"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

The Art Of Simple Cooking–The Devil Is In The Details

Christopher Kimball, chef and presenter on PBS’ America’ Test Kitchen is a fan of good, simple, American cooking.  Up until three or four years ago, he says, Americans were preparing the same foods that they ate as children – a standard fare of roasts, meat loaf, and the variety of Jewish, Italian, and other ethnic dishes prepared by stay-at-home moms.  Things have changed in the last few years, and now a third of our recipes have nothing to do with childhood menus.  Kimball wants to ensure that those cooks who prefer the tried and true but have neither the experience nor the time of their mothers and grandmothers, do things right. “The salmon sticks to the grill. The pie dough doesn’t roll out. This cake isn’t flat on top. These brownies have no chocolate flavor”, says Kimball; but not necessarily.

Julia Child once said that the mark of a good cook is his roast chicken.  Without proper attention to detail, this quintessentially simple dish can turn out dry and tasteless.  Done right a whole chicken prepared with Maille mustard, rosemary, lemon and garlic is the perfect meal. Preparation time is no more than 10 minutes. This recipe is foolproof – if you pay attention to details; in this case a fresh, organic chicken; a juicy lemon, high-quality mustard, thorough preparation, and as always, oven-checking for doneness. 

Roast Chicken

* A 4-lb. chicken

* 1 whole medium lemon, perforated

* 3 medium cloves of garlic, peeled and mashed

* 1 lg. tablespoon Maille (or other French-style mustard)

* 2 Tbsp. dried rosemary

- Place the perforated lemon and the garlic in the cavity of the chicken

- Rub the entire bird with the mustard

- Crush the rosemary by hand and sprinkle over the chicken

- Add 5-6 grindings of fresh black pepper over the chicken

- Cook for 30 minutes at 450F

- Baste the chicken, turn down the oven to 350F and continue cooking for 45 minutes

- Carve and serve on a platter garnished with fresh parsley.

Grilled salmon, another favorite of cooks looking for a main course that is modern but simple, is easy to prepare; but will turn out dry and tasteless if basic steps are not taken.  The most important factor is time of cooking. If the filet is underdone the flesh is gelatinous and without taste.  If the fish is overdone it is dry and mealy and can be inedible.  Grilled salmon is my ‘up-and-down’ dish. After an initial 10 minutes I check it every 3-4 to be sure that the cuisson is perfect – medium rare in the center. The following recipe according to which the salmon is marinated in an Asian glaze adds flavor, crust, and complementarity.  Once again the recipe is simple if the fish is fresh, the proportions of the marinade ingredients are correct (I accidently ruined the salmon by putting in too much sesame oil, a necessary but powerful addition), and the cuisson is perfect.

Grilled Salmon

* 1 1/2 lb. salmon filet

* 1 Tbsp. soy sauce

* 1 Tbsp. olive oil

* 2 tsp. Balsamic vinegar

* 3-4 drops sesame oil

* 4-5 grindings fresh black pepper

- Put the liquid ingredients and ground pepper in a mixing bowl. Mix well and pour on a large, flat serving-type dish

- Place the fish flesh-side down in the marinade and marinate in the refrigerator for a minimum of 2 hrs.

- Grill under an oven broiler for approximately (see above) ten minutes; then check every 3-4 minutes to achieve proper cuisson.

- Place on a serving dish, garnish with parsley, and serve.

My mother was a good cook and prepared both American standards and Italian specialties.  Meat loaf and spaghetti with anchovies were common.  So was roast lamb and Spaghetti alle Tre Carne – an all-day tomato sauce with beef, veal, and pork. Christmas Eve was my favorite.  Southern Italians celebrate the Festa dei sette pesci – The Feast of the Seven Fishes, and although our meal fell short, it did include squid, eel, baccala, scungilli, and anchovies. After dinner we drove to New Haven to have dessert with my aunts and uncles – canoli, ricotta pie, sfogliatelle, and spumoni.

Along with recipes for her Neapolitan dishes, I learned about the small things – oven temperature, browning, braising, marinating, steaming, and proportion.  Perhaps the most important lesson was to trust my palate. No ingredient was always the same – not the tomatoes, the meat, or the vegetables; and each spice interacted differently depending on the particular ingredients.

Steamed rice should be the simplest food of all to prepare.  Yet I have eaten gummy, dry, hard, and tasteless versions more than I can recount. However, there is no mystery to cooking steamed rice. One cup of basmati or jasmine rice to two cups of water cooked for 25 minutes.  The only trick is to correctly regulate the flame.  The rice should cook slowly and evenly.  It should simmer, not boil.  Too hot and the rice will stick to the bottom of the pan.  Too low and it will be watery.

Garlic can be browned but never burned.  Undercooked onions are tough and bitter and when sautéed in olive oil or butter should be translucent.  Even though they may be combined with a sauce, this initial cooking releases their flavor to the oil.  Details, mon ami, details. 

Dishes made with cheese can curdle and separate, especially if there is not enough fat (e.g. whole milk, half-and-half, or cream).  Certain vegetables like red peppers will release enough acid to curdle low-fat sauces; but when the proportions are correct and care is taken to stir slowly and constantly, the result is a creamy, flavorful sauce.

Spaghetti a la Crème with Red Pepper

* 1/2 lb. spaghetti, thin spaghetti, or penne

* 1/2 sweet red pepper, cut into 1” pieces

* 1 lg. Tbsp. unsalted European-style butter

* 1 cup Half-and-Half

* 2 lg. Tbsp. sour cream

* 1/4 cup Amontillado sherry

* 1 cup grated Parmesan cheese

- Sautee the red pepper in the butter until soft

- Add the sherry, turn up to high heat and cook for about 2-3 minutes

- Let mixture cool slightly, add the cream and sour cream, and simmer for about ten minutes, stirring frequently

- Simmer over very low heat for about 5-8 minutes until the flavors are combined.  Add salt to taste.

- Boil the spaghetti, drain, plate

- Pour the cream mixture over the pasta, grate the Parmesan cheese, grate black pepper and serve.

The photograph below is Penne with Red Peppers and Cream, a variation on a theme.  The recipe can be found at http://www.uncleguidosfacts.com/2014/06/recipesspaghetti-la-creme-with-shrimp.html

Kimball says it all:

So, I’m a big believer in getting the basics down in the kitchen – understanding a basic braise, a basic roast, a basic biscuit, a basic pie, whatever it is – in learning those techniques and then you can apply them later on. People always go, “oh, my grandmother never used a recipe.” Well, that’s because she cooked ten hours a day or whatever, so she had it down cold. If you only cook three hours a week, you need a recipe. So… you’ve got to have technique, you’ve got to have experience..The objective is to turn out good food that’s healthy, that people enjoy it when you sit around the table. It can be something they’ve all had a hundred times if it’s well-made. It doesn’t have to be different necessarily.

The Boston Symphony Orchestra still plays the same repertoire fifty years later. If you went back to 1950 and look at what they’re playing versus today there’s some differences, but a lot of it’s the same and that’s fine (Interview with The Federalist 11.26.14).

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