My Top 5 Roasting Tips

IMG_0103Winter is roasting season. Whether you’re planning a Valentines day rack of lamb for 2 or a simple roast chicken for a family supper, the warmth of the oven and the aromas of roast meat, poultry or vegetables will draw your family and friends together to share a meal and each other’s company. To help you along the way, I’ve summarized my top 5 tips from my cookbook, All About Roasting.

Tip #1 – Shop wisely

The best roasts start with the best quality meat, fowl, fish or vegetables. By definition, roasting exposes foods to dry oven heat, and this dry heat concentrates their intrinsic flavors and characters. This basic cooking technique allows you to transform raw foods into sumptuous meals with little effort (you merely season something and slide it into the oven), but there is not much room to hide or mask inferior ingredients. The best roasts will always begin with the best available ingredients. Choose the freshest, most carefully raised ingredients that you can find and afford.

Tip # 2 – Select an oven temperature to match the roast

Roasting is not a one-size-fits-all cooking technique; you can roast quickly in a super hot oven or slowly in a gentle oven. The best approach is to select the oven temperature to suit the roast. High-heat roasting (400 degrees and up) is best for small, naturally tender cuts of meat, fowl and fish, such as beef tenderloin, small chickens, fish fillets and most fruits and vegetables. High-heat roasting will create wonderfully browned exteriors, but anything over a few pounds will likely char on the outside before cooking though. Choose moderate heat (325 to 395 degrees) for larger cuts, such as turkey and pork loin roasts. Low heat roasting (300 degrees and lower) is the way to go when you’re roasting large, less tender cuts, including large cuts of shoulder, leg and round. And finally, use a 2-step sear-roast technique by cranking up the oven to 425 degrees to start, and then (after 10 to 20 minutes) lower the oven to a more moderate temperature (325 or 350 degrees) to get the advantages of high-heat (a handsomely sizzling exterior) and moderate heat (a juicy interior). In the end, there is no single right way to roast. As James Beard once wisely wrote, “Each is successful in its own way, and it remains for the cook to compare results.”

No matter which oven temperature you use, it’s always a good idea to let the roast sit on a cutting board for a while (30 to 60 minutes) before roasting. This takes the chill off and helps it to brown more readily and cook more evenly. Use this time to fully pre-heat the oven as well.

Tip #3 – Don’t crowd

Roasting operates on the principle of heated oven air circulating around the food, and so it’s important that you allow the air to move freely. This means choosing a pan that will accommodate whatever you’re roasting without crowding or shielding it from the oven heat. You want a pan that will hold the roast without too much empty space around it. If the pan is too large, the drippings will be too spread out and tend to burn. If the pan is too small, the roast won’t brown nicely.

For everyday roasts (things like chicken and pork loin), steer away from traditional high-sided roasting pans that will obscure a good portion of the roast, and instead use lower-sided gratin dishes, skillets or even small baking sheets. For roasting individual pieces of poultry or vegetables, spread these out on a rimmed baking sheet, allowing space between pieces, to get the best exposure to the oven heat. (Lining the baking sheets with parchment paper will mean less sticking and easier clean-up.)

And finally, to give your roast the best advantage, arrange the oven rack so that the top of the roast will line up with top third of the oven. For a super large roast, this means an oven rack near the bottom. For smaller roasts, the rack will be closer to the center.

Tip # 4 – Use a thermometer (or two)

The single most important roasting tool is a reliable meat thermometer. Use the thermometer to check the internal temperature of the roast before the suggested cooking time is up. Every oven and every roast cooks a little differently, and it is good practice to check the progress of your roast as it cooks. Don’t check incessantly – as each time you open the oven door, you lose a good deal of heat and slow down the progress of the roast, but check often enough that you have a sense of how the roast is progressing. The internal temperature will rise more quickly as it gets closer to doneness, so the last 20 to 30 minutes of any roast is always the most critical. Once you think a roast is done, use the thermometer to check it in a few spots to be sure you’re not hitting a bone or a pocket of fat that may throw off the temperature reading.

You may also set an oven thermometer in your oven to help you judge its accuracy. Many of our ovens (no matter how new or expensive) will run cool or hot. Having an oven thermometer on the shelf can help you adjust your cooking times according to the actual temperature inside your oven.

