Have you ever been curious about what goes on inside the head of a great chef—how he or she puts together those perfectly balanced, boldly flavored signature dishes? One way to find out, we decided, was to get in on the creative process first hand. So we asked two chefs to make a dinner from a “market basket” of seasonal ingredients. And as part of the deal, they agreed to share their thoughts with us: what inspired them about the ingredients; how they decided to cook and season them; what other flavors would pair well. Watching two chefs create different dishes from the same ingredients can-boost your own improvisational skills.
We called on Gary Danko from Restaurant Gary Danko in San Francisco and Greg Higgins from Higgins in Portland, Oregon. We gave them both the same market basket and asked them each to follow the rules for wildcards and substitutions below.
Rules of the game
Gary and Greg started with the same five market ingredients, which they could use in any amount. They were allowed to drop one of those ingredients, to use unlimited ingredients from a basic cook’s pantry, and to choose up to three special “wildcard” ingredients.
Market ingredients: Shrimp, sugar snap peas, fresh ginger, garlic, and fresh mint.
Basic cook’s pantry: Butter, vegetable oil, olive oil, lemon, cream, milk, eggs, broth (beef, chicken, or vegetable), onions, flour, vinegar, water, white wine, salt, and pepper.
Wildcard ingredients: Any meat, vegetable, seafood, condiment, flavoring, fruit, herb, nut, spice, or starch in any amount.
Gary Danko sizzles a stir-fry
This group of ingredients was immediately inspiring to me. Although I had the option of omitting one of them, I didn’t want to, because they all taste so great together.
Stir-frying is the technique that came to mind as just the right thing for shrimp, sugar snaps, ginger, and garlic. Stir-frying cooks ingredients quickly and helps them maintain their freshness. Quick cooking also means that dinner won’t take forever, which is important, too.
For my wildcards, I chose fennel, fennel seed, and lime. Fennel seemed like a natural addition to the flavors of this springtime stir-fry. Because I’m adding the fennel fresh here (rather than blanching it first), I’m getting all that wonderful, delicate anise-like flavor. A great way to reinforce the flavor notes of fennel bulb is with fennel seed, so I used it ground up to flavor the cooking oil. Finally, acid is what gives backbone to any dish; in this case, lime really makes all the flavors sing. You could use lemon, but I find both the fragrance and flavor of lime more intriguing, and it works beautifully with the mint to pick up all the flavors. I like to serve this stir-fry over polenta, which isn’t traditional, but it’s delicious. Jasmine or basmati rice would also be good. —Gary Danko
Greg Higgins stirs up a risotto
The combination of shrimp, sugar snap peas, and garlic invited me to create a take on risotto that’s reminiscent of what Venetians make to celebrate the appearance of peas in the spring…so I decided to drop the ginger, and I chose three wildcards: arborio rice, leeks, and chile paste. Making a delicate stock from the shrimp shells flavors the rice, and adding a whole leek to the stock makes it even more savory and builds a flavor bridge with the other green elements in the dish: the peas and mint. (Adding the pea strings and any scraps to the stock is also a good idea.) My third wildcard, chile paste, is an ingredient I love to use in small amounts: not enough to give spicy heat, but just enough to enhance flavors. I like sambal oelek, a type sold in Asian groceries. Taste of Thai, a supermarket brand, is fine, too. If you can’t find either, use a pinch of red chile flakes instead.
Shrimp cooks too quickly to add much flavor to the risotto as it cooks. So I sauté and flavor the shrimp separately and use it to top the risotto. This way, you avoid overcooking the shrimp, the flavors are cleaner, and you’ve got a great-looking topping for your dish.
You might expect cheese in risotto as a finishing touch, but I’ve omitted it. Cheese would overwhelm these fresh, delicate flavors, and there’s enough richness so that you don’t need it. —Greg Higgins