"I don’t think you really get to choose your signature dish. It gets chosen for you by the people who eat your food." Adam Liaw
I'm looking at this image which I have chosen to head this post and wondering why I did. I think it's probably because you can't really make out what the dish on the plate is because of all the multi-coloured splodges on the plate and on the tablecloth, that, with a bit of imagination, might represent the vast array of things to choose from to make that signature dish. A bit far-fetched, and I may well have changed my mind by the time I get to the end of this post.
Why am I writing about signature dishes? Well I know I read something recently about signature dishes but cannot for the life of me think where, and my net trawling today has not found it. So I shall have to improvise. It's an interesting concept anyway.
What I first found when I started looking was a whole lot about what renowned chefs are famous for. So before we get to we 'ordinary' cooks, let's look at four somewhat different examples from famous restaurants/restaurauteurs.
Number one - Heston Blumenthal's Snail porridge:
"a vibrant green parsley, ham and almond-infused porridge, snails, more ham, and shaved and dressed fennel."
Now I shall never get to eat this. I shall never be dining at any of his restaurants, so I cannot say whether it actually tastes good. "Very elegant and very well conceived comfort food" said one diner, so we have to assume it's good. I also gather that it's not that hard to make for yourself - if you like snails and have access to some that is - and the video below has a very young Heston showing you how. Young because I think it may well have been one of the first dishes that marked his entry on to the restaurant scene as someone inventing weird and truly wonderful things. Anyway it has become one of his signature dishes - I think Bacon and egg ice cream is another one. And just to demonstrate that a signature dish is not forever - apparently when he reopens there will be no more snail porridge. So a signature dish that nobody else would have dreamed up - a very idiosyncratic invention. It has died. He's had enough. Well you would wouldn't you?
Number two - Gordon Ramsay's Beef Wellington.
Now Beef Wellington is a classic dish. He did not invent Beef Wellington out of thin air. So why is it his signature dish? Well according to the Fine Dining Lovers website:
"the Gordon Ramsay Beef Wellington recipe ups the Englishness by coating the beef in English mustard instead of pâté to give it an extra kick. He then borrows from Italy, wrapping the beef in Parma ham, which stops the pastry from soaking up the steak’s juices. Ramsay completes a trinity of meats by enriching his duxelles – traditionally just minced mushrooms with shallots and herbs – with a creamy chicken mousse."
So here you have an example of a classic recipe - and it is a well-defined classic recipe - modified and improved upon according to almost everyone, to the point where it has become what Gordon Ramsay is famous for - apart from the bullying and the swearing that is - and incidentally that seems to be disappearing these days anyway. He's reinventing himself as warm and cuddly I think. And you can watch him make that too. It looks pretty simple, but I bet it's more difficult to get it right than you think. I should try some time.
Number three - a Steak Sarnie from Jamie Oliver. Now I found this suggested as his signature dish on one of several sites about chef signature dishes. However, I have to say that it is hard to find a recipe. The one you will find on video is not one of his recipes and is different anyway. This one is from his third book Happy Days with the Naked Chef. Over the years since then he has given out recipes for various steak sandwiches, all of them evolving from the original one. So what we have today as a steak sandwich from Jamie is not quite the same as the original one. I'm including it though for two reasons. One because the spirit of the thing is so very Jamie Oliver - not just the man himself but also where he comes from. And two because it shows that a signature dish can, in fact evolve. Indeed it must be a bit limiting for a creative chef to have a signature dish, or even worse, several signature dishes, preventing you from creating something new because you have to satisfy customer demand.
But before I leave this 'section' consider the Big Mac. MacDonald's signature dish. Like never visiting Heston's Fat Duck, I am never going to MacDonald's, although I have done in the past. Although for completely different reasons of course it must be said that if ever there was a signature dish this is perhaps it. The Big Mac too would have evolved over time, and certainly MacDonald's overall offerings have.
