The philosophy at most of my restaurants celebrates a twist on refined American cuisine in one form or another. At the forefront is merging peak seasonal ingredients with modern cooking techniques to produce pure flavors that can be presented in an innovative fashion. Seasonal trio selections define the elevated food concept that I crafted especially for MICHAEL MINA. The trio concept highlights a primary ingredient that is accessorized with a trilogy of accompaniments; each of the three presentations offers an intricate array of taste sensations. I often describe the trio idea as complex simplicity. The three variations seem complicated when assembled on one plate, but when broken down individually, each is fairly straightforward to prepare. One example is Potato-Crusted Dover Sole (see page 50), which is the master recipe and centerpiece of the plate. The fish is then served with side components of differing vegetables, sauces, and garnishes. The method for preparing the sole remains constant throughout the variations.
In the first preparation, the sole is matched with Cauliflower Purée, Champagne Beurre Blanc, and Champagne Aïoli; cauliflower and champagne are the go-to ingredients in the classic medley. The second variation consists of Roasted Sweet Onion Purée, Malt Vinegar Beurre Blanc, and Classic Tartar Sauce; onion and malt are the flavor vehicles that drive it forward. The final presentation is Truffle Salsify, Beurre Rouge, and Truffle Aïoli; earthy salsify and truffles work together to provide the unifying line that runs through it.
In each interpretation, two or three choice ingredients are featured in a variety of ways to create layers of flavor in the final dish. I most regularly like to fuse one main flavor with a seasonal grouping of vegetables or fruits. The ingredients are utilized in multiple forms-roasted, juiced, or puréed, for instance-to bring the greatest range to their inherent flavor. I try to maintain the purity of the dish by isolating a specific flavor and then concentrating it through changing the way the ingredient has been prepared. Sampling several approaches to the same ingredients I feel teaches you something about your own taste. There isn't so much of any single item as to bore your palate.
When I first suggested this innovative way of presentation to my staff, they were confused; admittedly, I too was unsure of how to successfully pull my ideas together. As challenging as the trio concept has been to execute, I now cannot imagine any other menu for the restaurant. To my knowledge, this concept is unique and it has been great fun to devise an original approach to fine dining.
Prior to committing to the trio concept as a full-time menu idea, I experimented with the notion of eating in triplicate throughout my career. Often it was something as simple as running a foie gras trio as a special or as a course on a tasting menu, which always seemed to be a hit at the table. Over the years, I realized that two variations on a theme didn't have enough impact and four was too many. Three seemed to be the perfect number to make the flavor point.
Since I try to use locally grown, seasonal ingredients in all of my dishes, San Francisco is the perfect venue, as it gives me access to some of the world's best purveyors. There is such a wonderful variety of products available locally and we can quickly access exotic items from around the world. This is most advantageous when putting together the trio dishes, as all of this bounty allows us the freedom to create broad strokes on the plate.
When developing trio dishes it is important to define the flavors individually. Restraint is essential; I follow the old adage that the best ingredient is often the one the chef left out. I take one product, usually a protein, and then let it shine in a trinity of dishes. My goal is to keep the flavors in each variation simple and uncompromised. Each preparation has its own distinct identity, yet envelops an overall fluidity.
Not everyone wants to commit the better part of an evening to dining, so sampling all of the trio variations in a single course compresses an hours-long tasting menu to a reasonable dining period. MICHAEL MINA is located in San Francisco's downtown theater district so we have to acknowledge the time constraints of our theater-going diners. On the other hand, a night at the restaurant could be the high point of the dining-out year with the celebration of a birthday, engagement, or anniversary. So we have to make the dining experience as memorable as possible for both requirements, and the innovative trios do the trick in the most elegant way.
