At some point, everyone who cooks decides what kind of cook to be. Many people aspire to enough cooking skill to turn out reliable family favorites; others hope to produce nutritious, healthful meals; some look forward to weekend mastery of the grill. Some professionals tread in others’ steps, whether at chain restaurants or on the line at classic French restaurants; others attain mastery of niche cuisines; still others forge their own cuisine, synthesizing their experiences and constantly evolving.
Invariably, cooking involves emulation. It’s how you learn, and it’s how you decide what to keep and what to toss when developing your own style. In School of Rock, Jack Black’s character tells one of his students, who’s been writing his own songs in secret, to give it up to the rest of the class. “That’s what bands do,” he says. “Play each others’ songs.” And that’s what cooks do – cook each others’ food. Talking about food, eating out at different restaurants and trying out what you’ve learned, adjusting to your taste and incorporating new techniques, is the best way to keep from becoming entrenched and passé.
Recently, a dinner guest asked me to post the recipe for an edible “soil” served with a garden salad a few weeks ago, so she could try it out at home. The soil recipe follows, but first a note about emulation and innovation. Edible soil is one of many ideas in the school of trompe l’oeil (“fool the eye”) cooking. It looks like dirt, and when served with appropriate vegetables, conveys the idea of freshly-picked produce straight from the garden, still dusted with earth. I’m not totally sure who introduced the concept to the dining public, but I’ve had it in several places during the last few years, including at Manresa, where David Kinch takes you “into the vegetable garden,” and at a private dinner by R.J. Cooper. If I had to guess, though, I’d say the idea originated with René Redzepi at Noma, who evokes Danish terroir in all dishes, none more obviously than “Radishes in Edible Soil.” Playing each others’ songs, cooking each others’ food.
True to Danish inspiration, Redzepi’s soil features malt and beer tastes, fermented tastes reminiscent of the grains and preserved foods that make up so much classic Danish cuisine. Kinch’s soil counters the natural sweetness of fresh California vegetables with bitter dried chicory, mellowed by dried potato. At Gilt in NYC, Justin Bogle moves closer still to the earth, combining dried mushroom with charred onion ash. Each selected ingredients meant to convey a specific idea.
So, back to the recipe request. The dinner in question was based in Mediterranean flavors – tomatoes, zucchini, eggplant, yoghurt, olives. I had a load of gorgeous, locally grown vegetables from the daily farmer’s market at Union Station. How to tie the two together? Simple – with an edible soil of kalamata olives. Dried and ground with dehydrated mushrooms and toasted nuts, the end result not only looked exactly like potting soil, but brought the vegetables into the Mediterranean theme.
Choose a meaty, richly flavored purple/black mushroom. Don’t try this dish with canned California black olives. Or I suppose you can, but it won’t have the rich taste of kalamatas or niçoise olives.
I use a food dehydrator (uses less power than an oven), but I’ve also prepared this soil and other dehydrated items in a regular convection oven. Be sure to use the convection setting; otherwise it may take forever for your items to dry. Once you grind the mushrooms, be sure to remove anything larger than a grain of kosher salt (spoon them out or use a sieve). The larger pieces are hard as rocks and you don’t want to break your teeth.
12 oz kalamata or niçoise olives (drained of brine)
1 lb cremini mushrooms, stemmed
8 oz maitake (hen of the woods) mushrooms, broken into chunks
8 oz shiitake mushrooms, stemmed
3 oz walnuts
Set the food dehydrator or convection oven to 150F. Spread the olives and mushrooms on separate trays (if using the oven, a half sheet pan lined with silpat is best) and slide into the oven or dehydrator. Dry overnight or for about 12 hours, or more if necessary. The mushrooms may be dry sooner; you can pull them then. The olives will not become completely brittle due to oil content. Cool completely.
In a separate oven (or toaster oven), heat the walnuts until they reach a deep golden brown color. Remove from heat and cool completely.
Grind the mushrooms first in batches in a spice grinder, or in a food processor. Remove large chunks that do not grind. Shiitake mushrooms are especially hard and difficult to grind if overdry. Wait a few minutes and be careful when releasing the lid; the mixture is powdery, and you should wait for it to settle. Spoon into an airtight container.
Without rinsing out the container, grind the nuts first with about 1 tbsp mushroom powder and spoon into an airtight container. Do not overgrind; stop before the mixture resembles nut butter. If the mixture contains large bits, remove them. Then grind the dry olives, again without rinsing the container. The olives will grind to a somewhat oily consistency and will not be powdery. Don’t worry; you need this oiliness to bind the mushroom dust.
Mix the three products together, reserving a few tbsp of each, adding back more olive, nut, or mushroom powder as necessary. Store in an airtight container. The edible soil mixture will keep for weeks if it is dry and tightly sealed.
This is a simple salad of thinly sliced vegetables, dressed simply and plated with edible soil. You don’t have to use the same vegetables I used – this is what the farmer’s market yielded, but depending on the season and your location, other vegetables may suit better. .
Don’t season the salad greens with salt. They will wilt, and what’s more, they’ll be too salty once stirred together with the salty edible soil. Use loads of herbs (except cilantro, rosemary, or sage, which are too strong and/or dissonant).
Although the pictured dish is plated simply, if you have time (I did not), you can arrange vegetables, herbs, and edible flowers cleverly in or atop the soil for a beautiful presentation
1 small zucchini
1 small yellow squash, or pattypan squash
6 french breakfast radishes, scrubbed well
1 chioggia beet, scrubbed well
2 c arugula, washed and spun dry
1/3 c each chervil, parsley
small handful each tarragon, savory leaves
if available: edible flowers, such as violets, dianthus, nasturtium (be sure they are clean and not treated with pesticides)
extra-virgin olive oil
2 tbsp sherry vinegar
Slice the squash paper thin with a mandoline. Refrigerate. Slice the radishes and beets paper thin as well; immerse the radishes in ice water and refrigerate. Immerse the beets in ice water with 1 tbsp sherry vinegar and refrigerate. If serving immediately, you can skip the water bath, but it keeps the vegetables crisp and ice-cold.
When ready to serve, drain the radish and beets well. Combine in a large bowl with the sliced squash, the herbs, arugula, and pea shoots. Drizzle with olive oil and toss with clean hands until each bit is lightly coated with oil. Plate atop edible soil. Mist vegetables but not soil with sherry vinegar (or drizzle carefully). Garnish with edible flowers if using.