Here's how it works: I walk the greenmarket, or the butcher shop, (or the walk-in). I see an ingredient, usually a protein, since proteins tend to form the foundation of a dish that beckons. The first question I ask myself is -- how to cook it? This is not a decision made in a vacuum or in service of a predetermined presentation. In most cases, the ingredient itself will offer suggestions: Thick, aged sirloin asks to be roasted so it can develop deep flavors and a nicely seared, caramelized edge. Pork shoulder, a tougher and more stubbornly populist cut, needs a long, soulful braise to tease out its rich, melting flavors and succulent texture. A delicate, flaky snapper calls for gentle cooking -- think of a quick braise in wine or a light touch on the grill.
The next question I ask is: How do I want the dish to taste? The seasons are the best guides here, and it's hard to go wrong if you let seasonal and regional items play off each other. (I follow the maxim: "If it grows together, it goes together.") Think of autumn flavors together, like roasted root vegetables, apple cider, caramelized onions and endive. Or the bright flavors of summer -- tomatoes, basil, young garlic, sweet corn. With the seasons as my guide, I make flavor choices that take into account the protein I've chosen -- if I'm cooking something fatty for example; it's a good idea to introduce some acid into the dish. A subtle fish calls for subtle accompanying flavors, etc. It's not rocket science. Ingredients that are available year-round can also accommodate these seasonal choices. Take fennel, for example, a sturdy bulb available throughout the year. In spring I may slice it paper thin, dress it simply with some high quality olive oil and citrus, and toss it with wild asparagus and peas, letting the fennel's delicate licorice flavor play with the newness of the spring vegetables. Roasting wedges of fennel in the fall will coax out its sweetness and anise flavors, both of which will stand up nicely to roasted meats. In summer I could cook slices of fennel alÃƒÂ grecque, (in a mixture of olive oil, white wine, lemon juice and herbs). This would layer nicely over freshly caught fish that's been gently braised in the same.