Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Film Food

In the spirit of the Oscars this week and my favorite Top Chef "Film Food" episode from last season, I am continuing my list of food inspired by favorite movies. My last post was a cocktail list, and if I were hosting a cocktail party, "Breakfast At Tiffany's"-style or otherwise, many of those potent potables would have fit in quite nicely. But now I'm ready to move onto dinner, ranging from light starters to more substantial courses.

One could do very literal interpretations of food presented in any film, but that's not the route I want to take here. For example, It would be fairly obvious to do liver with some fava beans and a nice chianti for “Silence of the Lambs” as an exact recreation of one of Hannibal Lecter’s meals in prison. But I think it’s more fun to come up with dishes that require a bit more imagination than just taking a dish or a menu exactly off the big screen.

What kind of meal would YOU make, as inspired by your favorite films?? I would relish reading any of your ideas, if you would be so kind as to leave a comment on this post! To jump-start your cinematically-driven culinary creativity, here are my Top Ten Dishes inspired by a few more of my favorite movies. (Yes, I have many favorites!)

10. Stuffed Dates: "Raiders of the Lost Ark". Indiana Jones is in possession of an ancient medallion engraved with cryptic markings which could provide a clue to the resting place of the lost Ark of the Covenant. Hoping to discover the Ark before the Nazis do, Indy and his friend Sallah take the medallion to a wise old sage in Cairo who deciphers the mysterious markings. A bowl of dates has been placed on the table for the two guests, but the dates have been surreptitiously poisoned by one of the many nefarious characters trailing Indy. Fortunately Indiana is saved from eating the poisonous dates just in the nick of time. I would lace a platter of dates with something altogether different, as one of my favorite ways to start a meal is to stuff dates with a little goat cheese, wrap each one in a paper-thin ribbon of prosciutto, and stick them under the broiler until the prosciutto beings to crisp and the cheese melts inside. Nobody could ever declare these "bad dates"!

9. Deviled Eggs : "Cool Hand Luke". One of the most memorable scenes in "Cool Hand Luke" is when Paul Newman takes on a bet from that he can't eat 50 hard-boiled eggs in an hour, one egg for each of the men who are imprisoned in a work camp with him. Of course this irrepressible rebel manages to down them all, winning the respect and admiration of all of his fellow prisoners. Hard-boiled eggs on their own don't do much for me, but deviled eggs are a different story, especially when they yolks are seasoned in different ways. In addition to the requisite mayonnaise and a dash of dry mustard, I often mix the hard-boiled yolks with lemon zest and chives or with capers. I've been known to sprinkle them with intoxicating smoked paprika, and if I want a real treat I will blend the yolks with crumbled crispy bacon and a healthy spoonful of horseradish. (YUM!) If I'd been given a plate of my addictive Deviled Egg Variations, I might actually have given Paul a run for his money in the egg-eating contest.

8. Oysters and Pearls : "Ocean's Eleven". One of the most fun caper-buddy movies in recent years, "Ocean's Eleven" is a real ride as George Clooney plans an elaborate heist to knock off a trio of Vegas casinos owned by the man who stole his girl. I would like to create a dish for Andy Garcia's shark-like casino owner and the other high rollers who are dropping serious wads of cash. It would make sense to bring out "Oysters and Pearls", one of the signature dishes created by the endlessly inventive Thomas Keller, the culinary wizard at The French Laundry in Yountville, CA. This dazzling dish is perfect for a major high roller: a decadent sabayon of pearl tapioca with Malpeque oysters and topped with a generous dollop of osetra caviar.

7. Golden Polenta with Sauteed Wild Mushrooms : "A Room WIth A View". In this favorite novel/film of mine, Lucy Honeychurch is a young Englishwoman who is forever changed by her encounter with George Emerson on a trip to Florence. George is an unusual and intelligent young man who sees that underneath Lucy's proper exterior lies a very passionate soul waiting to be awakened. On a day trip to the Italian countryside, he kisses her boldly, and this unexpected kiss sets the course of Lucy's life (and the movie itself) in an entirely new direction. In honor of the rustic Tuscan countryside, I would make creamy polenta, the same color as the golden fields of flowers in which this astonishing kiss takes place. As a variation on a recipe posted on 11/11/08, I would top the polenta with a saute of porcini mushrooms, earthy and intoxicating all at once, seasoning it with a bit of thyme and a light grating of local Pecorino cheese.

6. Lobster, Roasted Corn and Tomato Salad: "Annie Hall". When Alvy Singer (Woody Allen) takes Annie Hall (Diane Keaton) to a deli on their first date, it's clear which one of them is the hard-core New Yorker and which one grew up in Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin. Alvy's expression of outrage and disbelief is priceless when Annie orders "pastrami on white bread with mayonnaise and lettuce", and it's almost miraculous that they had a second date after that. Their quirky offbeat romance mainly takes place in Manhattan, though there is a very hilarious episode in a Long Island summer house where they have a major adventure trying to prepare a meal out of several very energetic live lobsters! Inspired by those lobsters and the incredible produce that is in season in the late summer there, I would prepare a salad of roasted corn and heirloom tomatoes combined with torn fresh basil leaves and some of that buttery poached lobster meat.

5. California-style Pizza : "L.A.Story". Perhaps one of the reasons I love "L.A. Story" so much is that it resonates on a very particular level for me, having grown up in L.A. in the late 1980s myself. I can relate to the sunshine being so pervasive that rain is unthinkable, as well as the weird phenomenon of driving your car for ridiculously short distances, though I was never quite as bad as Steve Martin's character who gets in his car to go a quarter of a block! As for the "California cuisine" that all the restaurants in this movie proudly serve, I am instantly transported back to the time period in my life where one of my favorite things to eat was California-style pizzas. These pizzas had very little to do with the Neapolitan-style extra-thin pizzas that I now crave, in which the simpler it is, the better it tastes. But there was definitely a chapter in my teenaged life once upon a time where nothing made me happier than a pizza topped with barbecued chicken, red onions, cilantro and smoked gouda cheese! And for a classic flavor trio from the late 80's and early 90's in which this whimsical comedy takes place, I would definitely have to include a pizza gussied up with pesto, sun-dried tomatoes and goat cheese.

4. Grilled Whole Branzino and Herb-Roasted Potatoes: "A Fish Called Wanda". This madcap comedy about a jewel heist gone wrong is one of my favorite flicks, as Kevin Kline and Jamie Lee Curtis team up brilliantly with Monty Python alums, John Cleese and Michael Palin. Kevin Kline won an Oscar for his turn as Otto, a not-so-bright martial arts expert who spouts philosophy but whose greatest fear is being thought of as "stupid". In trying to find out where the jewels are hidden, he does a sick-but-hilarious interrogation of Michael Palin, an animal-lover with a profound stutter, in which a tank full of tropical fish is taken hostage and an order of fries is put to inglorious use. Fish&Chips, the English contribution to world cuisine, would be the obvious dish to spring from this wacky comedy. But as a nod to Jamie Lee Curtis' character, a foxy woman who wraps all the men around her little finger and who becomes wildly turned on to hilarious effect by any man speaking Italian to her, I'm going to do my fish&chips Italian-style: a grilled whole branzino (sea bass) with plenty of olive oil and lemon, and potatoes tossed with garlic, rosemary and olive oil, roasted until achingly crisp.

3. Baked Rigatoni and Meatballs : "Moonstruck". There are at least three love stories happening in this delightful comedy, all of them involving members of the same family. When Loretta (Cher) falls for the estranged brother (Nicolas Cage) of her fiancee, the emotions run sky-high and tempers flare out of control. Meanwhile, her parents and her aunt and uncle are playing out their own love stories as well, and these entwined stories take place against a soaring musical backdrop of Puccini's "La Boheme". But the family that eats together will stay together, no matter how much drama they have to experience at the kitchen table. I would have to offer my friend Sylvia's incredible Baked Rigatoni with Meatballs, from an old family recipe of hers, of course! This is a dish that is both gutsy and ultimately comforting, making you feel that no matter what you're going through, everything is going to be all right in the end.

2. Couscous with Chickpeas, Toasted Almonds and Dates : "The English Patient". To me, this is Kristen Scott Thomas and Ralph Fiennes at their most beautiful and most heartbreaking in a movie I love dearly but can't watch more than once a year! It is a multi-layered story on a grand scale, weaving together several plot threads about love in various forms, fate, misunderstanding and reconciliation, and the search for identity. A visually stunning film that haunts me for days after each viewing, I am inspired by those sweeping shots of the North African desert in which much of the movie takes place. I'm feeling compelled to make a fabulous couscous studded with chickpeas, slivered scallions, toasted almonds and chopped dates. This dish is perfumed with coriander and cardamom, and when it is mounded on a serving platter, it looks like the sand dunes that were my initial inspiration for this. And this dish would go quite well with my final dish on this Top Ten list....

1. Chicken Tagine : "Casablanca". This was the first thing that popped into my head when I first watched the Top Chef Film Food challenge last year. One of the greatest film-viewing experiences of my life occurred when the majestic Ziegfeld Theatre in NYC showed some great Hollywood classics during a two-week festival, and I had the immense pleasure of seeing "Casablanca" on that grand screen. Having watched this masterpiece multiple times via video and DVD on televisions of varying sizes, it was absolutely breathtaking to see Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman literally larger than life on that enormous Ziegfeld screen. I'd never experienced black-and-white photography so luminous, and though I knew every line of the film, I found myself swept up in the drama of the star-crossed lovers Rick and Ilsa as never before. Talk about a gorgeous movie on every possible level!

For my final FIlm Food challenge, I needed an appropriately gorgeous dish to match the story, so I've chosen a classic Moroccan dish: a chicken tagine. Traditionally slow-cooked in a conical Moroccan clay pot (called a 'tagine'), this chicken and vegetable dish is redolent with preserved lemons, toasted almonds and a riot of spices, such as ginger, coriander, turmeric, paprika and cinnamon. The tagine's cone-shaped lid traps moisture and aromas, creating a dish that is impossibly fragrant and succulent. I can't help thinking that if Rick had served Ilsa a dish like this while she was in Casablanca, who knows how the movie might have turned out otherwise?

No comments: