Though cooks are often men of pregnant wit,
Through niceness of their subject few have writ.
’Tis a sage question, if the art of cooks
Is lodg’d by nature or attain’d by books?
That man will never frame a noble treat,
Whose whole dependence lies in some receipt?
Then by pure nature join, the effect will be,
Some nice ragout, or charming fricasee. …
But, though my edge be not too nicely set,
Yet I another’s appetite may whet;
May teach him when to buy, when season’s pass’d,
What’s stale, what choice, what plentiful, what waste,
And lead him through the various maze of taste.
Excerpt from ‘The Poetical Cook-Book’
by Maria J. Moss (1864)
The poet touches on a sensitive point. When does information stop and your own creativity begin? Do you follow recipes exactly or do you use them as a guide to inspire you?
When this excellent book was published at the time of the Civil War, there was little in the way of printed material on cooking. Recipes (or “receipts”) and the skills necessary to prepare food were passed down from one generation to the next. Family recipes often became close-kept secrets.
Fast-forward to the 21st century and we are inundated with every kind of cookbook (including mine), Internet recipes or blogs and TV cooking shows. Celebrity chefs, cooking schools and foodie organizations are everywhere. But what about the home cook who wants to experience a little bit of creativity and personal satisfaction without hours of instruction and advice? And without being overwhelmed with too much information?
Here are some suggestions:
• Purchase basic foods that looks good to you, in season, local if possible, and within your budget. Always buy the least processed form of any food.
• Select a cooking method that you feel comfortable with. The smoky aroma of a char-grill in summer, the heat of oven roasting in winter, the herbal flavors coming off the sauté pan or the healthy nature of steaming.
• Use lots of herbs and spices. Avoid mixed spice combinations. Create your own rub by combining ground spices. Crack peppercorns in a mortar for crusty “au poivre” preparations. Mix fresh herbs with softened butter to flavor your grilled foods. Toss herbs with vegetables for roasting. Use liberal amounts of coarse sea salt or kosher salt and fresh ground pepper to finish seasoning.
• Experiment with various fats and oils to lend variety to cooking. Butter, bacon fat and duck fat all have very pronounced flavors, while olive oil, canola oil and peanut oil let other flavor ingredients shine while they are in the background. Sesame oil and truffle oil make a statement of their own.
• Use different vinegars, lemon juice and lime juice to add acidity and freshness to your preparations, especially sautés. A delicate white wine vinegar, a robust cider vinegar or an assertive balsamic vinegar are not just for salad dressings — they give new life to cooked foods also. In your sauces, use wine of a quality that you would drink. Let it reduce to evaporate the alcohol and leave the subtle flavors that you desire.
• When breading cutlets or making a topping for fish, use a wide variety of grains and crumbs. Panko, cornmeal, cracker meal, matzo and fresh bread crumbs can add texture and preserve the moist center of the food. These breadings can be held together with mayonnaise, mustard, eggs or buttermilk. Horseradish makes a great seasoning for toppings.
• Always organize your ingredients in small containers and set up a “mise en place”(everything ready and nearby) before you begin to cook. Chop your onions, mince the garlic and chop the herbs so they are ready when you need them. Cook your food as close to serving time as possible.
• Have fun while you work. Ask friends to join in. Play some music, have a glass of wine and enjoy the moment. Make cooking from scratch as enjoyable as the meal itself.
Here is one example of taking a simple chicken breast and making it into something more:
Roast Chicken Breast with Lemon-Pepper Butter
Purchase 2 bone-in, skin-on chicken breasts.
Soften 2 tablespoons butter in a small bowl. Add to the butter 1 finely minced clove of garlic, 1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves, the zest of 1 lemon and the juice of half the lemon.
In a small mortar, crush 1 teaspoon black peppercorns, then add 1 teaspoon coarse sea salt and crush it into the pepper. (If you don’t have a mortar, use the back of a small sauté pan.) Add the salt and pepper to the butter mixture.
Loosen the skin of the chicken by slipping your fingers under it, leaving it attached at the thick end. Place the butter mixture under the skin and smear it around to cover the meat. Replace the skin and put any leftover butter mixture on top.
Put the chicken on a shallow roasting pan and cook in a 300-degree oven for 40 minutes. At this time switch the oven to the broiler position and broil the chicken until the skin is crisp, about 5 minutes.
Let the chicken rest for 5 minutes and cut it loose from the bones with a sharp knife. Slice it into quarter-inch slices and serve. (I served mine over creamy polenta with broccoli rabe.)
Note: This same preparation works just as well with a whole chicken. Just raise the heat at the end instead of using the broiler.