So to return to the original question with respect to the home cook. What is a signature dish in fact? Is it?:
"That one thing I know how to make without a recipe, that I can make well, and that I'd probably bring to every pot luck dinner because it's my go to. It doesn't have to be super fancy or complicated but something you just love and know inside out." Oh Joy
Or, as Adam Liaw suggests and a commenter on the Discuss Cooking. com discussion on this very topic says:
"I'll have to think about whether I want to post what I believe is my best dish and what some others think is my best dish" NiqueJIm on Discuss
Not always the same are they? Then there is the vexed question for the home cook, that the recipe in question may not even be yours in the sense that you invented it. I certainly don't have anything in my repertoire with anywhere near a signature dish label, that I can claim is my own invention. But look - Gordon Ramsay didn't invent Beef Wellington, he just played with it and made it his own. Sure I invent dishes almost every day because I have to produce something from what I have in the fridge, and mostly I can improvise without having to consult recipe books. However, I don't think I can remember any of these inventions being so good as to be repeatable exactly as they were, and certainly I never write them down. For special meals I will search for something interesting that somebody else has invented. I search for the little twists to things which Delia and Robert Carrier are so good at, or beautiful classics, or new and inventive things from the the likes of Ottolenghi and Maggie Beer, or, of course what my mother used to cook.
And what do I think was her signature dish? Well looking back I think my favourite was rabbit stew, but perhaps, in a somewhat sad way because it demonstrates how little money she had to play with sometimes - egg and chips. Which I loved. The eggs were fried and you dipped the chips into them.
The other option is to look at the signature dishes of a national cuisine - the national dishes of this world. Lots of argument there, and I don't really think of them as signature dishes in the same senses.
So back to me. I asked David - and he confirmed - because I had already thought this - that my two signature dishes were both from Robert Carrier - his Spaghetti and meatballs, and his Indonesian kebabs. I think the spaghetti and meatballs probably wins because if we are having a family gathering that's what is always requested. But it's not mine. And I actually don't think I have changed it very much from the original either. It's pretty faithful although I suppose the tomato sauce changes from meal to meal according to what herbs are available and whether there are any leftover bits of gravy or stock or any leftover wine to add to it.
But yes, spaghetti and meatballs it is. I know how to make it without referring to a book. I know it inside out. Just for fun, as I was trawling the net, I found an article on the Taste of Home website titled The Signature dish for your astrological sign which was of course complete nonsense but gave the writer the chance to publicise some of her recipes. And lo and behold here is Spaghetti and meatballs - for Cancer - which is not my sign but which is David's. Her reasoning was:
"Those under the Cancer sign love all things homey and comforting."
Now I absolutely do not believe in astrology, although I have to say that David is very definitely, increasingly so in fact, a home body. I'm sure he won't mind me saying that. Mind you I think of those two dishes the kebabs are his favourite.
For Gemini - my own sign she offered this because:
"Geminis are all about the best of both worlds, just like this sweet-and-savory chicken and waffles recipe!"
Not sure I agree with this choice of dish, although I do like creamy chicken dishes. Not with waffles though. In a pie perhaps or with pasta. Best of both worlds - no - best of all worlds.
But then she hit pay dirt with my older son who is a Leo and who only ever orders Chicken butter cream when we go to an Indian restaurant. This is Chicken tikka masala, which is virtually the same anyway. Mind you her reasoning is not quite spot on:
"Fun and adventurous, Leos are all about experimenting and trying new things."
True for my son in life, but not really when it comes to food. At his favourite restaurants he always orders the same 'signature dish' of the restaurant - or what he at least considers to be his favourite dish.
Irrelevant really looking at the stars, but it was just a little fun. My other son (Aries) was offered a Spicy peach-glazed grilled chicken because:
"Known for their passionate and determined disposition, Aries aren’t afraid to go bold."
Determined I'll go for and not afraid to go bold, but not the chicken as a favourite. He, in fact, is the biggest fan of the spaghetti and meatballs and would live on pasta and pizza if left to his own devices. Fortunately his wife and two daughters are all excellent cooks and make him eat other things.
Do you have a signature dish? I would love to know what it is. I wonder do we all have the same ones, or similar anyway? And if you do have a signature dish, where did it come from, have you made it your own, and how? If you don't know, ask your nearest and dearest, because they may know better than you. Tell us in the comments below.
"Signature dish - It can be thought of as the culinary equivalent of an artist finding their own style, or an author finding their own voice." Wikipedia