Once I established the trio concept, it was necessary to devise a method of serving the dishes. I knew that without the proper china, the trios would not succeed, since an integral part of fine dining is how the food is showcased on the plate. The china must set the tone of the dish. The trios were more elaborate than a traditional menu so we had to make certain that the finished dishes were impressive, not a group of components spread out across a plate. Consequently, I spent more than a year designing and perfecting a custom line of china that would allow the trios to star. Bernadaud worked with me to manufacture our brand of plateware to display the trio assortment together yet keep the preparations separate so they don't run into each other. Premium china companies commonly work with chefs to produce a table line that matches their singular style. This instance is unique because the china is tailor-made to model a particular menu concept, making it a focal point of the dining experience. I believe that the final plateware displays each dish in its best possible light.
Each trio is presented on a large, tray-like square plate, fitted with three small dish inserts of various shapes and sizes, the star and the teardrop being my favorites. The three variations are lined up in rows, in the same progressive order as the recipes are written. For optimal effect, we encourage guests to flow through the series of tastings from left to right, front to back, with the idea that the finish is the strongest flavor. Obviously, this is not something to worry about when serving these dishes at home, unless you want to make an evening of it.
There are those who eat to live and those who live to eat. I am lucky because so many diners at my restaurants fit into the latter group. It is a challenge and a great deal of fun to cook for them. I believe that a meal is an intimate exchange, a dialogue among the chef, the dish, and the diner. With the trio concept, I have produced a contemporary dining experience that my guests find memorable. There is nothing more rewarding for a chef.
how to make the trios
I decided to make the trio concept the focus of my first cookbook because I believe that it translates so well to the home kitchen. All cooks have foods that they love to prepare and often get so comfortable doing so that they cook the same thing over and over. I know that I often find myself doing this when cooking at home. Such repetition may provide comfort, but it can also be boring-both for the cook and for diners. And that's just what makes the trio concept so useful. Once you get the hang of any master recipe, you have three different ways to enjoy it.
Each trio preparation stands on its own and is equally creative and delicious. You can present one variation one day and introduce the master recipe in another arrangement later on. You will still be using the identical pots and pans and going through the same general routine. I think it is really liberating for home cooks to play with the variations; it frees you up to think on your feet. Once the blueprint of the dish is learned, the trio format is clear-cut.
The structure of each trio is built on a solid foundation; the master recipes are supported by a cluster of components that fit together in tone and content. The fundamentals and focus stay the same, only the flavor combinations revolve. For instance, the marmalades on the Seared Squab Breast (see pages 114-19) require the same process to complete but the fruit in each is the element that alters the outcome.
The trio recipes also encourage versatility by showing how to take each master dish down three avenues of taste simply by adjusting a few techniques and ingredients. The wide range of selections gives each cook the flexibility and freedom to alternate menus with ease, and the ability to master basic recipes, particularly when given insight on how to elaborate on them, builds confidence in the kitchen.
My trio recipes are constructed as fully realized dishes, each serving four standard portions. I suggest that you begin by considering each of the three variations and preparing the one that is most appealing to you. More often than not, most home cooks (including me) will not have the time to prepare all the groupings at once. However, if you are feeling adventurous, make the three variations in unison and present the trios just as I do in the restaurant. It is a clever and interactive way to have a dinner party.
I realize that often, as you flip through the pages of a cookbook, a recipe might pique your interest but you don't have all the ingredients on hand, or a particular component is not a favorite flavor, or everything is not available locally. The trios eliminate these issues because there is enough variety that you are sure to find at least one that you can make without omitting or substituting ingredients.
Although the variations are meant to be prepared and enjoyed together, each dish can be plated individually, as described in the recipe method, or served family-style on platters for more casual dining. Each variation is meant to be prepared and enjoyed together; it is not recommended to mix and match items from one variation to another, unless you are undertaking the whole trio. The formula should always stay the same; three variations of one main ingredient.
While all of the recipes have been written and tested with the home cook in mind, they are not watered-down versions of those we use in the restaurant. They are designed to be prepared in the home kitchen by a single cook. Particularly helpful at home is the fact that many of the components of the trios can be prepared in advance. The main point to remember about the trio concept is that each one is a variation on a theme, not a random selection. So, enjoy learning a master recipe and have fun testing your skill and your palate with the variations.
Excerpted from Michael Mina by Michael Mina Copyright © 2006 by Mina Group, LLC. Excerpted by permission.
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