Composing a menu can be either a dreaded chore or a rewarding challenge. The latter is much more fun of course, and it prolongs the enjoyment of the evening. Diners, whether family or guests, enjoy the food but the cook takes pleasure in both the meal and everything involved in creating it.
The ideal way to create menus is by having the time to shop in a variety of markets and specialty stores, choosing ingredients that are fresh and seasonal, composing your menus on the fly from what’s available. More than likely if you’re able to do this, you live in the center of an urban area with many markets and food shops within walking distance.
Realistically, many people don’t live this way and must make do with a trip to the supermarket a few times each week. Often, dinner is made from what’s on hand in the pantry, refrigerator and freezer. However, cooking from what you have in the kitchen can be a challenging proposition. We’re not like restaurant cooks who have an almost unlimited range of ingredients at their disposal.
A variant on the market approach simply involves starting with a seasonal ingredient and building the meal around that. If it’s April, you know it’s crawfish time, so you might choose to make something with crawfish. Decide on the preparation or the main ingredients and then work out the remainder of the meal before you go shopping.
Another way to create a menu is to start with a particular dish that you’d like to eat. I find that I often do that, particularly when I get a craving for something I really like, such as gumbo or crawfish. With that one dish in mind, you can then flesh out the menu, adding appropriate accompaniments and another course or two, depending on the occasion. But always stick with what’s seasonal.
There are other ways to go about planning a dinner. If you have a special wine you’d like to serve, start with the wine and decide what dish will do it justice. In that case, the food becomes the accompaniment and generally, the simpler the preparation the better. After all, it’s the wine you want to showcase.
If there is a particular taste combination you like, you can start from that point. Perhaps you’ve enjoyed a restaurant dish that combined, for example, crawfish and artichokes. You might take that pairing and create a dish that features the two ingredients in a different manner.
If you’re having guests and you know their preferences or one of their favorite dishes, you can use that as your starting point. There is no greater compliment you can pay a friend than to serve his or her favorite food.
Regardless of how you go about it, creating a menu involves a finely wrought tension between planning and improvisation. A certain amount of planning is necessary – if only to gain a little peace of mind. Few of us can completely wing it when guests are coming. Nevertheless, a rigid adherence to a planned menu can take some of the fun out of the entire experience. It’s far more challenging and more rewarding when you’re open to some last minute improvisation. Often, a sudden inspiration transforms a good dish into a memorable one.
Crawfish Salad with Avocado and Spring Greens 1 pound peeled crawfish tails 1 tablespoon lemon juice 1/2 cup mayonnaise 2 tablespoons ketchup 1/2 teaspoon Tabasco salt to taste 4 ounces mixed salad greens 1 avocado 4 lemon wedges
In a large bowl, combine crawfish and lemon juice. Add mayonnaise, ketchup and Tabasco and stir to mix well. Season with salt.
Arrange salad greens on 4 plates and top with crawfish. Halve avocado, remove pit, peel and cut into 8 slices. Garnish plates with avocado slices and a lemon wedge. Serve with anchovy toasts (recipe follows). Serves 4 Anchovy Toasts 4 tablespoons butter, softened 4 anchovy fillets 8 or more slices French bread 2 cloves garlic, peeled
With a fork, mash anchovies into butter. Toast bread and rub with garlic cloves. Spread generously with anchovy butter. Makes 8 or more toasts, depending on diameter of bread.
Shrimp and Lump Crabmeat with Orzo 8 ounces orzo 1/4 cup olive oil 1 teaspoon minced garlic 1 green bell pepper, diced 1 red bell pepper, diced 1 pound shrimp, peeled and deveined 1 tablespoon lemon juice 1/2 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest 1 pound lump crabmeat salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste cayenne to taste 1/4 cup chopped parsley 1/4 cup chopped scallions, green part only
Cook orzo according to package directions. Meanwhile, in a wok or large skillet over medium-high heat, cook peppers and garlic in olive oil, stirring frequently until slightly softened – about 3 minutes. Add shrimp and cook, stirring until shrimp color – about 2-3 minutes. Add lemon juice, zest and stir to combine. Add crabmeat and cook until heated through, stirring gently. Season to taste with salt and ground peppers.
When orzo is cooked, drain and turn into a large bowl. Add shrimp and crabmeat mixture, parsley and scallions, and toss gently to combine. Adjust seasonings, if necessary. Serves 4.
Roasted Asparagus with Butter and Parmesan 1 pound asparagus 4 tablespoons butter 1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter a baking dish. Trim ends from asparagus and cook in boiling salted water until asparagus begins to soften – about 3 minutes for thin asparagus. Drain asparagus and turn into baking dish. Sprinkle with cheese and dot with butter. Season with salt and pepper. Bake until asparagus is tender and cheese is browned and bubbly – about 20-30 minutes. Serves 4.
Creole Cream Cheese Ice Cream with Fig Preserves and Roasted Pecans 1/2 cup pecan halves 1/8 teaspoon salt creole cream cheese ice cream fig preserves
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Spread pecans on a baking sheet and bake, stirring occasionally, until lightly browned, about 15 minutes. Sprinkle with salt and set aside to cool.
Scoop desired amount of ice cream into serving bowls, add 2 figs and a generous amount of fig syrup to each bowl and sprinkle pecans over the top. Serve with lemon cookies (recipe follows). Serves 4.
Lemon Cookies 1/4 pound butter, softened 1 cup sugar 1 egg 1 tablespoon lemon juice 1 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest 1/2 teaspoon pure lemon extract 1/4 teaspoon salt 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder 1 3/4 cups flour
Preheat oven to 375 degrees and grease 3 cookie sheets. In a mixing bowl, cream butter, slowly adding sugar until fluffy. Add egg, lemon juice, zest and extract, and mix well. Add, salt and baking powder and mix well. Add flour and mix to combine.
Using a teaspoon, turn the dough out onto baking sheets and flatten slightly with back of spoon. Bake until brown around the edges, about 8 minutes. Remove from oven and let cookies cool on pan. Makes about 45 cookies.
This article appears in the Spring 2007 issue of Louisiana Life