The time has come to face facts and admit what cannot be denied: Sometimes, the recipes in cooking stories can be a little … complicated. Time-consuming. Over the top.
Not everyone, we realize, wants to make Manchego-crusted duck thighs with tangerine gastrique served over lemon-scented risotto with pureed baby bok choy flambe. Certainly not every day. And no one wants to come home after a hard day's work and then devote another four hours to making some exquisitely complex creation that will be devoured in 15 minutes because everyone has been waiting so long for dinner.
And so, food writers must periodically take a step back and think about dishes ordinary people want to make on ordinary weeknights. No truffle oil. No lobster cream. No essence of saffron topped with cinnamon foam.
So we set out this week to create recipes that are relatively simple and that can be put together with ingredients that you might have in your pantry or are easily available at any grocery store. And if you don't have them already you won't mind buying them because they are things you know you will use in the future.
OK, so a lot of people probably don't have peach jam and can't imagine ever using it. But it can be surprisingly versatile. Use it as a sweetener, when you want to add an unexpected dash of depth and complexity to a dessert.
We started with one of the most basic dishes, a dish that should be in the repertoire of almost every home cook: roast chicken. Easy to make but hard to perfect, roast chicken is considered by some to be the baseline by which a restaurant should be judged. If it can make a perfect roast chicken, then it is good. If it can't, it isn't.
There are perhaps as many ways to roast a chicken as there are chickens to roast, and some of them can get complicated -- cook it on one side for 25 minutes, turn it to the other side for 25 minutes, turn it on its back for 10 minutes, sprinkle with salt, and roast for another 15 minutes, all while frequently basting. Actually, that recipe, which came from James Beard, results in an exceptional chicken. But it is far too much effort for our make-it-easy purposes here.
Instead, we decided to work from one simple principle: Give the chicken big flavors from both the outside and the inside. The outside was obvious enough, we just brushed it with olive oil, seasoned it with salt and pepper, and abundantly sprinkled it with thyme and oregano. For the inside, we stuffed the cavity as full as we could with aromatic vegetables. Because thyme and oregano are Mediterranean herbs, we made sure to fill the cavity with complementary flavors: a lemon, a leek, and a stalk of celery. A bulb of fennel would have worked well, too, or a couple of cloves of garlic.
Just as easy to make, and just as boldly flavored, was our take on the French classic potage aux legumes, or vegetable soup. Like the roast chicken, you could make a much more complicated version of the same basic dish, with fresh herbs, tomatoes, and cream or crème frâiche. Instead, we took the simple route, beginning with an easy recipe from Joël Robuchon and then reducing it to its essence -- potatoes, carrots, leeks, celery, butter, and broth. We pureed it in a blender for a great, silky texture, but you don't even have to do that if you want a chunky soup.
Vegetarians can substitute vegetable stock for the chicken stock, or even water. Vegans can use olive oil instead of butter. It will be just as delicious and just as surprisingly satisfying either way.
Still on our quest to find a great, easy meal, we turned to a book called Great Easy Meals. Written by unnamed folks at Food Network Magazine, the book includes a promising recipe for Drumsticks with Biscuits and Tomato Jam. Great idea, we thought, but too hard. So we left out the tomato jam and biscuits and stayed with the part-fried, part-baked chicken legs.
The secret to this sweet, quick dish is the flavoring that goes on the chicken before it is cooked. It is a honey-mustard sauce with Worcestershire sauce and lemon juice. It is especially easy to make if you already have honey-mustard at home, but even if you do not you can whip up some yourself with no problem. A short period of trial and error, which included more than a little licking of dribbled honey, resulted in determining an easy ratio: two parts honey to one part mustard. Simple.
And while we had honey spilled on the counter anyway, we decided to make a quick glaze for pork chops (it would work just as well for tenderloin, too). Here is where the peach jam comes in -- or apricot, if you happen to have it instead. With marmalade it would be great on duck. We simply whisked together honey and peach jam, added a dash of thyme for a savory counterpoint, and heated it to create a glaze. All that was left was to cook the pork in the glaze, turning it occasionally, until it was done.
