The Art of "Taste It, Now Make It": Recreating Family Dishes

By: Michael Engle

There are only a few aspects that are held constant in Gordon Ramsay's television show Hell's Kitchen from season to season.  Shortly before the red and blue teams combine to form the "black team" (or, according to certain alpha-minded individuals, the "everyone for him/herself team"), each remaining contestant takes Gordon's blind taste test. In this challenge, each person is blindfolded, given noise-canceling headphones, and asked to identify four simple foods, such as Swiss cheese, hard-boiled egg yolk, or cilantro.

However, the most significant challenge--which, according to Gordon, separates the cooks from the chefs--is the "Taste It, Now Make It" challenge. Each aspect of the contestants' replicas are dissected, from the consistencies of their sauces, to the proper temperature of the appropriate cut of meat, and even to the decision between the use of prosciutto or Serrano ham. If, instead of under the scrutinizing eyes of Gordon Ramsay and the FOX cameras, you seek to recreate dishes in your own home, there is no such thing as a mistake that can eliminate you from a $250,000 prize. Instead, as Alina Dizik writes for The Wall Street Journal, making the perfect recreation of an old dish--in the absence, or with the incompleteness or ambiguity, of a written recipe--can channel a satisfying sense of nostalgia, while providing an invaluable link to family traditions and history.

Even though certain factors, such as equipment and ingredients, may change, memories and legacies imparted by "my grandmother's way" can be disrupted by the smallest variation. In Dizik's article, Sgt. Maj. Mark Warren mentioned his "close, but not quite my mom's" lobster bisque. Per Warren's brother's suggestion, he eliminated the cognac in favor of a dark rum, with instant success. In other instances, the equipment is as important as the ingredients. The owners of Fleur de Lis Pizza in Baton Rouge, LA consider their old-style cookie sheets to be of paramount necessity; however, since the old cookie sheets differ enough from modern and readily-available ones, the Rushing family employs a sheet metal factory to make custom pans for the restaurant.

Thanks to the internet, it is relatively easy to do some research, in order to take educated guesses as to how to perfectly recreate your family's take on your favorite comfort food. For instance, it would not make much sense to make an "old-style" gefilte fish out of Ahi tuna. Aside from the fact that Eastern European Jews would not have had ready access to Pacific Ocean fish, they likely would have opted for a more "traditional" and economical fish, such as pike, carp, or whitefish, instead. After you settle on the ingredients, you can then compare and contrast the preparation and cooking instructions, and eventually tweak the final recipe to perfection.

At Red Rooster, Marcus Samuelsson draws upon many sources of comfort food, based on his own diverse experiences from his childhood. One of his specialties at the restaurant is his own grandmother's recipe, Helga's Meatballs. Meanwhile, in my family, we occasionally slow-roast a brisket with a mixture of tomato paste, brown sugar, seasonings, and an envelope of Lipton's Onion Soup mix. While specific ingredients may be hard to recall in traditional family recipes, familiar tastes and memories are strong enough to help you recreate your own version of your favorite dishes.

Photo: Wayan Vota

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