Tip # 5 – Rest

Carving into a roast the minute it comes out of the oven can ruin even the most perfectly cooked piece of meat or poultry. Every roast needs to rest – to sit undisturbed in a warm spot – for anywhere from 5 to 30 minutes. During roasting, the juices are driven towards the surface of the roast. When you pull a roast from the oven, it takes a moment for the juices to stop moving, but they eventually redistribute and settle to produce a juicier, more evenly cooked roast. Small roasts, like a rack of lamb or pork tenderloin, only need to rest for a few minutes, but large roasts, like prime rib and turkey, are best left to sit for at least 30 minutes. If the kitchen is cool, you can tent the roast with foil, but don’t cover too tightly or it will continue to cook. Yes, the meat or fowl will cool off slightly as it rests, but this is a small price to pay for a juicy, tender roast.

The internal temperature of your roast will climb as it rests – a situation know as carry-over cooking. The larger the roast, the greater the carry-over cooking. In other words, the internal temperature of a standing rib roast can rise as much as 10 degrees as it rests, while a petite rack of lamb may only rise 3 or 4 degrees. Keep this in mind as you use your thermometer to judge doneness.

Holiday Mashed Potatoes

051115w-01-mashed-potato-and-rutabega-gratin_xlgLike a lot of meat-and-potato American families, mashed potatoes were pretty constant on our dinner table. They were there to soak up the juices when we had a roast or a stew. They were always on the buffet for holiday gatherings. They appeared sleekly tucked into their neat compartment on “special” occasions when Mom and Dad went out for dinner. And there was a box of “Potato Buds” in the cupboard for emergencies when a meal needed a starch but there were no real potatoes in the bin or no time to boil them. I can’t say that my younger appetite bothered to discern the distinctions between good or bad (or even real or fake) mashed potatoes. They were simply there, and their bland, heaviness always comforted and satisfied.

Now these many years later I know more about mashed potatoes than I ever thought possible (this will happen when you co-write an entire cookbook on potatoes), and I have strong opinions on what I like (fluffy and flavorful) and what I don’t (dense, insipid, mealy, gummy or fake). I also have a lot to say on how to properly make and serve them (use a ricer and serve immediately). In One Potato, Two Potato, my good pal and co-author, Roy Finamore wrote a 2 1/2-page essay on how to achieve mashed potato enlightenment, and I can happily teach an entire class on the topic. When it comes to planning a holiday menu, I know I want light and tasty mashed potatoes, but I don’t have the patience for making them at the last minute. With so much else going on in the kitchen (and on the plate), I am looking for something more convenient than a classic mash, but I am nowhere near ready to reach for the box of potato buds.

My soluition? Roy’s recipe for Party Potatoes. The first thing to note is that the recipe does not show up in the book’s mashed potato chapter (yes, there is an entire 28-recipe chapter on mashed spuds alone). Instead, Party Potatoes belongs in a category of potato casseroles or gratins that masquerade as mashed potatoes. Here’s how it works: you start as you normally would, boiling and draining several pounds of potatoes (the recipe scales up and down easy, another bonus). Then you use an electric mixer to beat in the usual dairy enrichments plus cream cheese and seasoning before piling it into a baking dish, smoothing out the top and dusting it with paprika or grated cheese. You can then refrigerate the casserole for 2 to 3 days before baking and serving.

As with most favorite recipes, I like to play around with the formula, but there are a couple of keys to keeping these fluffy and good. Don’t skip the cream cheese. It adds richness and a nice tang, but its plasticity is what insures you’ll get the right texture. You could substitute mascarpone, but that’s just Italian cream cheese, so it basically the same. Also, add enough other dairy (butter, cream or milk, sour cream or cream fraiche) to make the potatoes moist but not sodden and rich without being cloying. Beyond that, I sometimes include another starchy vegetable (at a ratio of 4 parts potato to about 1 part “other”). Favorites include parsnip, rutabaga or winter squash. (The photo above is from my recipe that appeared in Fine Cooking magazine a few years back for Mashed Potato and Rutabaga Gratin). Fellow roots can boil along side the potatoes. More delicate squashes do best when cooked separately. Flavorings like dried mustard and horseradish add zing. And cheese is rarely unwelcome.

