Balancing a menu means providing enough variety and contrast for the meal to hold interest from the first course to the last.To balance a menu, you must develop a feeling for which foods complement each other or provide pleasing contrasts.And you must avoid repeating flavors and textures as much as possible.
These principles apply whether you are planning a banquet menu, where the diners have no choices;a school cafeteria menu, where students have only a few choices; or a large à la carte menu,where customers have many choices.
Of course, with an à la carte menu, the customers' own choices determine how balanced their meals are.There's nothing wrong with listing a creamed dish among the appetizers and another creamed dish among the main dishes. But you should offer enough choices so customers can easily select balanced meals if they desire. In other words,if half the appetizers and half the entrée selections are served in a cream sauce, you're not offering enough variety.
The following factors must be considered in balancing a menu.
Don't repeat foods with the same or similar tastes.This applies to any predominant flavor,whether of the main ingredient, of the spices, of the sauce,and so on. For example:
• Don't serve broiled tomato halves with the main dish if the appetizer has a tomato sauce.
• Don't serve both a spicy, garlicky appetizer and a spicy, garlicky main dish. On the other hand, don't make everything too bland.
• Unless you operate a specialty restaurant like a steak house or a seafood restaurant, balance the menu among meats (beef, pork, lamb, veal), poultry, and fish.
• Acid or tart foods are often served as accompaniments to fatty foods because they help cut the fatty taste.This is why applesauce and pork, mint sauce and lamb, and orange sauce and duckling are such classic combinations.
Texture refers to the softness or firmness of foods, their feel in the mouth,whether or not they are served with sauces, and so on. Don't repeat foods with the same or similar texture. For example:
• Serve a clear soup instead of a thick soup if the main course is served with a cream sauce. On the other hand, a cream soup goes well before a simple sauteed or broiled item.
• Don't serve too many mashed or pureed foods unless you are running a baby-food restaurant.
• Don't serve too many heavy, starchy items.
Serve foods with a variety of colors and shapes. Colorful vegetables are especially valuable for livening up the appearance of meats, poultry, fish, and starches, which tend to be mostly white or brown. (Creating attractive food is discussed in Chapter 28.)
The importance of a nutritionally balanced menu is obvious in the case of menus for hospitals and nursing homes, for example. But even a la carte menus in restaurants should provide enough nutritional variety to allow customers to select nutritionally balanced meals. Dietary health and nutrition are considered in detail in Chapter 6.
There are so many possible combinations of foods that it is impossible to give rules that cover all of them. Besides, creative chefs are continually experimenting with new combinations, breaking old rules, and coming up with exciting menus.Years of experience, however, are required to develop this kind of creativity and a feel for what makes certain combinations work. In the meantime, pay close attention to the principles discussed.
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