Anatomy of a dish
10.29.2014 | Issue #3
Before a plate arrives at the table, warm at the base and rim, confidently landed before you by a graceful server, it spends its days bouncing around in someone's head. It’s just a thought, roused into being by a craving. Notes are scribbled, classic recipes are dog-eared, Instagram is scoured, all in the search for inspiration. Michael Scelfo, chef/owner of Alden & Harlow in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is toying with adding a rabbit and dumplings dish to his menu. We got to watch the final process before he unveiled the result.
BEGINNINGS Scelfo (second from left) originally wanted the dish in the opening menu earlier this year, but needed a fried dish to balance out the offerings. The dumplings took a backseat, with the knowledge that three to five new dishes would have a chance to fight it onto the menu each week. On Sunday, he shoots out brainstorming emails to his team, and at their Tuesday meeting, the floor is open. The dish will make its debut on Friday night.
THE COMPROMISE Despite Scelfo’s admitted boredom with some things and eagerness to create something new, some items are menu stalwarts. “With some dishes I feel like we have a responsibility to give people something to latch onto. They serve a purpose on the menu, and on one level are things that people associate with Alden. That [isn’t] really about me and my ego. It’s always going to be there.”
CONSTRUCTION In between interruptions from vendors and inquiries from the front of the house, the chefs debate the merits of garlic crumbs, lemon zest, black pepper and pancetta skin. Bigger chunks of rabbit meat wins out, versus thinner shreds; one chef wonders if sweet potato flour is an option for the dumplings. Nothing is ruled out, and ideas are expected to be voiced. Local root vegetables round out the plate—turnips, parsnips. “Whatever you guys can get,” Scelfo tells them.
THE RESULT Braised rabbit stew with buttermilk dumplings, pancetta brodo, and roasted roots.
The rabbit—sourced from Pelfry’s in Arkansas—is first cured with salt, sugar, ginger, garlic, and star anise for two days. It's rinsed, confited, and shredded into large chunks. The bones are used along with pancetta trimmings to make a simple brodo, in which the dumplings are poached. Herb-roasted veg is added on pickup. “Every dish we put on the menu is an evolution. We circle back, tighten it up, and get it right out of the kitchen the first time. Then we can try to finesse the plate a little more, get a better deal on the rabbit, the right yield, sort of a behind-the-fourth-wall perspective, then we make more tweaks based on the line, the customer, then get the dish the way we want it. Getting what’s on the plate perfect the first time is all that really matters, we can fix everything else on the back end.”