And now, a word of warning: Like all heated sugars, this glaze is screamingly hot. Let it cool a little before you serve it. And whatever you do, don't forget and give into the temptation to dip your finger into the glaze for just a second to taste it.
Contact Daniel Neman at email@example.com or 419-724-6155.
Potage aux Legumes (Vegetable Soup)
4 medium potatoes
2 medium leeks, whites only
2 medium carrots, peeled
1 stalk celery
1 1/2 tablespoons butter
1 quart chicken stock OR vegetable stock
Peel the potatoes, cut into quarters lengthwise, and put in a bowl of cold water. Thoroughly clean the leeks by slicing them in half lengthwise and fanning the layers under cold running water. Slice the leek whites, carrots, and celery into 1-inch rounds.
Melt the butter in a large saucepan over very low heat. Add the leeks and cook for 3 minutes, stirring occasionally. They should begin to turn translucent, but should not brown. Add the stock and potatoes. Do not add salt.
Bring to a simmer and simmer 10 minutes. If the liquid foams, remove the scum with a skimmer. Add the carrots and celery, bring to a boil, lower the heat, and simmer 30 minutes.
Using a blender or immersion blender, thoroughly puree the soup. Season to taste with salt.
Yield: 4 servings
Source: Adapted from The Complete Robuchon, by Joël Robuchon
Easy Roast Chicken
1 (4-pound) chicken
1 leek (see cook's note)
1 stalk celery
1 tablespoon olive oil
Salt and pepper
1 teaspoon thyme
2 teaspoons oregano
Cook's note: In place of the leek and celery, you can use any combination of onion, carrot, garlic, fennel, orange, apple, bay leaf or more.
Preheat oven to 400°.
Rinse the chicken in cold water and pat dry with paper towels. Cut the lemon in half and place it in the chicken's cavity. Thoroughly clean the leek by slicing it in half lengthwise and fanning the layers under cold running water. Cut the leek and celery into 2-inch lengths, and insert all you can into cavity.
Brush oil over chicken and season with salt and pepper. Sprinkle chicken with thyme and oregano on all sides. Place chicken in a roasting pan, on a rack if you have one, and cook in oven 90 minutes or longer, until the juices are not pink and the legs move easily in the joint.
Yield: 4 servings
1 cup all-purpose flour
Juice of 1 lemon
2 teaspoons fresh thyme leaves
⅓ cup honey mustard (see cook's note)
2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
5 tablespoons butter
8 skin-on chicken drumsticks
Cook's note: If you don't have honey mustard, make your own by combining 1/4 cup honey with 2 tablespoons Dijon mustard. If you don't like it sweet, use less honey or more mustard.
Preheat oven to 400°. Put flour on a plate and season well with salt and pepper.
In a wide bowl, mix together lemon juice, thyme, honey mustard, and Worcestershire sauce. Melt the butter in a large cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat.
Season the chicken with salt and pepper, dunk in the honey-mustard mixture, and dredge through the flour. Fry in the butter, turning, until golden on all sides -- about 6 minutes. Transfer the skillet to the oven and cook until the drumsticks are done, about 15 minutes.
Yield: 4 servings
Source: Adapted from Great Easy Meals, by Food Network Magazine
Peach-Glazed Pork Chops
4 pork chops
Salt and pepper
1/4 cup honey
1/4 cup peach jam
1/4 teaspoon thyme
Season the pork chops with salt and pepper. Whisk together honey, jam, and thyme, and pour into a large skillet over medium-high heat. When hot, add the pork chops. Cook, turning occasionally, until done -- the time will depend on the thickness of the chops. To serve, pour the remaining glaze over the chops.
Warning: The glaze is extremely hot. Do not touch it until it has had a chance to cool somewhat.
Yield: 4 servings