 

 

Party Potatoes

by Roy Finamore with Molly Stevens from “One Potato, Two Potato” (Houghton-Mifflin, 2001)

 

Serves 10 to 12

 

3 pounds russet potatoes, peeled and chunked

Kosher or medium-grain sea salt

8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch pieces, at room temperature

8 ounces cream cheese, at room temperature

1/2 cup sour cream, room temperature

2/3 cup milk, warmed

Freshly ground black pepper

Paprika

 

Put the potatoes in a large saucepan, cover with cold water by at least an inch, add a good pinch of salt and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium, cover partway, and cook until the potatoes are very tender. Drain and return them to the pot. Set over medium heat for a minute or two, shaking and stirring so the potatoes don’t stick, until they are floury and have made a film on the bottom of the pot.

Remove the potatoes from the heat and break them up with a hand-held electric mixer on low speed. Gradually drop in 6 tablespoons of the butter and beat until it is absorbed. Refrigerate the remaining butter. Continue with the cream cheese and sour cream, beating well after each addition. Finally, beat in the milk, adding a little at a time. You want the potatoes to be fluffy and light; if they seem to be getting too wet, don’t add all of the milk. Season with salt and pepper. (If you don’t have an electric mixer, use a hand masher to start and then use a wooden spoon to beat in the butter, cheese, sour cream, and milk. Beat the milk into the potatoes one-third at a time, beating vigorously after each addition.)

Butter a 9- X 13-inch baking dish and spoon the potatoes into it. Smooth the top and then, with spatula or fork tines, swirl or score the surface of the potatoes to leave little peaks that will brown up nicely during baking. Refrigerate, covered tightly with plastic wrap, for up to 2 days before baking.

Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Dust the top with paprika and cut the remaining butter into small pieces and scatter them over the surface. Bake until the potatoes are heated though and the top is lightly golden, about an hour. (Expect it to take only half the time if the potatoes haven’t been refrigerated.) Serve hot.

 

 

My Breakthrough Recipe: Chicken Divan

As a cooking teacher, I spend a good deal of time thinking about how – and when and where – we learn to cook. In my case, my breakthrough dish was Chicken Divan, a patently dated casserole comprised of canned soup, mayonnaise, broccoli and chicken. I don’t know why I latched onto this particular recipe, but during my early high school years it became my signature dish. I remember serving it at my first dinner party (I’m fairly certain my parents were out of town). I had no idea what how to host a dinner party, but I felt terribly grownup serving something so, ahem, elegant.

Now, keep in mind that this was the early 1970’s. There were no celebrity chefs, no Food Network, “gourmet” was not in my lexicon and canned soup was a staple in my mother’s cupboards. The only way I can explain my devotion to Chicken Divan is that it was the first time I felt as though I were truly cooking. Yes, I knew how to make toast, put together a decent sandwich, simmer a hot dog, fry an egg, and other simple ways to feed myself, but this casserole was big step above all of that. By assembling 6 or 7 ingredients in a certain progression, I made something complex that hit all my adolescent sensory receptors—rich, creamy, savory, beautifully browned and crunchy on top. More importantly, it turned out perfectly every time, people loved it, and I made it so many times that I owned that recipe.

I had all but forgotten about those early casseroles until one of my oldest, dearest friends sent me a scan of the hand-written recipe (below) that I had given her back in high school. I had copied it from a similar shorthand recipe of my mother’s (also below). I can’t help but smile looking at these thumbnail recipes now. Both bear the telltale cooking stains of a well-loved dish, and, like many old recipes, these abbreviated lists of ingredients assume a certain amount of basic kitchen know-how.  They assume you know that the chicken is pre-cooked, that the broccoli is steamed (or defrosted), that you layer these into a buttered baking dish and then stir together all the creamy elements and pour these overtop. In other words, they assume someone has already taught you how to make Chicken Divan; the recipes are a mere prompt.

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My “recipe” for Chicken Divan written out for my best friend (early 1970’s)

On one hand, these notes remind me that I’ve come a long way in my tastes and in how I write a recipe – my spelling has improved, too, although not my handwriting.  On the other, they remind me that cooking and sharing recipes is something that I’ve always loved to do. One of these days, perhaps I’ll update my old favorite by ditching the canned soup and mayonnaise. I wonder if it will be as good as I remember.

