There are two kinds of people who cook at home: the first kind chooses an elaborate recipe, buys all of the ingredients, spends hours cooking it, invites friends to eat it, spends hours cleaning it, and takes the rest of the week off. The other kind has long-range vision, makes a large batch of something and uses that batch to feed his or her family for the rest of the week. This kind of home cook–the true home cook–is resourceful, inventive, and frugal without letting that frugality show. And, lately, I’m proud to say, I’m shifting from Column A to Column B. Let me prove it to you with a bag of lentils.
After hauling home fresh asparagus and fava beans from the farmer’s market, I stood on a chair and made a loud declaration: “I will not adulterate these beacons of springtime with a convoluted recipe that obfuscates their natural glory!” Getting down from the chair, I thought about my declaration and realized that to live up to my word, I would need to cook the asparagus and fava beans as simply as possible, and serve them up with something special-enough to be memorable but not so special as to shadow the star ingredients: which is how I came up with making fresh pasta.
Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about sponges. Well: not actual sponges, but sponge-like behavior. Specifically the sponge-like behavior that occurs when you cook something–pasta, beans, vegetables–and then add them to an incredibly flavorful, incredibly potent mixture (a sauce, a dressing) allowing all that flavor to get sucked up inside.
This is why it’s always best to take your pasta out of the water a minute before its done and finish it in the sauce; it’s also why it’s best to toss boiled potatoes in a dressing for potato salad right out of the water–you went those pores to be open, to sponge up all that fatty goodness. And sucking up fatty goodness is precisely what I wanted the cauliflower to do when I set about making a marinated cauliflower salad.
Here’s a friendly tip: make yourself buy an exotic ingredient even if you’re not sure what you’re going to do with it.
For example, a few weeks ago I was at the Spice Station in Silverlake and I bought a little bag of white truffle salt. I bought it because after sniffing from the giant jar of it, I was like: “Whoah, that’s really potent and really smells like white truffles.” A small bag cost about $10 or so which is way less than you’d pay for an actual white truffle. And knowing that I had it, I kept my eyes open later that week at the farmer’s market for anything that might work well with it; which is how I ended up buying a bag of chanterelle mushrooms.
What you see above is one of my favorite meals I’ve ever made at home. It came about rather organically: after raving about Rancho Gordo beans in this post from last week, I went back to Cookbook (the store where I bought that first bag) and stocked up on more.
The best dinners are the ones that have a story. This is one such dinner.
It started on a typical day: I was driving to Silverlake to eat lunch at Forage (one of my favorite places to grab a bite here in L.A.) and to have coffee and do work at Intelligentsia. Only, it was street cleaning day which means half of the normally available spots were no longer available. I circled and circled and started to go a little crazy. Trying to find a parking spot isn’t something I had to do in New York; here, it can be a totally maddening experience, especially as you pass the same landmarks again and again, not one car budged, not one person dangling their keys.
One benefit of making a complicated, classic dish like bouillabaisse, as I did last week, is that the process of making it becomes its own version of cooking school. You follow the steps but as you do so, you learn things. For example: making a fumet (or fish stock) may be labor-intensive but your efforts pay off later when that highly flavored broth is poured in with the tomatoes and onions and fish and takes your bouillabaisse over the moon. Why couldn’t I apply a similar strategy with leftover chicken and leftover chicken carcasses? Last week, that’s precisely what I did.
Three Chicken Dinners: Meyer Lemon Stuffed Chicken Breast, Italian Sweet & Sour Chicken & Chicken with Lentils and Marsala Gravy
If you cook the same thing over and over and over again, eventually you get really good at it.
That’s what happened with me and chicken: I’m really good at cooking it. And though there are many who find chicken boring, that’s usually because chicken, when stripped of its skin and bones, is, indeed, very boring. So the first rule is: never cook chicken without the skin or bones. The second rule is: be generous with salt. I’ve quoted this often, because I never forgot it; when Mario Batali had his old Food Network show he showered a raw chicken with salt and said: “No one ever says ‘this chicken’s too salty.'” He’s right–and that salt makes a huge difference.