"Wait, wait, wait! I can fix this." I was talking to Vicky, our visual director, but really I was trying to reassure myself. It was the end of a long shoot day, I was late for my father-in-law's birthday dinner, and my very last recipe had just gone terribly wrong.
Unlike many of the rigorously tested recipes here on Serious Eats, this one was an improvisation, something my colleagues and I do from time to time. The idea is to take a seasonal ingredient, then make something very delicious yet very basic with it, using no more than four ingredients (not including staples like salt, lemon juice, oil, and vinegar). It's an exercise I love because I deeply believe that being able to be creative within constraints is fundamental to being a good cook. And it's usually an exercise I do well.
But this one was a disaster and I was running out of time. My idea had been to roast carrots, following our "best practice" for that technique: blanching them first until nearly tender, then tossing them in oil and finishing them in a hot oven. I then wanted to take Japanese black sesame paste, which Stella had kicking around in the fridge from some earlier recipe testing, and make a quick dressing from it.
Black sesame paste is made from unhulled, roasted sesame seeds and has a dark and nutty depth with a hint of bitterness (black tahini, on the other hand, is made from hulled sesame seeds that may or may not have been roasted). I thought I could turn it into something delicious by spiking it with a few herbs and spices and rounding it out with cream, smoothing its edges while making it more rich. It did not work. I found myself staring into a bowl of sludge that looked like cement and tasted probably about the same. I needed to leave for my dinner right away, but I also needed to finish the recipe.
In a panicked rush I whipped around the kitchen, scooping fresh black sesame paste into a mixing bowl and stirring in a more simple complement of ingredients: salt, fresh lemon juice, and olive oil. It was jet black, had a more assertive flavor thanks to the removal of the cream, and hit a perfect balance of richness and tartness. Simplicity is often the best route.
Drizzled onto the bright orange roasted carrots, the dressing became a visually striking component. (This could be a really fun Halloween side dish, if you're into themed meals.) A little parsley sprinkled on top plus some grated lemon zest finished it off. The result doesn't just look cool, it tastes great, too, leveraging the bitter black sesame paste against the sweet carrots.
It was so good I ate the whole plate, then raced to my father-in-law's birthday dinner not even the slightest bit hungry.