Friday, July 27, 2012

Chicken in a pot

You have probably noticed that I don't write a lot about meat here. Sure, I use chicken stock like I use salt, but buying and cooking actual pieces of meat ventures into a totally unfamiliar territory. Part of this is philosophical: it was an ambiguous combination of the cruelty of the animal industry and the effects of eating meat on our health and the environment. The New York Times Ethicist column on eating meat presented some points on why it's ethical eat meat, but the winning argument, while incredibly compelling, was also rather unrealistic for many people financially and in terms of scale for our country.

In any case, some personal health reasons made it pretty much necessary for me to increase my meat intake. To be honest, I still don't like the idea of eating industrialized animal products but I definitely don't have the means to buy only humanely and sustainably-raised animals.

All that aside, it's actually been kind of fun to learn more about meat. I thought I would start by learning some really simple, staple recipes. Roast chicken seemed like a good idea until I remembered pretty much every dry, tasteless roast chicken I've had. So instead, I settled for a chicken in a pot recipe that would produce a more tender chicken.

You start by sauteing some vegetables and searing the chicken in a dutch oven:

Once it's browned on both sides, you throw it into the oven, and forget about it.

1 hour later.... voila!

Winner winner, chicken dinner:

This recipe produced possibly the tastiest chicken I've ever had. It's incredibly juicy and flavorful, with none of the dry texture that can happen, especially in the breast. Keep a careful eye on the temperature (the CDN instant read thermometer is a good, cheap one) to prevent overcooking, and I hope this dish changes your life just as it had changed mine.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

On learning to cook

This post is inspired by Tamar Adler's piece on cooking with leftovers, which encourages people to step outside of the cookbook and make delicious meals out of leftovers. The Amateur Gourmet does a really good job documenting this process as well. It's not as sexy as the first meal you make from all those fresh and delicious farmers market ingredients, but is definitely important to keep in mind when you have all but one stalk of a bunch of celery left in the crisper or half a can of anchovies.

Being able to come up with a meal using what's available is something I aspire to and is part of my definition of what makes a cook. I'm starting to get there, which means I saute whatever vegetables I have in the fridge and call it a stir fry or jazz up old soups and curries by adding a fresh ingredient or two. But I often get stuck in a rut by using ingredients the same way every time and don't do much with leftovers aside from taking them for a spin in the microwave.

What Tamar Adler describes in her article is the important process of putting ingredients in categories. What do I mean by that? It's important to understand that certain ingredients play similar roles in making a dish and may be used interchangeably. For example, garlic, ginger, scallions, leeks, and onions are all potent aromatics. They provide the flavor base for a dish and are often used in small-ish quantities at the beginning of the cooking process. So if you have any of those things lying around, you might use them in the same way. Similarly, all green vegetables such as spinach, chard, and kale have similar flavor profiles and can often be interchanged in a recipe. This way, when you look at a ingredient (say spinach), it's not just in the context of that one dish (a salad), you can also make it like you made that really delicious chard soup, or kale chip, or beet green pasta! And it's  knowing what roles ingredients play helps build a dish without a recipe.

Experimentation with ingredients and new recipes are opportunities to reformat and expand these categories. When you use ginger instead of onions as the aromatic, you learn how it changes the flavor profile of the dish. And then there are exciting recipes that teach you new ways to use familiar ingredients. The aromatics I mentioned don't always have to be used in the same way. Instead, leeks can be braised, garlic can be pureed into a soup, and onions can be the main ingredient of a hearty meal!

So, as important as it is to learn how to handle new ingredients and master techniques from recipes, there's definitely room to go off-book in day to day cooking. I know I definitely tend to make a big deal out of everything I cook, so this article was a good way to remember that cooking can be much more free-form than those perfectly styled and manicured recipes suggest.