The Unvarnished Truth About Being A Good Cook
Every week when I write my newsletter I try to be useful. Or motivating. Or reassuring. Or just fun. On occasion I indulge myself with a comment about my own urban state of mind, as I did for 9/11 with a magical poem by Anne Sexton (and thank you to all of you who wrote with such warm comments).
But back to being useful. I know you can easily get thousands of recipes with tantilizing food photos. But I also know that the hardest part of home cooking isn't finding recipes. It's the planning and shopping, or sometimes just getting ourselves inspired. It's these hard parts that I prefer to write about, instead of trying to be a rival to Epicurious or Food52.
Since cooking is my passion and foraging for ingredients and making meals is endlessly interesting for me, I'm never short of ideas. But there are times I feel a bit of a fake. That's because there are many weeks when the comfort I've had in my kitchen, and the good meals I've made, are nothing new. When the last thing I want is another recipe or glossy close-up food porn photo or a perky knife skill demo.
And then there are the times when I can use some help myself.
This past week, as my usual, I made dinner most nights. I tend to grocery shop two or three times a week and invent my menus depending upon what's on sale, what's in season, how much time I have, and my mood both to cook and to eat.
I bought some very nice flounder at Whole Foods and I had Tuscan kale and salad makings already in the refrigerator that would make the rest of our meal. My husband is relatively carb-phobic and so most of our dinners include a protein -- usually fish or chicken -- plus a vegetable and either a salad or some type of slaw (I sneak in pasta or rice once or twice a week; he never protests). On this particular night I wasn't anticipating trouble since I was expecting to make a meal I can normally do both quickly and blindfolded, with most of the time taken prepping the kale.
Using a pair of scissors I snip off the coarse stems, and then simmer the dark green leaves in lightly salted boiling water for about 10 minutes. When the leaves are tender -- it takes much longer than spinach or broccoli rabe -- I drain them, pressing out the water with the back of a wooden spoon, and finish with a rough chop and a drizzle of olive oil. The kale's slightly bitter (in a good way) flavor makes a perfect foil to the sweetness of fish. If I have the time, I'll crisp thin slices of garlic in a skillet and toss these on top as a tasty garnish. For my salad, it would be tre colore: pieces of green romaine, red radicchio, and white endive (thus the three colors of the Italian flag, or tre colore), plus a little sliced red onion and my go-to everyday vinaigrette: a tablespoon of red wine vinegar, a forkful of Dijon mustard, and three tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil. A pinch of salt, a few grinds of black pepper, and a quick mix using the same fork as I used to dip into the mustard jar.
But now the flounder. Cooking fish is my bête noire. I love to eat fish and shellfish, but cooking it gives me anxiety. I mess it up constantly. I own fish cookbooks. I've taken fish cooking classes. I keep seafood apps on my iPhone. I've loitered in the kitchens of seafood restaurants and pestered fishmongers with questions. No matter. I spend precious grocery money on excellent ocean ingredients, like last week's wild flounder, and I can destroy it.
This time I had planned to cook the flounder using a method I learned from Trina Hannemann's fabulous cookbook, The Scandinavian Cookbook. I simply dust the thin fillets in dark rye flour. I keep a bag of Bob's Red Mill rye flour in my freezer (it can go rancid if stored too long on a shelf and I don't use it fast enough to avoid this). When making the fish I remove about a cup of the flour to a dinner plate, add a pinch of salt, a few grinds of black pepper, and give the mixture a stir with my fingers. Then -- moments before cooking so that there no time for the surface to get gummy -- I place the fish fillets in the flour mixture. No egg. No milk. No panko. Just rye flour. First one side. Then the other, shaking off any excess. I then immediately slip the fillets into a hot pan that has about 4 tablespoons of olive oil. Cook about 3 to 4 minutes a side. Transfer to a paper towel. It's perfect.
Only this time I made a variation. Wanting to add to the flavor, I substituted butter for half of the oil. I also cut back the oil to 1 tablespoon so there was 25% less total fat in the 12-inch skillet than I normally use (I was trying to compensate for replacing olive oil with butter). I put the pan on high heat, turned away at a moment's distraction, which was just a moment too long: when I returned to the stove the milk fats in the butter had separated and started to brown.