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My mother’s “recipe”, accredited to her sister-in-law and dear friend Kay, and glued onto a page in a looseleaf notebook.

 

Why I Don’t Rinse Poultry

A recent story on National Public Radio reminded me of the revelation I had about rinsing poultry while working on my last cookbook, All About Roasting. I thought it’d be good to share the excerpt.

“Anyone who has followed a poultry recipe from my earlier book, All About Braising, may be surprised by the title of this section. Yes, it’s true: Throughout the braising book, I begin every poultry recipe by telling you to rinse the bird and then pat it dry, and for years I mindlessly rinsed poultry (especially chicken) as soon as I took it out of its packaging. Then, as I began developing recipes for my next cookbook (All About Roasting) , I was standing in my kitchen about to hold a perfectly wholesome chicken under my kitchen faucet and I had one of those rare moments of revelation. I realized that rinsing was not only unnecessary, it was a bad habit. For starters, many of us rinse poultry because we think it’s more sanitary; in other words, we are somehow washing off any potential pathogens. The problem here is that by rinsing, you are actually spreading any harmful bacteria all over your kitchen sink, so unless you scrub your entire sink (and any counter surfaces that may have been splashed) with some sort of cleaning agent afterward, you are doing more harm than good. Also, unless you severely undercook your poultry, any bad microbes will be killed during cooking.

Beyond the food safety question, rinsing poultry can have a negative effect on the appearance and taste of your recipes, especially when roasting. One of the primary goals of roasting is to develop a handsome brown crust, and this requires having a dry surface—the less moisture it has, the better the surface will crisp and brown. Wet poultry skin also has the unfortunate tendency to stick to the pan or roasting rack, so that it tears when you try to remove it. From a flavor standpoint, when we rinse, we are essentially washing away flavor, and worse, we water down the chicken’s natural flavor. More so than red meat and pork, chicken (and other poultry) has a natural ability to absorb a good deal of water. When you’re brining, this is a good thing, because the chicken will soak up the flavors and salt in the brine, which will enhance its flavor. Plain tap water, however, does nothing but dilute the natural juices and leave the chicken waterlogged and bland. Plus unsalted water added to poultry during rinsing merely leaks out during cooking, leaving the meat drier than it would be otherwise. Now the only time you’ll find me rinsing poultry is if I’ve accidentally dropped it on the kitchen floor, in which case the quicker, the better.”

– Excerpted from All About Roasting

Happy Birthday, Julia!

The IACP commemorated Julia Child’s 100th birthday by having members post their favorite memories. Here’s mine:

My favorite memory of Julia comes from Venice in the fall of 1998.  Julia and Anne Willan were there to present a weeklong cooking program billed as “La Varenne at the Hotel Cipriani with Julia Child,” and I had come along as the kitchen liaison. My job was to prep and assist during classes and to coordinate with the hotel kitchen.

When I signed on, I expected plenty of long hours and hard work, but it seemed like tremendous opportunity. What I hadn’t anticipated was that I would first drive a carload of pots and pans down to Venice from Burgundy so that every morning I could set up our makeshift La Varenne kitchen in a tent erected in the hotel courtyard. At the end of the second day of classes, I had a run-in with the young hotel kitchen steward who was assigned to help me schlepp all our equipment back and forth to a secure spot in the hotel. Julia was within earshot, and, as I started up the path, under relentless rain, wrestling the heavy cart of equipment (unassisted), she stopped me and said, “Dearie, you mustn’t let them push you around,” and then she turned and cheerfully went off to dinner.  Bone-tired, pissed off, and feeling sorry for myself, I stopped and let Julia’s words sink in. She was right. I mustn’t let them — or anyone — push me around. It’s a lesson I try to always remember and to pass along.

My Top 6 Turkey Tips

With Thanksgiving upon us, I’ve been getting a lot of calls and emails about turkey. Maybe it’s usual holiday jitters or the anticipated awkwardness of sharing a kitchen with assorted family members, but I find that even the most confident and cavalier cooks can balk a bit when it comes to the big November feast. I know it happens to me. So to fend off any turkey-roasting anxiety, here are my top 6 tips for getting it right.

