Dana Disaster

October 2, 2008

This photo is the highlight of what was supposed to be dinner for clients tonight. Proof that anything tastes better fried. These are rice noodles fried for less than a minute in 350 degree oil – totally addictive and snack worthy.

It was bound to happen sometime. In the two and a half years that I have been cooking for my clients, I have never had a disaster. Sometimes a portion of my menu doesn’t turn out like I planned, but overall I have always felt proud of the food that I bring them. And inevitably, the food that I am most unsure about is the food that they like best.

But today, I was too ambitious and it backfired on me. Recently, I was rocked by the news that one of my clients doesn’t like Asian food, but after reading about it here, his wife let me know that what he really doesn’t like is stir-fries. Overall, Asian food is not his favorite but is all right.

So, I got it into my head that I wanted to make a very non-stir-fry-yet-still-Asian dinner. As I was menu planning last week, I turned to one of my most labor-intensive and yet incredible food cookbooks – The Artful Vegan. Tuesday’s menu had a North African slant and I wanted to make their incredible Dolmas recipe. Instead of rice, you use Israeli couscous and buckwheat groats which are tossed with dried cherries and pine nuts. The dipping sauce is made from toasted sesame seeds, thyme, sumac (which are ground berries with a sour flavor), and olive oil. Very complex flavors and totally addictive – even for someone like me who doesn’t love stuffed grape leaves.

This cookbook comes from the Millennium Restaurant in San Francisco – a vegan Mecca. I had the good fortune to eat there once and it almost made me cry to have to decide what to order. Fortunately, I was there with a large group and got to taste almost everything on the menu – all of it extremely complex and flavorful without totally overwhelming my palate. In my experience,vegan food – unless I am making it myself – either totally falls flat and has no taste at all, or totally overcompensates and adds so many layers of flavoring that my tongue gets tired eating it.

I have both of Millennium’s cookbooks and the food is definitely special occasion cooking. Very time consuming yet very rewarding. So, why did I decide to make three of their recipes in one week? Sometimes I get an idea in my head and plain old reason doesn’t dissuade me.

Tonight’s dinner was supposed to be:
Tofu Skewers with Peanut Sauce

Miso Broiled Eggplant on Rice Noodle Cakes
Asian Guacamole Salad

Here is what went wrong.

Tofu: I thought I had skewers but I didn’t, so I just tried to grill the marinated tofu and it totally stuck to the grill. I had to pull it off in very unattractive pieces but thought that the amazing peanut sauce would compensate for the unappetizing look.

Eggplant: Where to begin… In typical Millennium fashion, this dish had four completely different components. The eggplant, the noodle cakes, the walnut miso sauce, and the wasabi “cream” sauce. The sauces were incredible and totally something I would make again for dipping with vegetables or pita (which is how Randy and I ate them tonight.) The eggplant is made in the broiler and because I was trying to do too many things at once, they burned. The noodle cakes – oy. They probably would have been good but were totally something that needed to be made right before serving and they just got greasy and unappetizing. Plus they starred arame which is a type of seaweed and as I was started sauteeing them, I thought to myself, “Mark (my client) is going to hate this.”

Salad: The best part of this dish was the fried rice noodles. The rest of it would have been totally fine if the other parts of the menu hadn’t tanked.

So, mid-way through the rice cakes, I stepped back and said, “This menu isn’t fit for my clients” and walked away from it. Randy and I ended up eating a salad that starred the tofu, eggplant, lettuce and other veggies I had on hand with the peanut sauce as dressing, and pita with the dips.

If this is your first visit here, you may be asking yourself why on earth anyone would ever hire me to be their personal chef. The truth is that most of the food I make is quite good and I rarely make dinner altering mistakes. Tonight was a good lesson in humility.

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