It is highly unlikely that you will ever make the dish you see in these pictures. But that’s OK, making this exact dish is not the point. It’s called Sierra Spring, and I created it to help show you how to link time and place on a plate.
Let me start by telling you what you are looking at.
On an existential level, it is the culmination of what is possible to legally catch or gather in our stretch of the Sierra Nevada mountains, right now, in May and early June.
The fish is seared lake trout, which are abundant in nearby Lake Tahoe. The big mushrooms are spring porcini in all their glory. You can see burn morels from the Caldor Fire there, along with bracken fern. The green sauce is a chimichurri made from mountain pennyroyal and Sierra wild onions, with a bit of manzanita vinegar. The orange oil you see is acorn oil, and if you look closely, you will see toasted local pine nuts, and acorn spätzle, too.
Quite the plate, eh? But an impressive list of ingredients does not a tasty plate of food make. I’ve had many, many haute cuisine dishes that look way cooler than they taste — fancy foams and aspics, intricately cut vegetables or meat cooked sous vide for 284 hours at sweaty body temperature or somesuch.
Not my kind of food. Sierra Spring is different. I thought a lot about this dish, on my drives up and down the mountain in search of morels and porcini and other forest treasures. I wanted it to be simple, technically speaking, full of flavors of the forest where we are, here in spring 2022, and balanced in color and flavor and texture.
What makes the dish intricate is how all these elements play with each other. And that’s where many cooks fall down. It almost goes without saying that when you create an element — say, the wild chimichurri — it must taste good on its own. Actually, let me stop for a moment to say that again: When you construct the elements of a dish that has multiple components, each much be delicious. This is as vital in Tuesday night’s “meat and two veg” supper as it is at NOMA or Alinea. You cannot rely on one element to prop up another on the plate.
The reason is why all the elements must be friendly to one another, and, to be honest, really ought to be in mad, sweaty lust for each other: You don’t know how your guest is going to eat them. A dish is only successful if it can be enjoyed in all combinations.
You could eat the lake trout first, without touching anything else on the plate, and enjoy it. Ditto for the bracken fern, or the porcini. Or you can mix and match with every bite.
So how do you get create such a dish where you live?
You have to know your ingredients well enough that you can mentally bounce flavors off each other. And if you can’t, you need to experiment with them in real life enough so you can put those ingredients through their paces. Easy enough with supermarket foods. Harder with wildlings.
I happen to know that morels and porcini and a few other mushrooms fruit at the same time, more or less, here in California. I know that at that time, the bracken fern is just starting. And that the onions and pennyroyal are young and vibrant, too.
Yes, acorns are more of an autumn deal, but here, in normal years, you can gather black oak acorns in spring, before they have sprouted, and be certain none will have weevils because those bugs will have already bored their way out of any infected acorn.
The acorn oil is admittedly fancy and esoteric. But I love the stuff. It’s not from the Sierra, but in theory I could buy an expensive oil press and do it myself, but I don’t have a spare $10,000. My friend Sam Thayer, on the other hand, invested in one. So I bought this glorious stuff from him. (You can buy acorn oil here.)
I’ll walk you through my process here.
Protein started it. I wanted to use bear because this spring we’ve encountered so many signs of bears (I had one close encounter) that it was a natural fit. But I don’t have any on hand, and it’s illegal to hunt bears here in spring, so oh well. Mountain quail or band-tailed pigeon would be options, too, but I’ve already done a fancy pigeon dish, and I think I ate my last mountain quail.
That left trout. Strictly speaking, a native rainbow would have been better, but I’ve also already done a trout and morels dish using one. I wanted a cheffier presentation. Thus the fancypants tranche of lake trout. Seared hard only on one side, like we used to do in the restaurants.
I knew there would be morels and porcini, naturally. I don’t know why no one else seems to cut “calamari rings” out of their morels, because they’re just so damn pretty. And is there anything more lovely than a silhouette of a porcino? I didn’t think so. Both mushrooms were cooked, separately, in butter.
Strictly speaking I didn’t need a “green thing” on the plate, but I wanted one, and I love the shape of the bracken fern shoots. (Here’s a tutorial on how to safely prepare bracken, which can be toxic in some situations.) They too were blanched and cooked briefly in butter.
I make acorn spätzle a lot, as it is a great use for homemade acorn flour, and it is the starch element to the plate. Not every plate of food you need requires a carb element, but it’s always something to think about. And that element ought to make sense, like rice in an Arkansas duck dish or barley with North Dakota walleye.
That leaves the chimichurri. It’s the bright, herbal element to the dish, which would be otherwise very rich and heavy. Mountain pennyroyal is a lovely local herb I use a lot, along with it’s Valley cousin, coyote mint. Both are monardellas, relatives of both actual oregano and mint. And no dish in my world exists without at least some sort of allium, thus the Sierra wild onions.
Final touches were that acorn oil for color and richness, and toasted local pine nuts for crunch.
If you’re with me this far, I am grateful. I know it’s just a plate of food, but to me, these dishes mean so much more. They are opportunities to stretch a little as a chef, and to really present the glorious individuality of what my little corner of the world has to offer, at this moment.
And I want you to be able to do it, too. Here’s a way of thinking that will help you out.
Start by knowing what is in season where you live, farmed or wild. That goes a long way. I want to stab someone (not really) whenever I see asparagus served in October. It’s a spring ingredient, fer chrissakes. Once you know what’s around, you can start bouncing ideas around in your head.
Anchor the plate with a protein, or something grand. Maybe it’s a whole porcino, or a piece of fish or venison or chicken. Or a little pile of smoked oysters. What does that protein like to be around?
Here’s where you can get lost quick. My advice is to buy a cool book called The Flavor Bible. It’s older, and a bit incomplete, but still extremely useful for creating new dishes. It’s basically a list of ingredients, with lists of complementary ingredients under them. Does X ingredient work with Y? Check the book.
It’s also useful for that ingredient-to-ingredient, element-to-element pinball you need to master for a successful dish. Maybe A works with B, and B works with C, but C is terrible with A. Something like that can wreck a dish. You see it happen a lot, even on “Top Chef.”
Think about texture. Is everything on the plate soft? Then you need something that isn’t. And vice versa, which is why you see purees with steaks a lot.
Shapes and color matter, but aren’t critical. Mixing and arranging pleasing shapes and colors on a plate will make a good dish great, and it’s something I think about a lot with this sort of dish. I loved how yellow the lake trout was, how well it went with the acorn oil and contrasted with the chimichurri.
From a purely chef/cook standpoint, temperature is important. If you have lots of elements to make, they can’t all be made at the same time, obviously, so how do you structure your work? Cooking something, and holding it in the oven set to “warm” helps a lot. With Sierra Spring, the fish was the last thing I cooked. When it was done, I plated.
And that famous book Salt Fat Acid Heat has it right. Everything needs to be seasoned by itself so it’s tasty. You need some fatty element somewhere — otherwise it’s awful spa food. Acidity or tartness wakes us all up and makes you enjoy starchy or fatty elements more. And heat is optional, but nice. And it need not be chiles. Horseradish or mustard or wasabi or black pepper will get you there, too.
Finally, and this is by far the most important thing to remember, is that you must not be afraid to fail.
We all have busy lives. And with wild ingredients, you sometimes only get one or two chances to work with an ingredient each year. I once worked with an ingredient, off and on, for a decade before I was ready to post my findings.
But if you freeze up and play it safe all the time, you’ll never find that joy of a plate of food that is wholly, completely yours, that is wonderful in every way, and that you get to feed those you love.
Tell me about your cooking experiments, your successes and your failures. I’d love to hear what you are working on!