1. Buy a good turkey – and preferably a modest sized one.

This may take some advance planning, and, depending on where you live and shop, your may have many or few options. Without being too prescriptive here, I invite you to define what a “good turkey” means to you. In other words, don’t just reach for the cheapest, largest bird you can find, but instead consider the inherent quality of the turkey. For myself, I prefer turkeys from small-scale farmers who I know raise their poultry with an eye towards good taste and humane animal practices and not from a large-scale industrial operations that merely wants to raise the biggest, fattest birds they can manage. For the best-tasting bird, consider seeking out one of the old-fashioned heritage breeds that are (thankfully) making a real resurgence (examples include American Bronze, Bourbon Red, Jersey Buff, Narragansett, and White Holland).

A secondary advantage of heritage breeds is that they don’t grow to the gargantuan size of commercial breeds, and that is a good thing. The average turkey sold today (at Thanksgiving) is close to 28 pounds, and while such a bird will feed an army, it is nearly impossible to cook evenly. The bigger the turkey, the longer it takes to cook and the more likely it is to dry out. You will get much better results roasting a moderate-sized turkey; I look for something in the 12- to 16-pound range. If you have a very large gathering, simply roast two smaller birds. I know this may sound radical, but it makes a huge difference in time, texture, and flavor, and you get the bonus of more legs and wings and crispy skin to go around (and two carcasses for even better day-after turkey soup).

2. Presalt the turkey.

Presalting is the key to a juicy bird. One to two days before Thanksgiving, remove the giblets from the turkey (saving them for later if you like). Then pat the turkey dry with paper towels. Measure out about 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt per pound of turkey (if you have a 10 pound turkey, you’ll want 5 teaspoons kosher salt, for a 15 pound bird, it’s 7 1/2 teaspoons, and so forth; then simplify your life by converting teaspoons to tablespoons. Hint: There are 3 teaspoons to every tablespoon). The best brand of kosher to use is Diamond Crystal, because it has no additives, and the large, flakey crystals dissolve readily. If you use another brand, such as Morton, cut back the amount of salt by a smidge.

Sprinkle the measured amount of kosher salt and plenty of freshly ground black pepper (and any other seasonings you’re partial to) liberally all over the turkey, spreading a little in the cavity and being sure to season the back, the breasts, and the meaty thighs. If you’ve never pre-salted before, this may look like too much salt, but it’s not. As the turkey sits in the refrigerator, the salt will gently permeate the meat, improving the water-holding ability of the muscle cells so that, when cooked, the meat stays juicy yet does not become overly salty. Arrange the salted turkey on a wire rack over a rimmed baking sheet, and refrigerate uncovered (this dries the skin, which helps it turn crisp during roasting) for one to two days. When you pull the turkey from the fridge after its salt treatment, the skin will be taut and dry with no trace of salt–and ready to crisp up nicely in the oven. (There is no need to rinse or wipe off the turkey.)

3. Don’t stuff the turkey.

As much as I appreciate the comforting flavor of stuffing cooked inside a turkey, the stuffing actually compromises the quality of the finished bird. By packing the cavity with a dense bread (or oyster or sausage) stuffing, you prevent the oven heat from circulating inside the turkey and thus slow down the cooking, so the exterior ends up cooking more rapidly than the center leaving you with dried-out breast meat and undercooked dark meat. As much as traditionalists don’t want to hear it, an unstuffed turkey roasts more quickly and evenly. Also, there’s the food safety dilemma: Stuffing packed into the bird will not cook through to a safe temperature until the rest of the turkey is overdone. My solution is to bake the stuffing separately in a baking dish, which makes it technically a dressing.

