LOS ANGELES — Meghan and Carter are getting married. Like so many friends of my daughter, they are bright, funny and, sometimes, almost preternaturally serious. A couple of weeks ago, they asked my wife if we would talk to them about how to stay married — and about how to cook.
The first, I'll leave to Kathy; after almost 34 years, it's still a mystery to me. But the cooking part is right up my alley, and, even better, I figured it would give me a chance to try out some of the ideas I've been on a soapbox about for the last couple of years.
A basic knowledge of cooking — not the intricacies of fancy restaurant dishes or the parsing of various ethnic cuisines — seems to me to be fundamental to a happy life, whatever your relationship status. A good meal gives such great joy, why would you want to leave it to the hands of a stranger?
So Sunday night, Meghan and Carter came to the house for a cooking class. But instead of doing the usual thing and walking them through a couple of recipes, I wanted to try something different. I love recipes as much as the next guy, but it does seem to me that they are an imperfect way to learn to cook. Sure, a well-written recipe can teach you how to re-create a specific dish, but that's a different thing from actually knowing how to cook, isn't it?
What I wanted to try out was more along the lines of teaching the structure of a dish, how it is put together. Rather than the details of a recipe (teaspoon of this, cup of that), I wanted to see if I could teach them to prepare a dish by explaining its general outline, allowing for (even encouraging) the kind of freedom to experiment and personalize we all want to enjoy when we cook.
Instead of teaching them to make Marcella Hazan's roast chicken stuffed with lemon (a wonderful recipe, by the way), could I teach them how to roast a chicken — the broad outline, the key points and how to think about the various possibilities?
If I could do that, they would learn dozens of dishes rather than just one.
Besides roast chicken, it seemed to me that if I could do the same with a couple of other very basic dishes — a simple salad and a vegetable pasta — they would have enough to cover almost any mealtime eventuality, from a weekend dinner party to a quick bite after a long day at work.
We started with the chicken, because it would take the longest to cook. (Lesson No. 1: You rarely prepare one dish straight through; think about how to organize your time so you can stay busy. And Lesson No. 2: Clean up after yourself as you go along.)
In the bottom of the roasting pan, we scattered fennel and onion we'd cut into wedges, which allowed some basic hints on how to hold a knife and how to use it carefully to avoid cutting off fingertips. Of course, we could have used potatoes or other root vegetables instead — same technique but a slightly different result.
Later on, I showed them how to judge by look and feel when a chicken is done (and how to use an instant-read thermometer to be sure), and a basic poultry anatomy lesson (in other words, how to carve).
The vegetable pasta is so simple and quick you can prepare the whole thing in the time it takes the noodles to cook. But it's also incredibly flexible. We made it with broccoli rabe, but it could just as easily be made with broccoli or cauliflower, or with cooking greens (chop them small and add them just for the last couple of minutes).
We made the simplest sauce — just olive oil, red pepper flakes and whole browned garlic cloves — but it could have been made with sliced garlic and capers, or with Italian sausage or pancetta browned in the oil, or with sun-dried tomatoes or slivered prosciutto added after. Instead of Parmesan we could have used pecorino Romano.
That makes dozens of possible dinners, all of which can be prepared in less than 30 minutes.
But maybe the most interesting of the dishes we made was the most basic — a green salad. We started by going out to my garden and tasting different greens, some sweet and soft, others bitter and crisp. "Lettuce" isn't just "lettuce." We rubbed a cut clove of garlic around the bowl to get the scent but not the harshness.
Then we moved on to the vinaigrette. Using lettuce leaves as tasters and starting with a quarter-cup of olive oil, I added sherry vinegar a little at a time until we decided we had the right balance (a little less than the classic 3-to-1 oil-to-vinegar ratio). Then I added a bit of salt, to demonstrate how that brought out more flavors. I added a squeeze of lemon — just a teaspoon made a big difference in the taste.
And finally, I had them toss the salad with their hands, adding the vinaigrette just a little at a time, so they could appreciate how little dressing it takes. We needed less than two tablespoons of vinaigrette to lightly coat and flavor a half-pound of greens.
Just as it was, the salad was delicious, but we wanted to make it a little different, so Meghan scattered red grapefruit segments over the top, then Carter did the same with chopped pitted Medjool dates.
A couple of hours, three basic ideas and hundreds of delicious possibilities. Let's hope everything in their marriage will be that easy.
If you’d like to try our cooking class at your own home, here’s an outline of how to go about it. Of course, feel free to improvise.
Remove the chicken from the refrigerator at least 30 minutes before roasting. Rinse it well and pat it thoroughly dry. Sprinkle with salt (about 1 tablespoon for every 5 pounds of weight), and rub it with softened butter (about 1 tablespoon). Season generously with freshly ground black pepper. Place the chicken in a roasting pan or cast-iron skillet and scatter wedges of fennel and onion around it. Roast in a 400-degree oven. After about 50 minutes, insert an instant-read thermometer into the deepest part of the thigh; the chicken will be done when it reads 165 degrees. Remove from the oven, cover lightly with a sheet of aluminum foil and let stand at room temperature for 10 minutes before carving.
Questions: How did the color of the chicken change? How did the texture of the skin change? Try inserting the thermometer when the chicken is raw, and then again when it is cooked; do you notice a difference in texture? Taste the fennel before and after cooking, how has it changed? Cut some of the onion or fennel into smaller pieces before cooking; how is the texture and flavor different?
Options: Scatter different vegetables around the pan under the chicken: Try onions, fennel, potatoes, parsnips, carrots and turnips, alone or in combination. Season the chicken with different herbs and spices: Try chopped rosemary, thyme and tarragon or ground cumin, herbes de Provence or paprika.
PASTA WITH BROCCOLI RABE
Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Salt it generously (the water should be about as salty as sea water). Add dried pasta (2 1/2 ounces per person for a first course; 3 ounces for a main course). Heat a large saute pan over medium-high heat and add enough olive oil to generously coat the bottom (2 to 3 tablespoons). Add two whole, peeled garlic cloves and a pinch of dried red pepper flakes and cook, stirring occasionally. You want the garlic to turn golden but not scorch; if it’s cooking too quickly, reduce the heat slightly. Chop the stems of the broccoli rabe and, after the pasta has been cooking for 3 to 4 minutes, add the stems to the boiling water. After another minute or two, add the tops. When the pasta is tender but not soft, scoop out the noodles and the cooked broccoli rabe and add them to the saute pan with the garlic and olive oil. Ladle about 3 to 4 tablespoons of the cooking water into the pan and increase the heat to high. Cook, stirring constantly, until the pasta water has evaporated, about 2 to 3 minutes. Drizzle with a little fresh olive oil and season to taste with more salt. Divide the cooked pasta and greens evenly among the serving plates and use a vegetable peeler to shave thin sheets of Parmesan over top.
Questions: Why do you add the greens in two stages? What difference would it make to use sliced garlic instead of whole? Taste the pasta after it’s been added to the hot oil, and then after the added cooking water has boiled off; do you see the difference? Toss with grated Parmesan instead of topping with shaved; how does that change the dish?
Options: Try using different pasta shapes. Try different vegetables — broccoli instead of broccolini (peel and dice the thick stalks), cauliflower or even sturdy cooking greens such as kale (chop into bite-sized pieces and cook only for the last 3 or 4 minutes). For the seasoning mixture in the saute pan, add chopped green olives and/or drained capers to the garlic. Brown crumbled Italian sausage or cubed pancetta. Add shredded cooked meat or slivered prosciutto after the cooking. Top with pecorino Romano instead of Parmesan.
Rub a cut clove of garlic around the inside of a serving bowl. Fill the bowl with mixed lettuce greens and toss lightly. Prepare the dressing by adding sherry vinegar to olive oil, whisking constantly, until you have the flavor balance you want. Sprinkle with salt and whisk again. Add the dressing to the salad, a tablespoon at a time, tossing with your hands until the lettuces feel lightly coated with oil. Season with salt to taste and toss gently. Serve immediately.
Questions: Compare the tastes and textures of the different types of lettuce. In the vinaigrette, what is the ratio of oil to vinegar you like best? Does it make a difference when you taste with a bitter lettuce rather than a soft one? Try making the dressing with different kinds of vinegars or lemon or lime juices and see how that changes the flavor. How does the flavor of the dressing change after you add the salt? Add a spoonful of Dijon mustard to the vinaigrette and whisk it in thoroughly to make a smooth mixture; how does this change the texture? Leave a couple of pieces of lettuce behind in the bowl and taste them after five minutes; how have they changed?
Options: Try different mixes of lettuces. Add cooked vegetables or shredded or cubed cooked meat. Top with fruit, nuts or cheese. Vary the dressing by using different kinds of oils, vinegars and lemon or lime juice. Instead of rubbing the bowl with a cut clove of garlic, add minced garlic or shallot to the dressing (let it sit with the vinegar for a few minutes before mixing). Add minced fresh herbs such as tarragon, chervil and parsley to the vinaigrette, or ground spices such as cumin, fennel seed or dried red pepper flakes.