Thursday, April 15, 2010

Food for Thought Thursdays: Better Late Than Never

We are very happy to have a guest blog today from Tom Bradley, a freelance writer, blog fan, new cook and friend. As his story shows, cooking does more than simply nourish your body.

Tom here: For the first 48 years of my life I rarely cooked. I grew up in a home where my mother did all the cooking, and I had no interest in learning how the food found its way to the plate. I was satisfied that it was there. I made the usual bachelor survival foods in college — mac and cheese, grilled steaks and burgers – in the days before Hot Pockets and microwave burritos. And then I married young, and happily returned to the days of enjoying the food that appeared on my plate every night. I was always grateful, mind you. And I did pitch in during the baby years, cheerfully, but unenthusiastically.

I enjoyed good cooking, and loved a well-made, creative meal, but like a theater aficionado who never trod the boards, I didn’t really appreciate the effort behind the production.

Then four years ago my wife became seriously ill. For two years she struggled simply to stay alive, and spent the third year recovering from a heart transplant. She has recovered fully, for which I will be forever grateful. But that doesn’t mean she’s getting her kitchen back.

See, in those four years, I had to pick up the responsibility for pretty much everything around the house – including the cooking. And what I took up out of necessity, I learned to love passionately. I’m only sad I let those first 48 years go by without realizing – dare I say it without copyright infringement? – the joy of cooking.

I realized early on that I couldn’t limp through with the meager menus of my college days. My wife needed to eat well to keep her spirits and weight up. Offering her the same old bland recipes every three days wouldn’t do it. And my children wouldn’t have been too happy, either.

I started by mining the Food Network website, which is an extraordinary and limitless resource for the recipe-deprived. Then I found the book that changed my life: The Best Light Recipe, by the editors of Cook’s Illustrated.

Cook’s Illustrated operated America’s Test Kitchen in Brookline, Massachusetts, which is exactly what it sounds like: a kitchen where they test recipes, products, and cooking equipment. They approach cooking like engineering, and as a former technical writer, their book hit me with a resounding “click.” Not only did they provide me with a solid foundation of yummy, heart-healthy recipes, but they explained every step, every decision, and every option clearly and concisely. It took the fear out of my cooking, and I was launched.

I am not, by any stretch of the imagination, a gourmet cook. I still lean toward the 30-minute recipes, with maybe a weekly excursion into the tougher challenges. But I love trying new things now. I love the complexity of balancing flavors, of choosing spices, of integrating textures and colors on the plate. I make a huge mess when I cook, and don’t mind cleaning up when I’m done because the emotional reward is so worthwhile.

To return to the theatrical metaphor, cooking is like performing. There’s preparation, and physical effort. You make artistic choices and take risks, you juggle and you pray. And in the end, if you’ve done well, you get applause. Well, you don’t really get applause, but you get the emotional reward of hearing the satisfied sounds of people enjoying a meal. If you’ve done really well, you get the cook’s equivalent of a standing ovation: a cleaned plate.

In honor of my cooking bible, here’s a recipe from The Best Light Recipes – simple, and so tasty:

Sauteed Chicken Cutlets with a White Wine and Herb Pan Sauce
(serves 4)

½ cup unbleached all-purpose flour
4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts, trimmed of excess fat, tenderloins removed, and sliced into cutlets
Salt and ground black pepper
2 tablespoons vegetable oil

1 medium shallot, minced
2 medium garlic cloves, minced or pressed
½ cup dry white wine or vermouth
1 ½ cups low-sodium chicken broth
2 tablespoons whole milk
1 teaspoon cornstarch
2 teaspoons minced fresh parsley leaves
2 teaspoons minced fresh tarragon leaves
Ground black pepper

1. For the cutlets: Spread the flour in a shallow dish. Pat the cutlets dry with paper towels, then season with salt and pepper. Lightly dredge the cutlets in the flour and shake off the excess; set aside.
2. Heat 1 tablespoon of the oil in a 12-inch skillet over medium-high heat until just smoking. Lay half of the cutlets in the skillet and cook until lighly golden, about 3 minutes. Flip the cutlets over and continue to cook until the meat is no longer pink in the center and feels firm when pressed with a finger, about 2 minutes. Transfer the cutlets to a plate and cover with foil; set aside. Repeat with the remaining oil and cutlets.
3. For the sauce: Add the shallot and ¼ teaspoon salt to the oil left in the skillet, return to medium-low heat, and cook until softened, about 2 minutes. Stir in the garlic and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Stir in the wine, scraping up the browned bits. Add the broth, bring to a simmer, and cook until the mixture measures ¾ cup, about 5 minutes.
4. Pour any accumulated chicken juices into the simmering sauce. Whisk the milk and cornstarch together in a small bowl, then whisk into the simmering sauce. Continue to simmer the sauce until it has thickened, about 1 minute. Off the heat, stir in the parsley and tarragon and season with salt and pepper to taste. Spoon the sauce over the cutlets before serving.

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