While popping open a can of cat food for my feline bestie, I've often wondered, "Does this even taste good?"
As it turns out, I'm not the only one wondering what goes into creating premium cat food. So recently, Fancy Feast pounced on that curiosity, hosting a two-day pop-up restaurant in NYC to serve cat lovers the same experience their beloved pets enjoy while eating.
To be clear, the pop-up served human food, not cat food. And it was not B.Y.O.-kitty, although the iconic Fancy Feast cat did make an appearance. The restaurant, affectionately named Gatto Bianco, served Italian dishes designed to help illustrate how cats experience food. The menu was created by Fancy Feast's in-house chef, Amanda Hassner, and special guest chef and restauranteur, Cesare Casella.
Feeling confused about how cat food could inspire a delicious human meal? Put off by the idea of dining like a cat? I was, too. But while chatting with Hassner about the concept behind the pop-up, it became clear that the idea is not as strange as it sounds.
Human food with cat sensibilities
"Texture is everything," Hassner says, pointing out that flavor is a catch-all term that encompasses many sensory experiences, including aroma, texture and taste. This idea applies just as much to a cat's palette as it does to a human palette, if not more: Where humans have roughly 400 olfactory receptors, cats have up to 200 million. That alone explains why your cat might be so finicky about its food come mealtime.
The meal at Gatto Bianco began with a textural exploration for each guest — a series of appetizers that used the same ingredients, prepared in different ways that caused different textural effects and elicited different reactions, depending on the taster. In short, texture is everything — for you and your cat.
Casella served baked sea bass dressed with tomatoes, capers, olives and a touch of oregano for the first course. Hassner served a salmon prepared the way a cat would enjoy it most — by going hard on the umami flavors. The second course included Tuscan-style spare ribs and braised beef in wine with spinach and polenta. And, because every fancy meal includes dessert, guests were served lemon panna cotta, almond cake studded with chocolate and a classic affogato. By the night's end, Hassner said the room was positively "purring" with "strangers having a common experience based on the love of cats."
Cooking like a cat
Eager to test these kitty-inspired dishes out for myself, I settled on Salmone con Pomodorini for an entree and Lemon Panna Cotta for dessert, then got cooking ... cat under foot, as usual.
I made the Lemon Panna Cotta entirety the night before, because it needs to set up in the refrigerator for several hours. While the instructions call for at least four to five hours of chilling time, it's also noted that "the texture improves overnight." And since we were cooking like cats, I choose the method that would give the best texture.
I started by zesting four lemons onto a large plate, then tossed the zest together with a cup of sugar. Once it was mixed, I spread it out on the plate and popped it into the refrigerator to infuse and crystallize overnight. With that out of the way, I turned my attention to the panna cotta itself. In a large bowl, I sprinkled two packets of powdered gelatin over one-half cup of lemon juice and whisked it together before letting the gelatin sit and bloom. In a small pot, I measured three-fourths cup of sugar and one and one-half cups of half and half.
I brought the half and half and sugar mixture to a boil, then removed it from the heat. While still steaming hot, I slowly poured it into the bowl with the lemon and gelatin mixture, whisking constantly and making sure all of the gelatin bits had completely dissolved. Once all of the milk was thoroughly mixed in, I added one cup of Greek yogurt and two teaspoons of vanilla extract all at once and whisked until it was completely emulsified.
Once the cool Greek yogurt mixes with the warm gelatin mixture, it starts to thicken, which means the gelatin has begun to set the panna cotta mixture. From there, I transferred the panna cotta into a liquid measuring cup for easier pouring, and divided the mixture into eight three-ounce silicone molds.
With the panna cottas chilling in the fridge, I quickly whipped up the basil compound butter in my food processor. A lightly-packed cup of fresh basil gets chopped into a stick's worth of softened unsalted butter, then wrapped up and refrigerated for the coming meal.
The salmon dish was a little more complex to prepare, but came together quickly once everything was measured out. I started by pureeing the onion and garlic together, and slicing all of the tomatoes in half. Then I portioned my skin-on salmon filet into roughly six-ounce pieces and seasoned them generously with salt and pepper on both sides.
I thinly sliced the zucchini on a mandoline, made the quick pickling liquid to pour over the slices and let it marinate while cooking the rest of the meal. With a liberal splash of olive oil in the pan, I seared the salmon filets skin-side down until they were about halfway cooked (becoming whitish-pink on the sides but still uncooked on top).
Around this time, my cat came wandering into the kitchen to see what exactly was going on, and took his place beside me at the stove before poking his tiny nose into the air to get a whiff of the fish that was cooking.
Once the salmon filets were partially cooked, I removed them from the pan and added the onion-garlic puree. It cooked until fragrant and lightly golden, about three minutes, before I added the tomato halves, white wine and a sprinkle of salt. I turned the temperature down and let it gently simmer for about 15 minutes while I pulled plates out of the cabinet and poured myself a glass of wine.
It also felt like the perfect time to un-mold the lemon panna cottas: The set is strong enough to be molded and handled without mushing the dessert, but if a softer-set panna cotta is your thing, you can let it sit at room temperature from this point instead of putting it back in the refrigerator or use a teaspoon less gelatin and set the dessert in cups.
I nestled the salmon filets into the tomatoes and puree, uncooked side down, turned the heat down to low and put the lid on the pan for it to continue to cook for about five minutes longer. Finally, I removed the salmon filets from the pan, turned off the heat and stirred in the basil butter until it had completely melted into the sauce.
The moment of truth
I plated it all at once, including the panna cotta, which got a sprinkle of the lemon zest sugar and a side of all of the fruit hanging out in my refrigerator. Trying not to think too much about actual cat food, I took my first bite of the salmon, making sure to scoop up serval pieces of tomato and skewer a slice of zucchini. With that very first bite, I was stupefied.
Why haven't I been cooking like this for myself all along? Why does my cat get to enjoy the complexities of texture, aroma and taste while I settle for one-note grilled fish over plain rice? It was the nicest salmon I've cooked for myself in quite some time, and if I didn't already know it was created to mimic the way cats enjoy food, I would have never been able to guess. The panna cotta was delightfully lemony without being overly acidic. And, the meal is nice enough to make for other people, but easy enough to make for yourself whenever you're in the mood for something indulgent.
I adore my cat (most of the time), but I'll admit I was skeptical about cooking a meal for myself based on what my pet would enjoy. Now that I've done it, I'm convinced this is something we should do more often, and I'm keeping the Fancy Feast salmon in my dinner rotation from now on. After all, my cat shouldn't be the only one who dines well in my kitchen.
Salmone con Pomodorini
2 pounds salmon filets
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 medium onion (yellow or white), peeled
5 large cloves fresh garlic, peeled
2 pints cherry tomatoes, washed and cut in half
1 cup white wine (recommend Chardonnay)
2½ teaspoon kosher salt (plus extra for seasoning fish and finishing, ½ teaspoon for vegetables)
1 teaspoon cracked black pepper
1 stick unsalted butter, softened
1 cup loosely packed washed fresh basil leaves
½ pound zucchini, sliced thin
½ cup white wine vinegar
¼ cup white sugar
1. In food processor, process butter and basil until the herb is chopped and incorporated into the butter. Remove from bowl, form into a log wrapped in plastic wrap and refrigerate.
2. In the food processor, process onion and garlic until puréed.
3. Cut fish into desired portion sizes and sprinkle liberally with salt and pepper. In a large pot, heat oil on high and place fish in one layer. Continue to cook on high on that side until fish has formed a crust and can be easily removed from the pan and has almost cooked through (the salmon will go from dark pink to light pink as it cooks). Remove fish from pan and keep pan heat high.
4. In the olive oil and salmon oil in the hot pan, cook the onion/garlic purèe for about three minutes, stirring so that it does not burn. Add cherry tomato halves, white wine and salt. Stir and turn heat down to medium/medium high and cook for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally and making sure the tomatoes do not dry and burn.
5. Return fish to pan, nesting into the tomatoes. Lower heat to a simmer, cover and cook about for 5 -10 minutes (depending on the size of the portions) until fish is hot and cooked through.
6. Place fish on each plate and return tomatoes to a boil on the stove.
7. Remove from heat and add basil butter that has been cut into small pieces. Stir until butter is melted and emulsified into tomatoes. Taste and adjust seasonings.
8. Dress each piece of plated fish with tomatoes and butter and serve with zucchini agrodolce.
In a small pot, heat vinegar, salt and sugar, stirring until the sugar and salt are dissolved. Pour over zucchini slices and let sit for at least 15 minutes while you prepare the fish.
Lemon Panna Cotta
3-4 large lemons
1½ cups half and half
5 teaspoons (2 pkg) unflavored gelatin
1 cup non-fat Greek-style plain yogurt
1¾ cups white sugar, separated
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1. Lightly spray six ramekins (or other cups or molds) with oil.
2. Wash and dry lemons. With a microplane or box grater, zest lemons into a bowl. There will be around one and one-half tablespoons of zest. Add one cup of the sugar and stir until well-combined. Spread sugar on a plate or sheet pan and place in the refrigerator, uncovered, overnight so the sugar dries and becomes crunchy.
3. Juice lemons and strain out the seeds. There will be about one-half cup lemon juice. Sprinkle the gelatin into the juice to bloom.
4. In a small saucepan, heat half and half and sugar to boiling. Add lemon juice and gelatin and mix with wire whip to blend. Bring just back to boiling and remove from heat (don't let it continue to boil or you will make ricotta cheese). Blend in yogurt and vanilla extract.
5. Fill ramekins and place in the refrigerator to set. The panna cotta will be set in a few hours, but the texture improves overnight.
6. To serve, un-mold onto a plate and sprinkle as judiciously as you would like with the lemon zest sugar.
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