4. Let the turkey sit at room temperature for a while and preheat the oven.

I like to let the turkey sit at room temperature for anywhere from 30 minutes to 2 hours before roasting. This helps it roast more evenly. Heat the oven to 450 degrees (or 425 degrees convection), and when you’re certain that it’s fully pre-heated (an oven thermometer is a good way to be sure), arrange the turkey breast-side up in a sturdy roasting pan outfitted with a roasting rack. Pour about 1 1/2 cups of turkey or chicken broth into the bottom of the roasting pan (this will give your pan drippings a boost), and slide the turkey into the oven. Immediately lower the oven heat to 350 degrees (or 325 degrees convection). Roast, rotating the pan after about 1 1/4 hours and covering the breast with foil during the last 45 minutes if it seems to be getting too dark, for 2 1/2 to 3 hours for a 13 to 14-pound (or 12 to 13 minutes per pound). If desired, baste by spooning the pan drippings over the breast every 45 minutes or so.

The turkey is done when the juices from the thigh run mostly clear with only a trace of pink and an instant-read thermometer inserted into the meaty part of the thigh registers about 170 degrees. Make sure the thermometer doesn’t hit bone and that the probe doesn’t go all the way through so that it’s reading the temperature of the oven air. It’s a good idea to take the temperature in a few spots to get an accurate reading.

5. Rest the turkey after roasting.

When the turkey is done, grab both sides of the roasting rack with oven mitts to lift and tilt the turkey, and let the juices pour from the cavity into the pan. Set the turkey in a warm spot (and on a tray or cutting board to catch any drips) to rest for at least 30 minutes and up to an hour. (If it’s drafty, loosely tent foil over the top.) It would be impossible to overstate the importance of letting the turkey rest after roasting and before carving. During roasting, the juices in the poultry continually migrate toward the surface. Once roasting stops, the juices eventually stop moving and redistribute themselves evenly throughout the roast, but this takes time. If you cut into the turkey before it’s had a chance to sit, you will be treated to a dry bird, no matter how perfectly you timed the roasting. Plus this resting period gives you plenty of time to tend to the gravy and side dishes, because we all know that Thanksgiving is really all about the trimmings.

The family outlaws taking a moment to admire the birds while they rest.

The "outlaws" take a moment to admire the roasted turkeys (and to let the birds rest before carving).

6. Relax. It’s only a turkey.

Even if you decide to ignore all my other suggestions, please heed this one. In my experience, the best part of Thanksgiving is when we all pause to appreciate our good fortunes. The turkey is merely the centerpiece, but the day is much more about gathering families and friends around the table and sharing a familiar feast.

Wishing you a delicious and convivial holiday!

Why Recipes Don’t Work (at least sometimes)

A friend recently told me about a conversation he had on a flight from Chicago to DC. Hi seatmate noticed he was reading a food magazine and this inspired her to strike up a conversation. Turns out she loves to read about food, and she bragged about her 1000-plus-page scrapbook that she had filled with her favorite recipes from various cooking magazines. My colleague innocently asked if she had cooked all those recipes. “Oh no!” she blurted, “I don’t cook—but someday I’ll get around to it.”

Ever since hearing about the “scrapbook non-cook”, I can’t help but wondering what role, if any, recipes play in inspiring people to cook. We have more recipes at our fingertips today than ever before. Even if you don’t have a personal cookbook library (that’s a partial shot of mine below) or a backlog of cooking magazines, an infinite number of recipes wait only a google search away. And yet evidence keeps piling up that cooking skills are being lost and that, as a result, we eat more and more of our meals away from home.

booksThe truth is recipes can only go so far in teaching someone to cook—or encouraging someone to even try. Even the most basic recipes are filled with coded language (sear, deglaze, blanche, etc), assumptions and leaps of instruction.  Certainly some recipes are easier to follow than others, but no recipe can cover every little detail of kitchen knowledge you need to make you a better cook. Over the years I’ve heard far too many stories from people (often students in my classes) who have tried recipes and failed, and, here’s the part that upsets me the most, they often indict themselves and their lack of cooking skills. I don’t blame people for feeling discouraged after investing time in shopping, money in ingredients, more time in cooking, and possibly even inviting people over adding an element of embarrassment to the mix—it’s enough to drive anyone to the nearest prepared foods department of their local market.

