Planning a menu is a lot like writing a story. A meal, like a story, must have an arc. It must draw you in at the beginning, keep you excited and engaged in the middle, and leave you surprised and sated in the end. It must bring you up, bring you down, and back up again (a good meal will do this several times).
When planning a menu for one of my Wild Kitchen dinners, I try to put myself into the shoes of the eater. What would make my mouth water before I begin, and how will I feel when I'm done? The meals I serve are generally eight courses, quite a few more than most people would eat on a normal night, so how people are going to walk away feeling is a concern. I don't want people to pay $80 to waddle out the door with heartburn, regretting the experience, bracing their hands on the bathroom sink at home later and staring into their own reflections with remorse, cursing the wild boar osso bucco I labored so hard to create. I also don't want them leave hungry after what is often a four-hour meal. So as in all things, I must find balance.
I start with the ingredients at hand. My meals are focused on local, wild foraged foods, so my palate is smaller than most. I look around to see what is abundant at this point in the season, and build the menu around those ingredients. What goes well with the intense "green" flavor of nettle? Fresh mozzarella and heirloom tomatoes. Wild foraged escargot is a favorite, but people don't really want to eat a whole plate of snails, so I hide them in oven-roasted crimini mushroom caps. Just like the overall menu, each course must also have balance.
Next I think of the overall experience of the meal. Next I think about the overall experience of the meal. The beginning, the middle, and the end; the culinary journey I want to take my guests on. Here's a recent menu/sample menu/whatever from a ForageSF dinner and how I planned it to keep diners engaged, surprised, entertained, and, most of all, satisfied.
Introduction: San Francisco Foraged Escargot in a White Wine Butter Reduction, Served in Oven Roasted Crimini Mushroom Caps
How do I excite my eaters? Give them a taste of what's to come, and get them engaged in the ideas surrounding the meal. Snails are a hit here, and so small that it doesn't make much of a dent in their appetite.
Chapter 1: A Crisp Soup of Local Nettle and Wild Onions with Cowgirl Creamery Crème Fraiche
People are getting hungry now, so they need something to do with that hunger. At this point a salad would be traditional, but since I like to save that for the end of the meal, I'll serve a soup. This is a good start, basically a potato leek, but added cream, wild onion, and nettle adds a lot of complexity.
Chapter 2: Wild Nettle Flatbread with Homemade Mozzarella, Wild Nettle Pistou, Heirloom Tomatoes, and Cattail Hearts
Now people have something in their stomach, but need some real sustenance. Something crisp to counteract the liquid of the last course. I could have done that with bread in the soup course, but that would have filled them up too much. Two courses featuring nettle might seem like a lot, but it shows people a couple of different ways to use the ingredient, each one unique. The garlic, nettle, mozzarella, tomato, and crisp bread has a nice satisfying complexity, and brings the meal up a notch.
Chapter 3: Wild Caught Local Yellowtail and Halibut Ceviche with Foraged Citrus and Heirloom tomatoes.
People have a good amount of liquid in their stomachs, and all that bread is expanding. At this point they're in danger of being filled up if the next course is too intense, so I'll do a ceviche. The fresh, crisp, lime intensity of ceviche is a good light course, a cooling break before the rest of the meal. I serve it with some tortilla chips for crunch.
Chapter 4: Nasturtium Flower Pesto over Fresh Potato Gnocchi
Things are starting to ramp up now. We're on the fifth course, over the hump, so something a bit more substantial is in order. This is a nice, interesting pasta dish that I garnish with fresh edible nasturtium flowers. Gnocchi is very filling, so each serving only includes six pieces.
Chapter 5: Slow-Roasted Wild Boar Porchetta with Gleaned Kumquat Mostarda and Pan Fried Wild Radish Greens
This is the main course. The high point, after which we'll only have salad and dessert. The time to shine, and really impress your eaters. You also want to fill them up. This is a great dish, with the intense savory of the boar being offset by the tart citrus of the mostarda, with just a hint of heat from the mustard seeds. People have been waiting the entire meal for this dish; they are excited to try the boar, so it better be good. This is the real end of the story, the surprise everyone's been expecting, but are still excited to experience.
Chapter 6: A Salad of Miners Lettuce, Spring Greens, Pickled Beets and Wild Radish Flowers in a Tart Oxalis Vinaigrette
This salad is a staple of my meals. Interesting visually and mentally, it's a nice cooling dish after a very intense meal. Miners lettuce is one of my favorite local wild greens, crisp, citrusy, refreshing, and super abundant in season. Oxalis is something you also see everywhere, yellow flowers and clover shaped ground cover. Tastes sour, most people knew it as sourgrass growing up.
Epilogue: Candy Cap Mushroom Ice Cream with Wild Huckleberry Compote and Home Baked Gingerbread
I don't actually like dessert -- I prefer a savory aftertaste when I leave a meal -- but I am not everyone. This is a nice dessert. Cool, interesting (who knew mushrooms could taste like maple syrup?), and a nice small treat as people are getting ready to leave.