No matter, I thought. It would just have a slightly nuttier flavor as in a brown butter sauce, and went ahead and added the thin, flour-coated fillets to the pan. But I also turned down the heat to stop the butter from getting darker. Between the lower heat, the reduced amount of fat, and the butter separating, the fish didn't sear. This meant the surface didn't crisp enough for the fillets to hold their shape. Oh, they cooked, but they also fell completely apart. The result was a hot skillet full of fish mush.
Good thing my husband loves kale and salad.
I was both embarrassed and pissed off. Especially because I had made flounder fillets exactly this way before without such a disaster. Maybe I wasn't paying enough attention. But being off on just one of the details -- not quite enough oil or a too low temperature -- messed up the entire dish.
When this happened I thought about the conversation I had just had with Christopher Kimball, founder and editor of the America's Test Kitchen universe -- the PBS program, Cook's Illustrated Magazine, Cook's Country Magazine, the new America's Test Kitchen radio program, and dozens of fabulous cookbooks (the annual The Best of America's Test Kitchen volumes are my favorites and take up a pride-of-place shelf over my desk). Chris was recently in NYC to make his monthly appearance on the "Today" show and he graciously agreed to have coffee with me afterwards. He also let me put a microphone next to his signature bow tie and we recorded our conversation, which you can listen to here.
When we made our date I asked Chris if we could talk about what makes a good recipe. After all, for nearly 20 years he and his test kitchen chefs have been kicking the tires of recipes for just about every food that can be cooked. But instead our conversation quickly moved into the candid reality of home cooking -- meaning not the food stylist-prepped demos we mostly see, or the slick presentations in most FoodTV programs. Instead we talked what really happens in our kitchens at those times, as Julia Child so famously said, "If you're alone in the kitchen ... who's going to know?" Like my making fish mush.
I won't steal Chris's thunder because I hope you'll spare 15 minutes and listen to what he had to say from his decades of observation and practice. But you may be surprised to know this: that he says you can never become a good cook unless you develop your own repertoire of recipes. Not 100 recipes. Not a selection that resembles the 12-page menu in a New York City coffee shop. No, we each need a repertoire of a couple of dozen dishes that we know by heart, cook without a recipe, and can happily cook and eat over and over again. This doesn't stop us from experimenting and learning new dishes or chasing a recipe that will duplicate a memorable restaurant meal. But a recipe repertoire it is the core of our cooking confidence and it is the means to being happy and successful in our kitchens.
This is not a new idea (I also wrote about this in my book) but Chris makes a compelling case for not trying to cook everything. Or always something new. For city cooks -- those of us who on any day can eat almost anything we want at our bountiful restaurants and take-out places -- it is tempting to think our city kitchens should do the same. But they can't. And they shouldn't. Chris explains why.
He also suggested a list of six essentials for successful cooking and none of them include recipes. Here's his list:
- Do your prep ahead. Whether you call it "mise en place" or 30-minute meals, lack of preparation leads to failure. Ask any professional chef.
- Practice your knife skills. You can cook well with bad skills, but it will take you longer and get you discouraged. While you're at it, get a good chef's knife and keep it sharp.
- Use enough heat. Home cooks are afraid of hot pans. But like sharp knives, high heat is essential.
- Own good tools. You don't need lots of gadgets but for the essentials -- a chef's knife, a 12-inch skillet, a sturdy French oven -- buy the best and they'll perform for you (and last forever).
- Taste as you cook. It's the only way you'll know what you're doing and how the dish will turn out.
- The last 30 seconds of the cooking are the most important. See point #5.
Talking with Chris led me to start documenting my own repertoire. I knew I tended to make the same dishes over and over again; in fact many of them are in my book. But I was curious to see what would come from formalizing a list. So I created a Word document and began with headings for the usual categories. Salads, grains, poultry, desserts, etc., and began with my favorite dishes that I make without a recipe. I'll write about this more in the coming weeks as to what I'm discovering and how to work with this list both for daily meals and entertaining.
When I got to fish and shellfish I thought about that failed flounder. And I added it to my list. Chris Kimball didn't say that a repertoire couldn't also be aspirational. I will practice that fish sauté until I make it perfectly. 10 times out of 10.