lot of time and wasted food through bad experiments.
Whether you want to unravel the mystery and recreate restaurant recipes yourself, of just buy a book to give you all the answers, great restaurant meals are a perfect starting point to getting great dinner ideas every night of the week. If you’re able to copy what the restaurants do, your kitchen will never be closed at dinner time.