Bad Ideas in the First Place

Sometimes society’s notion of “classic” food pairings leaves me completely confused and annoyed.

Take the standard “peas and carrots” malarky that we’ve been led to believe, as evidenced by Forrest Gump himself, were made to go together.  Cooked peas and cooked carrots are really two of the seven foods I cannot and will not eat willingly (the other five being hot dogs, meatloaf, bologna, green beans and jarred mayonnaise), so the idea that they were meant to be together in some place other than a Del Monte plastic frozen food bag is at least a tiny bit interesting.  However, until last week, I found it astounding that people with some modicum of food knowledge and self-professed expertise tend to believe in the value of this pairing as well.

Last week was my birthday, whatever, but my wonderful husband gave me the Thomas Keller cookbook duo I’ve lusted after for ten years.  In it, much to my delight and utter surprise, he actually validates my long-held belief in the stupidity of this vegetable combination, and offers up his own version of peas and carrots to basically mock 90 years of food service idiocy.  We had it last night, and yes, it was divine…a chive crepe filled with lobster and mascarpone cheese, atop a swirl of sweet carrot and ginger emulsion with a salad of lemon oil-dressed pea shoots.  I can’t repost the recipe because it isn’t mine, but this is how it looked.

This wasn’t a quick and dirty dinner, by any means.  The lobster glaze took nearly two hours to reduce, the carrot emulsion took nearly as long, the carrot powder about an hour.  But speed isn’t something that we value particularly highly here, so I didn’t mind.  It wasn’t difficult by any means, but it made me remember the last time I was subjected to this ridiculous pairing.  I’ve alluded to it in prior posts, but I guess now is as good a time as any to share the full story.

I’d catered an affair for a friend, and as thanks he took us to what is widely believed to be one of the nicest, trendiest restaurants in the greater Sacramento area.  Without actually naming the place, suffice it to say it’s in a strip mall in Granite Bay, far right corner, heading toward Folsom, swirly writing on the front, fireplace and pond…if you live here, you know what I’m talking about.

Turns out Sunday nights are prix fixe nights, which is normally a chance for chefs to experiment and show off dishes that patrons may not tend to order at first glance.  No choices here; one soup offering, one salad offering, one main dish offering, one dessert offering, period.  We’re always very adventurous eaters, and we were excited about eating at this place, but the menu for that particular night turned my stomach from the onset — soup of cooked carrots (see Hated Foods List above), salad of green beans (see above), main course of meatloaf (see above), with peas (see above) and carrots (see above).  I wasn’t thrilled, to say the least, but I figured a chef at this restaurant would probably have some interesting take on these ingredients, so we didn’t run.  We should have run.

Carrot soup was bland and carrot-y, with nothing added to enhance anything even sort of resembling flavor.  Everything else was served family style.  Green bean salad was soft and wilty and very green-bean-y, like something still uneaten around 4pm at a noon Wisconsin church picnic; and it was covered in shaved carrots.  Meatloaf was ground beef (not even anything interesting or unusual – not venison or veal or even high quality beef…just plain barbecued-burgers-at-home ground beef) with carrot bits inside, and it was completely, and I mean completely, smothered in a peas and carrots mix that I swear my mother used to try to make me eat, meaning it came from a supermarket frozen food shelf.  I couldn’t do it.  I tried the soup, I tried the salad, I even tried the meatloaf, though it’s taken me over a year to admit this publicly.  I couldn’t do another carrot, period.

(Just for kicks, though it has nothing to do with this post, I thought I’d share our dessert experience too:  Homemade marshmallow, very trendy, but browned on a griddle that hadn’t been washed since searing some sort of fish earlier in the day, or heaven forbid, week.  As a girl scout, and as a girl scout camp director, I know how to roast marshmallows.  This is not how you roast marshmallows.)

We nearly stopped at Taco Bell on the way home.  I didn’t even want to think about what our poor host paid for that meal, and the thought of spending even more money on food that night, albeit marginal drive-through food, was more than my stomach could bear.

Never had we ever had a restaurant experience like that one, and thankfully, we haven’t had anything close to similar since.  Whenever I think of peas and carrots, I used to think of that nasty dinner, and though if I try I can still see the unappetizing heap of peas and carrots thrown carelessly and sloppily on top of the family-style slabs of lukewarm meatloaf, thankfully now I’ll instead think of Thomas Keller’s elegant version of the duo.

This has been a good lesson for the kids, too — just because something is a standard, or a classic, or expected to work, doesn’t mean you aren’t allowed to mess with it a little.   Rather than invent entirely new combinations, it’s often best to start with something established and expand upon it until it suits your tastes.  My kids have never been served standard versions of combinations I don’t really understand: minted couscous-stuffed rack of lamb, yes; lamb with mint jelly, no.  Frozen peas and carrots, definitely not; but as soon as I get back to the Asian grocery store for Agar powder, we’ll try a pea shoot salad with warm carrot panna cotta (and that recipe I can post).  Fish and chips?  No.  Grilled mahi mahi with roasted fingerling potatoes?  Yes.

After all, who am I to criticize what the majority of the population believes is a good idea?  But perhaps a little more rebellion and left-handed thinking would do us all good.

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