Inspiration for a new dish often strikes me in odd moments.
Some flavor combinations come to me in dreams, if you can believe that.
Others lay in wait in my subconscious mind and pop out in the midst of a conversation about an unrelated topic.
The kernel of the idea for this appetizer, which consists of strawberries macerated in a bit of sugar, black pepper and rosewater, topped with chevre which has been breaded with matzo meal and lightly fried, and dressed with pomegranate vinaigrette, came circuitously into my consciousness by way of seeing batik fabric that called to mind the exact shade of strawberries, combined with flecks of gold and swirls of deep, rich reddish brown.
These colors danced into my mind, and as I stared at the fabric, I had a taste memory of some strawberries I had once eaten at a fine Italian restaurant in Boston which had been lightly sugared, then seasoned with balsamic vinegar and black pepper. The unlikely combination popped on my palate, flooding my senses with wild imaginings of satyrs playing flutes for golden nymphs dancing on meadows perfumed by the wild strawberries they crushed underfoot and fed each other with rosy-stained fingers.
But as the fabric’s colors danced to the satyrs’ reedy melody in my imaginal memory, balsamic vinegar was replaced with pomegranate molasses–for years, every summer at least once or twice, I had been serving a leafy green salad with strawberries, almonds and pomegranate vinaigrette to great effect. And, of course, as I pondered salad, I remembered how well-loved a bit of fried chevre is when presented with greens and a tart dressing.
And so, as it traveled through my imagination, the dish evolved from a dessert I had tasted over a decade ago, to a combination of two of my favorite salads, finally coming together as an appetizer that combines bits of each of these dishes into a cohesive whole.
And it all came about while I was shopping for quilt fabric.
Such is the way in which my mind works–ideas bubble up from my subconscious, stirred by the most unlikely of utensils.
I am certain that you will want a recipe for this dish, but the truth is that I cannot give you one.
Not an exact one, anyway.
Well, so much of the dish is contingent upon the flavors and textures of each component. The thickness of the chevre patty depends on the texture of the cheese–if it is firmer, then it can be cut more thinly–if it is very soft, it should be shaped to be more thick. The seasoning of the strawberries requires an understanding of how sweet your berries are–if they are very ripe, they will need a minimal amount of sugar–only enough to bring out the juice and soften the berries to a velvety finish. If they are more tart, not only will they take more sugar, but also a tiny bit more rosewater, to bring out the floral quality in their fragrance. And if they are too sweet, the tiniest of pinches extra of the freshly ground black pepper will not only counterbalance the sugar, but it will also bring out a haunting fragrance that the berries possess which can often be overpowered by a too heavy hand with the sugar spoon.
The amount of sugar and oil you add to the pomegranate molasses to make the vinaigrette also depends upon the acidity of the molasses itself. Each brand differs in flavor, thickness and color, so I suggest that cooks make salad dressings with whatever molasses they have on hand, doing it all by taste and feel. I will say that the basic ratio of oil to molasses is about 3:1–as is the case with the strawberries, it is the amount of sugar which is variable, depending on the intrinsic flavor of the boiled down pomegranate juice. (Which is, of course, all that pomegranate molasses is–pomegranate juice boiled down to a thick, dark, sour-sweet syrup.)
Just use a judicious hand in making a dish like this. The beauty in it comes from the interplay between the fragrant, sensuous berries, kissed by two floral aromas–rosewater and black pepper–, the chevre, with its golden crisped exterior and melty, tangy interior, and the sweet and sour notes from the vinaigrette, which ties everything together. Do not add too much sugar, use a light hand with the rosewater and black pepper, and drizzle the vinaigrette onto the plate and the cheese with a squeeze bottle for perfect control.
And please don’t forget to take out your chevre patties to let them warm up slightly before dipping them in lightly beaten egg whites and then coating them in matzo meal. If they are completely cold from the fridge, the center will not become melted enough to be interesting. And fry them in a neutral flavored oil like canola, over medium heat. You want the oil to only be a scant 1/2 inch deep in the pan and you want it to be hot enough that the patties will start to bubble immediately upon entering the pan, but not so hot that the coating immediately begins to burn.
You want it to cook quickly enough to not soak up too much oil, but not so quickly that the matzo scorches, leaving a nasty, acrid taste in the back of the diner’s palate after they take a bite.
I hope that my instructions and admonitions are not too vague to be of use–but I really haven’t developed this into a full-fledged, tested recipe.
I only just ran it as an appetizer special this Friday, when it sold out two thirds of the way through the evening, so in essence, I was cooking by the seat of my pants.
And, judging by the blissful expressions and soft moans coming from the tables, I believe that my navigation was unerring as I brought dish inspired by a piece of fabric, a dessert I ate once long ago and the sweet song from a satyr’s flute from the liminal world of my imagination into the realm of consensual reality.
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