As a cooking teacher and someone who writes recipes for a living, this leaves me in a sort of quandary. While I do my best to include instructional detail in my recipes (making me often long-winded and sometimes causing my editors to pull out their hair), the reality is that the best way to learn to cook is simply start cooking and keep cooking. If you can find someone who knows how to make a dish you like (make sure it’s someone whose company you enjoy), ask them to teach you and then start making it yourself. Just like learning to play the piano, you need to learn the basics and practice before you’re ready for a full-course sonata. Choose a dish you like, for instance, frittata, and start making it, and keep making it until you can make it without a recipe. Sure, you may get a little bored, but that’s when you start introducing variations. After all, the sign of a truly good cook, one who approaches the making of a meal with cavalier confidence but without recipes, is one who knows how to improvise. Once you have a few basics down, then it’s time for recipes—and they will work, because you will know how to make them work.

The Fullness of Summer

While the calendar offers 3 months of summer every year, here in Vermont (and in other northern climes, I’m sure), summer is really all about July. Let me explain. In early June, many nights (and even a few days) have me reaching for my fleece jacket and worrying over my tomato seedlings. And then by late August, I’ve got my fleece back on and there are early splashes or red and orange on the hillsides. Now don’t get me wrong, I love June and August, but July, now that’s the stuff. That’s the full, fat, thickness of summer—the only month that I can rely on to be summer start to finish. And, as such, I revel in it. I take any opportunity to soak it in. I read on the deck in the evening, I eat meals on the screen porch, I leave all the windows open even when it rains, I stay outside as much as I can, I scratch in the dirt, I swim in streams, I wear flip-flops and short dresses, I walk the dog through grasses so tall he disappears, and I cook and I eat and eat and eat. I gorge on tender lettuces, cucumbers and ripe berries. I make the rounds of the farmers’ markets, scarfing up every new crop as it appears. From peas and spinach to onions and runner beans to summer squashes and new potatoes; I shop greedily as the farmers’ stands fill out and their crops grow taller and rounder. My hunger deepens as the peppers and tomatoes get fatter and juicier, as the carrots grow longer, as the beets get rounder, as the arugula turns spicy and as the baby lettuces make way for lusty kales and cabbages. During the day, as I sit in front of the computer in my un-air-conditioned office, I surrender to the sweet residue of raspberries on my lips, to the perspiration that makes my forearms stick to the desk, to the itch of nettle stings on my ankles, to the buzz of wasps making a nest under the eaves, to the swishing of the leaves in the breeze, and I dream of what I’ll make for dinner.

July, I’m yours.

(A meal I recently made for friends: fresh pork sausage coiled and skewered with bay leaves and tossed on the grill; cabbage and carrot slaw; new potato and green bean salad; watermelon salad—from my good friend, Mo; and a bowl of lettuces straight from the garden.)

A meal I recently made for friends: fresh pork sausage coiled and skewered with bay leaves and tossed on the grill, cabbage and carrot slaw, new potato and green bean salad, watermelon salad (from my good friend, Mo), and a bowl of lettuces straight from the garden.

The Making of a Cookbook

All About RoastingPeople sometimes ask me how long it takes to write a cookbook, and the best answer I can give is “it all depends”. It depends on what else I’ve got going on (both personally and professionally), and it also depends on how I measure time. For instance, I am just finishing my new book, All About Roasting, and, to be honest, this book took anywhere from five years to a lifetime depending on how I look at it. From a purely chronological standpoint, I first wrote the outline in the late winter of 2006, which means it took me 5 years from start to finish. But from a developmental point of view, this is a book that I’ve been writing my whole life.

Let me try to explain. When I set out to write a book on roasting, I approached it the way I would undertake any big project. I began by establishing a clear understanding of the technique that would form the central theme of the book. From there, I planned to develop recipes that fell into that rubric. The trouble, I soon discovered, was that the harder I looked at the definition of roasting (cooking food uncovered by dry heat), the more my vision of a strong central theme began to unravel. The standard definition was too vague to really be useful. As a result, my early efforts at organizing my recipes into a book were all over the place, which meant I had no book.

So, I did something that I never would have attempted when I was younger and more bullheaded; I took a step back and asked myself what roasting means to me. To find the answer, I turned to my kitchen and to my appetite. As I roasted and ate, I let my mind travel beyond the technicalities of the stark textbook definition, and I began to understand that it wasn’t so much the technique that mattered, but it was the goodness of the results. It was the aesthetic of seared surfaces, caramelized pan drippings, and crispy end bits that I was after.

