Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Escaping the Recipe: A Tutorial

So you like to eat. But can you cook the way you like to eat? Recipes can get you started. They are useful, but they probably won’t make you into the kind of cook who can improvise beautiful food with whatever is fresh, or on hand. For that you need technique and practice.

I am not a chef, but I understand your predicament. And I will help you through it. My goal with this tutorial is to get you making food immediately with minimal directions- I will give you guidelines, and you shape the dishes as you wish. I want you to get excited about what you can already make so that you will be ready and willing to tackle more formal learning resources, such as the books I list below.

Starting now, you can break your recipe addiction.

Start simple
Don’t start with a 30-layer smoked-salmon terrine with salmon roe sauce. It is tremendous effort, and although you might labor through the recipe and produce something good, it probably won’t teach you much. Start with simple food. This will help build your confidence and you can begin serving genuinely good food immediately.

For instance, buy some fresh tomatoes. Slice them, arrange them nicely on a plate, add a little kosher salt and olive oil and maybe a drizzle of balsamic vinegar. Extremely easy- and, if you have the right tomatoes, extremely good.

Or, pick up a bulb of fennel. Remove the stalks, peel off the dirty outer layer and discard, and slice the fennel into thin rounds. Arrange them on a plate, sprinkle with salt and pepper and a little bit of olive oil. Maybe shave some parmesan strips onto the top. This is a fennel salad, which is a great snack or a part of a complete meal.

If you have some good bread, such as a baguette or a crusty loaf of some kind, cut it into rounds or slices about half an inch thick, or thinner if the bread is dense. Toast it in a toaster or under the broiler in your oven, and while the slices are still hot rub a peeled garlic clove on each slice, flavoring each slice as much or as little as you like. Top with diced tomatoes and salt and pepper. Voila: bruschetta. You could also add lemon juice, olive oil, capers, onions, or any other flavor. It’s up to you.

With all cooking, but especially with simple raw dishes like these, quality of ingredients is of utmost importance. Buy the best you can afford- it makes or breaks the dish.

Invite some friends over for a drink, and surprise them with some simple food like this served alongside. They’ll be happy, and their compliments will build your confidence and you will feel in control of the kitchen. Now you are ready to move on to more substantial dishes.

Move on to peasant food
Notice that I haven’t given you any measurements or recipes so far, just guidelines. This is all you need for now. You can make real food without recipes. And it is through this kind of experimentation that you will teach yourself how to cook.

When I say “peasant food” I’m referring to simple country-style dishes such as those in Italian, Turkish, Provençal and other cuisines. You are probably familiar with some of these: pasta caprese (fresh tomatoes and fresh buffalo mozzarella), yogurt dill soup (tarator). This food is easy and satisfying, so we will focus on it now. It is perfect for everyday meals, whether for one person or for many.

To start, in a large salted pot of boiling water, cook some penne pasta until al dente (slightly firm to the bite, usually a minute less than the package recommends). Drain in a colander, and toss with chopped fresh tomatoes, chopped fresh buffalo mozzarella, chopped basil, olive oil, salt and pepper. It is important to use fresh mozzarella, not the harder deli kind that comes wrapped in plastic. Fresh mozzarella, preferably from buffalo’s milk, usually comes in a plastic tub and is partially submerged in water. It has a light, airy flavor, and it makes the dish.

For a heavier pasta, cook some penne until al dente. Meanwhile, roast 3 or 4 red peppers under the broiler in the oven, then place them in a closed paper bag for a few minutes to self-steam. Next peel, de-seed, and cut them into strips, saving as much of the juices as possible. In a skillet or saucepan, lightly brown some diced ham in butter and oil. Add some cream, about ¾ of a cup. Let thicken a bit, then add the red pepper strips and their juices. Make sure to taste before salting, as the ham might be salty (and the peppers too if you bought them pre-roasted in a jar). Throw in some peas, or maybe some other green vegetable. Season with pepper and, when the sauce seems to have come together to your liking, toss with the pasta and some grated parmesan. Grate more cheese over the top and serve.

