Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Eating well at home

Guilty pleasures are not something to be ashamed of. The new 90210, for example. Real Housewives of Orange County. Rock of Love with Bret Michaels, or, how I learned to love a stripper. For the food-oriented among us, guilty pleasures probably include Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares. While the BBC version qualifies as legitimate entertainment, the U.S. version, on Fox, is pure guilty pleasure. There is nothing wrong with occasional indulgence. Leave it to Fox to reduce a technically proficient chef to a caricature of his already colorful self. This tarted-up yet entertaining hour is like watching Mark McGwire on double the steroids.

No, there is a point here. Regardless of the cartoonish version of Gordon Ramsay shown in Fox’s Kitchen Nightmares, one of his core messages given to the restaurants on the program that is something home cooks should take to heart. This will be our starting point.

1. Simplify

On Kitchen Nightmares, simplification means cutting down the size of menus. At home, simplification essentially equates to cutting down the number of ingredients. That is, there is a tendency to add to a dish in order to fix it. Everyone has been guilty of this. I remember, years ago, tasting tomato sauce I had made, not quite liking it, and adding a litany of spices, chili powders, and the like. What the sauce needed, most likely, was just a little bit of salt. No, we are Americans, our reflex is for more. Bigger portions. Pushing the limit. We want five-pound burgers with twenty slices of cheese, a two-pound bun, a whole onion, dozens of pickles . . . no, in this country, we don’t have a concept of “enough.”

But when cooking at home, it is simplicity that acts as an essential guiding light. Subtraction is the road to flavor. Food Network has been a culprit of addition. Have you ever seen Guy’s Big Bite with Guy Fieri? A recent episode showed him make a frittata, which included, well, everything that might be considered Spanish or Mexican. Then, he popped it out of the baking pan, covered it in about a pound of cheese on each side, and sandwiched it between two large tortillas, creating a frittata quesadilla. Disgusting. Why not just let quality ingredients speak for themselves? Why create a mess of conflicting flavors — peppers, chorizo, onions, garlic, cheese — and top it off with the rich, overbearing flavor of cheddar cheese and crunch of tortillas. Instead, it would be better (and less confusing to the palate) to take away the gooey, crunchy mass of quesadilla coating the outside and let the flavors speak for themselves. It sounds counterintuitive to conventional wisdom, but subtraction in cooking actually is addition.

Jacques Pepin, in his terrific cookbook Chez Jacques: Traditions and Rituals of Cook, discusses the “perfect meal.” He writes, “The meal is roast chicken served with a salad and boiled potato. It is straightforward, simple, and good when done properly . . . .” This meal incorporates a total of only ten ingredients: chicken, salt, pepper, white wine, chicken stock, lettuce, olive oil, red wine vinegar, potatoes, and butter. Eating this, you cannot help but be stunned by the depth and purity of the flavors. Watching friends have it for the first time, you can see them rediscovering the pleasure of simple food with each bite.

The basic point is this: you can add all the ingredients you want, but you aren’t going to develop compelling flavors unless you take the time to develop those flavors. It is better — and so much easier — to take a few flavors and truly develop them. Reduce cooking liquid enough to concentrate it. Buy a better quality chicken, cook it with care, and coax out the natural flavors. This might be asking too much of a society that goes for quick fixes like breast implants and the microwave. Dare to dream. Embrace simplicity, and it might help you with the second key for home cooks.

2. Comfort equals confidence

A dear friend recently said she thought cooking well at home was about confidence. The more comfort you gain with dishes, the more comfortable you got, and the better you can cook. This is profoundly true. Mastering basic techniques, simple combinations of ingredients, and executing them as skillfully as possible is a logical progression if you think about it. Platitudes provide reasonable support here: Run before you walk. Failure is not an option. Always give 110%. This merely is a controlled burn.

In other words, maximize your chances of success. You’re not going to dive into cooking and crank out homemade croissants or sweetbreads without building up to it. Unless you’re Julie Powell. Or insane. The basic point is that cooking, like anything else, is about starting with simplicity (see No. 1 above) and building up to more complex levels. For some reason, people often decide, “I want to cook,” so they begin by inviting over six or eight of their closest friends and try something new ambitious. Yes, do that . . . except the exact opposite.

3. So where do I start?

When you eat at home, you spend less on food and you eat more healthfully. You don’t get the added salt and fat from restaurants that are trying to impress you and put their best foot forward. That’s great sometimes but not feasible for an everyday existence to maintain something resembling average weight. So here’s an easy recipe that you can try one weekend to have a healthy, home-cooked meal that will build up your confidence. The chicken roasting method is that of Jacques Pepin. It is masterful. The salad is adapted from his recipe.

From Roast Chicken

Roasted chicken with green salad
1 chicken, whole, 3.5 pounds

1 head of Boston lettuce (or, really, any lettuce)
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
3-4 tablespoons olive oil

½ cup white wine or dry vermouth
½ cup chicken stock
1 shallot, minced

From Roast Chicken

Preheat your oven to 450 degrees. Dust the chicken on all sides with salt and pepper. Put the chicken in, ideally, a large iron skillet (with a touch of oil in the bottom to keep the skin from sticking) or a low-sided baking or roasting pan. Place the chicken on its side. Roast for 20 minutes. Take it out of the oven, baste lightly with its own fat and juices, and turn over the chicken to its other side. Roast again for 20 minutes. Take it out, baste, and put the chicken breast-side up (the usual roasting position). Roast for a final 20 minutes. There. You have a perfectly roasted chicken. Take it out of the skillet and put it aside on a cutting board and let it rest while you make the sauce.

During the final 20 minutes of roasting, prepare your salad. Pull the leaves of the lettuce off whole, discarding any that are wilted or brown or otherwise undesirable. Fill your sink with plenty of cold water. Rinse the lettuce in the sink; this allows the dirt to sink to the bottom and not stick to the leaves. Dry lettuce in a salad spinner. Put the leaves in a large bowl, tearing them into smaller pieces if you prefer. In a small bowl, add the vinegar and a bit of salt and pepper. Vigorously whisk in the olive oil. Taste and adjust the season accordingly. Add more vinegar or more oil for the desired tartness. Don’t dress the salad just yet.

With the skillet you roasted the chicken in, pour off all but a film of the rendered fat. Set this extra fat aside. Over medium-high heat, briefly sweat down the shallot. Add the wine, scraping up the browned bits of juice from the skillet. When the wine is almost all gone, add the chicken stock, salt, and pepper, as well as a tablespoon or two of the reserved chicken fat. Taste. Always taste! Adjust the seasoning, if necessary. Let the sauce simmer for a few minutes, while you cut up the chicken.

After the chicken is cut and put on a platter, pour over the sauce. Then, immediately, toss the salad with the dressing. Drizzle over a tablespoon or two of the chicken fat, allowing the flavors of the salad to marry with those of the chicken. Serve.

With about 20 minutes of active preparation time and perhaps 90 minutes of attention, you have a terrific, easy, healthful meal. This is the perfect roast chicken.

A note on cooking time: The recipe calls for a 3.5-pound chicken. What if you can’t find one? What if it’s 4 pounds? No matter. The cooking time is proportional. If it’s 60 minutes for 3.5 pounds, then 4 pounds requires one-seventh more cooking time, or roughly 8.5 minutes. Adjust each segment of cooking according – so, roughly 23 minutes before each turn.

No comments: