Sunday, April 10, 2011

April Adventures in Cooking

Technically, my obsession started back in March.  My friend and I went to the green market here and we found these gorgeous heirloom tomatoes that were simply bursting with flavor and character.  Every one was slightly different, but altogether amazing.  After these tomatoes were purchased, I found myself drawn to a lime infused olive oil and black cherry balsamic vinegar.  After acquiring some fresh basil from my friend and picking up a bin of mozzarella, I promptly darted home and prepped my lunch.  These fresh ingredients were so delightfully wonderful that I could not resist having the same meal for dinner.  I would have never thought that something so simple and basic could produce such magical combinations.  

Fast forward a few weeks and a season or two of Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations, I found myself itching to travel, to eat, and to cook.  One episode in particular, really struck a chord with me.  It was the techniques episode.  In there, I saw the preparation of one protein that's scared me senseless for years now: Chicken.  Now, I love cooking my red meats.  I feel comfortable knowing that I can undercook it slightly and I wouldn't be killing someone.  Chicken, however, gives me an unnatural fear like I'd be unknowingly feeding someone the T-virus or something.  Now my fear of cooking chicken was not always there.  Back in college, I was quite confident in searing a piece of chicken breast.  I'm not going to go into it now, but the person I was cooking for decided that she wanted both our chicken breasts done to a dry, cardboard-like consistency so she speedily shoved both chicken breasts into the oven after I had finished cooking them.  I was confident that I had cooked them to perfect doneness.  Was I wrong?   Did I not cook them enough?  Did I not sear them properly?  What was wrong with my cooking?  Doubt was introduced into my fragile psyche.  Our chicken was overdone by the time she yanked the tasteless pieces of medium density fiberboard out of the oven.  This did not deter me though.  I kept trying.  I was successful in cooking it.  However, when it came time for another date, I was scared.  What if I didn't cook it enough?  This girl's going to think that I'm useless and therefore my entire future with this girl is shot.  So much was riding on this meal to be perfect.  I shied away from cooking chicken for anyone else but me for years since.  Perhaps I was slightly over-dramatic about the ramifications of one bad meal, but the damage was done.  I was traumatized by my own irrational fears.  

Back to the point.  In this episode of No Reservations, I saw Thomas Keller of The French Laundry & Per Se restaurants fame execute a simple roasted chicken.  It was so basic in its recipe.  He didn't have to take it out of the oven to turn it, baste it, do back flips, stand on one leg whilst reciting an incantation of protection.  He just trussed it, seasoned it, and cooked the darned thing.  How much easier could it get?  I decided that it was time that I tried cooking this wonderful piece of protein again.  However, I would need to get my confidence up to speed first.  

First, I was going to cook some lamb chops.  I know how to make these.  High heat, sear in the juices, make sure I don't overcook it, do a pan sauce and I'm done.  I saw some great fennel so I grabbed those too and pan roasted them.  Easy peasy.  I've made this meal a hundred times and I'm confident that I can fix any mistake that I make with this dish.  OK.  Confidence is building up again.  I can feel it.  There were a couple fumbles but either way, I was on the right path.  I can do this.  I CAN cook.  I'm not the best, but ya know what, I'm not the worst either.  

Next, I will attempt the pasta that was demonstrated by Scott Conant in that episode.  I've made my own red sauce before from scratch and it was pretty good, but the way he made it, I've never seen before.  Again, it was this idea of simplicity.  Letting the ingredients speak for themselves.  I've always tried to cover up bad technique with extra herbs and spices.  The way it was demonstrated here though was elegant in execution.  I needed to try it.  My attempt was a relative success.  The taste was exquisite.  The tomatoes were so sweet and the butter really just mellowed out all the flavors and added depth.  Although, my sauce wasn't as smooth as Scott's, I loved it.  There was something to be said about having small chunks of tomatoes still in there.  It really highlighted the fact that the tomatoes were the main characters in this dish.  It wasn't slathered on, it wasn't a goopy mess.  It was coherent.  There was a sort of harmony that existed in this composition.  This was a good sign.  I was on the right path.  I've tackled one of the recipes as demonstrated in this episode.  Confidence is rising.  

Here we go.  Thus far, I've done one of my own recipes and one from the show.  Now it was time to battle it out with my long time enemy: Mr. Chicken.  I will overcome this feat.  I can do this.  I found a small chicken that was a little over 3 lbs.  I figured I should stick to a chicken about the same size as shown in the show.  Time to prep this thing.  I seasoned it and trussed it.  Simple enough.  I've got this.  Now time to put the chicken in the roasting pan.  Crap.  My foodie friend said that she liked to roast with the breast side down.  Helps retain moisture.  Hmm.  She's never guided me wrong when it came to food.  However, Thomas frickin Keller did it breast side up in the show.  I'm torn.  I figured I should listen to the master.  My goal here isn't to try and be inventive here.  I just want to NOT mess up a chicken and inadvertently poison my family.  I can try different variations after my confidence is GREATER THAN 9000!  Ahem.  Sorry.  That was the anime geek in me.  What was I saying?   Right. Mr. Chicken, you evil bastard.  You're smugness cannot deter me from attempting to overcome my fears.  I shove the chicken into the fiery pits of doom and await my eventual failure.  Have I mentioned that I'm scared of ovens too?  There's something about shoving my food into a box of heat and letting my food cook.  I can't touch it, I can't poke and prod it, and I can't fuss with the amount of moisture in it.  I just have to wait and be patient.  I don't have much patience.  I have control issues.   This is going to be rough.  I have to wait 45 - 50 minutes and NOT touch this bird. The end result?  Chris 1, Mr. Chicken 0.  That's right.  I cooked that chicken and it tasted wonderful.   

So far so good.  I think I'm getting the hang of this.  I've accomplished what I set out to do.  I bested my fears.  This is not to say that I'm done cooking and improving my skills.  No.  I'm just glad I finally made a piece of chicken that wasn't undercooked or overcooked.  It was perfect.  Anyways, I've rambled on long enough.  Time for me to sign off for now.