Sure, roasting involves cooking by direct exposure to dry heat, but it means so much more. Roasting, I discovered, infers more than a generalized technique; it expresses nuance and sensibility. Roasting denotes a direct, honest approach to cooking, as it leaves the inherent characteristics of ingredients intact while enhancing the intrinsic flavors and transforming them into the best expressions of themselves. Roasting is about a sizzling, crusty exterior and a perfectly cooked interior. Roasting elevates already delicious ingredients by giving them a savory crust and maintaining their own juices and tenderness. Even the phonetics of the word influence its meaning with the seductive little “st” that you make with the flick of the tongue as you say it.

Once I sorted this out for myself, I was well on my way. The book is now in the final stages of editing and proofing.  I’ve lost track of how many recipes it contains, but I can tell you that each one has that special something, that sizzle, that sear, that appeal that comes from roasting. The expected release in October/November, but you can already pre-order it if you are so inclined. Here’s the link. All About Roasting: A New Approach to a Classic Art

In the meantime, I look forward to sharing recipes and tidbits on my blog and other writings.

How Bacon Changed My Life

It’s been a while since I went to summer camp, but last week I was lucky enough to attend Zingerman’s Camp Bacon. Yup, you read that right, Camp BACON! Now before you start imagining bacon-singalongs, bacon-wrapped marshmallows cooked over the campfire or arts-and-crafts classes where we wove bacon bracelets, this was a different sort of “camp”. On a Saturday in mid-June, over 50 bacon enthusiasts attended presentations by some of the country’s best bacon-makers, a discussion on bacon history by Jan Longone from the Longone Culinary Archive at the UM Library, several bacon-inspired poetry readings, a hands-on pancetta workshop, and, of course, a bacon cooking demo (that’s where I came in).  By all accounts, the daylong camp was a huge success (and a whole lot of fun for campers and counselors both!). Word is the fine folks at Zingerman’s are already talking about holding Camp Bacon again next year. Here’s where you can find out more. http://www.zingermanscampbacon.com/

Getting serious about bacon (photo by Angela J. Cesere for The Washington Post)

Getting serious about bacon (photo by Angela J. Cesere for The Washington Post)

In the meantime, in preparing for my role as a Camp Bacon counselor, I wrote a couple paragraphs on “How Bacon Changed My Life”. Here they are:

I grew up in a meat-and-potatoes household. Our Sunday night suppers of grilled cheese and tomato soup (yes, it was Campbell’s Cream of…) were the only meatless dinners of the week (unless, of course, you count the frozen fish sticks we ate on Friday nights). Being a rebellious teenager by nature, it only made sense that I would declare myself a vegetarian the minute I left for college in the late 70’s. By sophomore year, my friends and I moved out of the dorms, and filled our kitchen with every sort of bulk grain, legume and pulse we could find at the local food co-op. We taught ourselves to transform these into meals by studying the pages of The Vegetarian Epicure, Laurel’s Kitchen and Moosewood. Our dinners often left a lot to be desired in terms of flavor and finesse, but we felt righteous and proud and stuck with it.

By the time I graduated, I determined that vegetarianism had become a part of who I was. Unfortunately, beyond this conviction to a meatless future, I had very little notion of what else I might do with my life, and so I did the only thing I could think of—I moved back into my parents’ house. Not long after, I woke one Sunday morning (after being out way too late the night before no doubt) to the unmistakable smell of frying bacon. My instincts took over and, before I could remind myself that bacon was meat and that I didn’t eat meat, I was down the stairs, slouched on a kitchen stool and ready to tuck into a heap of scrambled eggs flanked by a stack of perfectly crisped bacon strips (Mom had burnt the ends of a few strips just the way I used to like them; now I prefer my bacon less crisp, but that’s a subject for another post). And just like that, my conviction to vegetarianism vanished. No one said a word (I’m guessing my parents hadn’t taken the whole thing seriously in the first place), and I barely blinked. Looking back, I am grateful to my mother and that plate of bacon for re-opening my culinary horizons. It wasn’t long after that morning that I took a kitchen job at a steakhouse and was on my way to a career in the kitchen and at the table cooking and eating all manner of meat, fowl, fish, and even a few legumes and pulses along the way.