To make a simple soup, mix a couple cups of plain yogurt with a cup or two of water. Mash two or three garlic cloves with a couple teaspoons of salt, preferably with a mortar and pestle, and add to the soup. Peel, deseed, and chop a cucumber and add that along with a handful of minced dill. Finally, toast a handful of walnuts in a skillet over medium heat until fragrant, and add them to the soup. Refrigerate the whole mixture until cold. This is a classic Bulgarian yogurt soup called tarator, which is eaten in various forms across the Mediterranean and the Middle East. You can also make it with strained (drained) yogurt and no water, in which case it becomes a cold yogurt salad.

These instructions are starting to look more like recipes, but they’re really not. Just be careful not to oversalt or use too much raw garlic, and the rest is up to your taste. You can modify these ideas as well- leave out the cream, add some onions- and make them your own.

One more idea I’d like to share with you doesn’t fall under the category of peasant food, but it’s in the same spirit of simple and satisfying food. This one is inspired by the famous submarine sandwiches of Marina Subs in San Francisco. Simply slather a sandwich loaf with yellow mustard (yes, yellow mustard) and a small amount of mayonnaise. Add slices of provolone cheese and toast under the heating coils in your oven. Next, put sliced raw (vidalia or red) onions, chopped lettuce, a couple tomato slices onto the loaf. Slice at least one, and up to one and a half, peeled and pitted whole avocados into lengthwise strips and, using a chef’s knife to hold the sandwich open, slide the avocado inside. Finish with salt, pepper, olive oil, and rice vinegar. This sandwich is guaranteed to impress.

Try roasting a chicken
Does this idea scare you? It shouldn’t, because it’s easy, which makes it a good confidence-building exercise. Buy a whole chicken, preferably a free-range variety with all the skin on. Remove the giblets, rinse the bird in the sink, dry it, and cover all sides liberally with salt and pepper. Slide your fingers under the skin, separating it from the meat but not detaching it completely, and insert whole sprigs of herbs such as thyme and rosemary in any combination you like. Preheat your oven to about 350 degrees. Heat a couple tablespoons of vegetable oil in a large ovenproof skillet or pan and then put the chicken in the pan. Cook at a low sizzle for about 8 minutes or until nicely browned, resisting the temptation to shake them pan- the bird will brown better if you don’t disturb it. Flip the bird and cook for another 8 minutes or so. By now there should be some nice juices in the pan, commingling with the oil. Add some mini Yukon gold potatoes or new potatoes to the pan, rolling them around so they are covered in the oil and juices. Stick the whole pan in the oven. After about 10 minutes, put a chunk of butter atop the bird and let it melt all over the meat. Roast in the oven for a total of about 30-35 minutes or until done, basting occasionally. When you remove the bird, you may need to continue cooking the potatoes until done. Carve, and serve with the potatoes or other vegetables alongside.

People will be impressed. Just try to resist telling them how easy it was. You can roast almost anything the same way, including steak. Just check doneness frequently and be careful not to overcook. This basic roasting technique will expand your repertoire immensely.

Now you can try your recipe books
Finally, after a little experimentation, you can go back to your recipe books. Hopefully now you can focus more on the techniques and flavors and combinations you discover, and less on the step-by-step process. Remember that all recipes are just guidelines- you can always modify them. The best home cooks do. Just read through it a couple times, think about how it will all work, and then don’t look back.

At this point, there are several books that will help you develop your skills. They’re more like cooking textbooks than recipe collections. Tom Colicchio’s Think Like a Chef will break your recipe addiction, teaching you some basic techniques you need to invent your own food- roasting, braising, and others. Jacques Pepin’s Complete Techinques is a dry but immensely useful text that lays out the basic building blocks of French technique, including such seemingly obvious things as how to dice an onion or a tomato. He also includes an excellent primer on stocks and sauces.

Now, go cook! And keep your eyes off that recipe.


Blogger Jen said...

Hi there
Your fennel salad is good - but may i suggest two things? First, more lemon juice than olive oil - even just a tsp of olive oil is more than enough... but the lemon juice keeps it crisp and vibrant. Second, shred it on a grater rather than slice into rounds. But I completely agree - fennel and parmesan is an unbeatable combination. I served it with seared tuna with green peppercorns, roasted plum tomatoes, and a side of risotto.

1:28 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home