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We’re changing the way we cook over here at Food52—with articles and recipes and eight weeks of newsletters. Follow along at #f52cooking and let us know how you’re changing the game.
What is a signature dish? A go-to recipe? The one that saves 60% of your weeknights? The failsafe meal you always make for company? A signature dish, to me, is the one specialty I'm known for. On a restaurant menu, it would be called "The Nikkitha," and it would be imbued with my personality by way of an unexpected flavor combination that maybe feels kind of random, but totally works. It wouldn't be fancy, but it would be sophisticated. Most importantly, it would be good, and make diners wonder: "Who is the mastermind behind this cornucopia of flavor in such a simple package? Can I buy her a drink?"
When I polled my family and friends what they considered my “signature dish,” they said the following:
They were all...not my recipes. Not at all. I drove up and down Mopey Avenue. My mom has her lamb biryani; Alison Roman has her chocolate chip shortbread; Italian Futurist Filippo Tommaso Martinelli had his "Excited Pig"—salami immersed in espresso and eau de cologne. (The latter may not sound tasty, but at least it was original!) Is there any dish out there I can call my own?
Looking to recipes, books, and restaurant menus for some encouragement is never hard for me. I bookmarked a Vietnamese caramel chicken recipe from Milk Street; rummaged my desk for the ripped-out Bon Appetit page of tahini-swirled brownies; ate gambas out of a cazuela at a nearby restaurant, which inspired me to buy ingredients for another Spanish dish. Which led me to the next tip…
Play to Your Strengths
If I’m being honest with myself, hands-off, effortless dishes aren't really my thing. I love to follow intricate recipes like magic potions, and spend days planning and prepping to get everything perfect. Which is probably why I want "The Nikkitha" to seem so casually sophisticated ("oh, this?"), even if it's really involved. But if there’s anything I’ve learned from editing a myriad of food articles, it’s that simple, unfussy food can be just as delectable as a complicated Victoria Sponge. In fact, two of my dinner party hits were one-pot or pan meals (Moroccan chicken and rice and pizza chicken just in case you were wondering). But would my signature dish really be that simple, or would it end up being complex, despite my best efforts? Would it be lunch or dessert? Would it waffle?
While my inner culinary adventurer so wanted to buy a cazuela and fresh shrimp at a boutique fishmonger, I opted for something a little less involved, that also happened to make use of what I already had in the fridge.
Sample Different Versions of Your Dish
Luckily, I had inadvertently followed this tip many times before, and decided to combine two dishes that I regularly cook for myself, ones that I’d never make for my friends because they are so so casual that they almost feel too personal, too secretive. One is a riff on this old Bon Appetit recipe for Roast Salmon and Broccoli with Chile-Caper Vinaigrette. I love it for its streamlined approach: Toss the broccoli in olive oil and throw it in the oven for 10 minutes; meanwhile, defrost the fish (I use cod because I'm not a huge salmon fan unless it’s lox), and add it to the sheet pan for another 10 minutes, then make a quickie vinaigrette with chiles, capers, rice vinegar, and more oil, all of which gets thrown over the finished sheet pan meal. I've previously replaced the vinaigrette with tahini, store-bought dressing, drizzles of loosened mayo, or just skipped the sauce entirely—every iteration tastes good.
My other go-to dish is Ina Garten’s roasted Brussels sprouts. Could I combine these two to make my ultimate go-to meal? My specialty, perhaps?
Because I cooked the bacon in the toaster oven
so I could eat a few strips as an appetizer while waiting for my oven to preheat, I had the idea to toss the Brussels sprouts in the bacon fat that would otherwise go to waste. But I didn’t have enough bacon fat to meet Ina’s 3 tablespoons, so I improvised with a little bit of sesame oil. When the sprouts went into the oven, I rubbed the fish with salt, pepper, and some leftover chili oil I made for those sesame noodles.
While the fish and sprouts were co-roasting, I started making my vinaigrette. Fresh out of chile peppers, I reached for a stray shallot and macerated that in the rice vinegar instead. Not exactly a congruous substitute, but it would do. I added the capers and a little more chili oil and called it a day.
I sat down to eat what I hoped would be my new signature dish. How did it come out? Honestly, not great. The cod was rubbery, the Brussels sprout soggy, and the shallot vinaigrette a touch too strong. On a scale of 1 to 5, it was a solid 3, but I wouldn’t let it be my specialty. I'd have to go back to the drawing board.
In the course of trying to nail down my specialty, I realized that I got a huge thrill out of cooking my way through the woods, not sure where I was going, but confident that I’d eventually end up at a dish I’d call my own. And I learned a few valuable nuggets of wisdom along the way:
- Always have fresh chiles
- I’m exceptionally grateful for friends and family who will eat my food without asking any questions.
- You can have more than one specialty. Maybe it's roasted fish with crispy brussels sprouts and Victoria Sponge with passionfruit curd (maybe I'll throw in chocolate chips, for good measure...).
Maybe I haven't yet changed the way I cook (I'll get there!), but I’ve definitely changed my attitude about striving for perfection in my cooking. Do I have a signature dish yet? No, but I'm confident that with plenty of trial and error, I'll land on something simple-yet-sophisticated that feels like my own.
What's your specialty? How did you discover it was yours? Let us know in the comments!