I guess I've always had strong feelings about food and its preparation.
Simple case in point: I shudder at the sight of a waiter ladling a bit of vinaigrette over salad greens without first giving the dressing a thorough whisk or shake. Some would call that obsessive. But anyone who knows how quickly oil separates from the vinegar and seasonings understands my attitude.
In college, I had a roommate who considered cooking the sort of drudgery that needed to be gotten out of the way in the swiftest possible manner. She'd crank up the burner and rapidly scald her meal into a state of being cooked — the term being used loosely, of course. Unable to watch, I'd sit in the living room cringing at the sound and smell of tender, young onions being tortured on HIGH and a potentially fluffy omelet blackened to a degree even Paul Prudhomme would find unpalatable.
Then she'd eat: standing over the sink, staring off into space, one foot tapping impatiently as she shovelled the food from saucer to mouth in five or six bites. One more meal behind her.
Luckily, I had another roommate, Kay, who shared my passion for food. We'd spend hours talking about it, reminiscing over family favorites, plotting menus, even figuring out exactly what we craved for lunch. She'd take her chorizo with a Maalox to accommodate both her fragile stomach and strong hankering for the spicy sausage.
Of course, anyone who reads cookbooks like novels most likely has just as much appreciation for fine food and cooking as I do. In the late James Beard's "Delights and Prejudices," he shared his own passion for food with readers. Even the lowly hamburger, he observed, can be a delicate morsel if the beef is good, contains an appropriate amount of fat and is cooked properly so it retains its juices. Beard felt that most hamburgers are grilled over excessively high heat, leaving the meat charred and tough on the outside, dry and flavorless on the inside.
He loved the way his mother would prepare them, seasoned with generous amounts of fresh garlic, and also found it a treat to mix in coarsely grated cheddar, shallots, Worcestershire, mustard and Maggi Seasoning. Then he'd saute it in butter and serve it on a good bun with a tasty relish.
Such feelings for cuisine can't be taught if the pupil lacks soul for the subject. But I do believe some things can be taught. Here, in no particular order, are a few tips and thoughts to get you headed in that direction.
BROWN YOUR MEAT: When a recipe calls for browned meat — be it for a taco, stew or pot roast — use a very hot pan and really get in there and brown it! The browned juices that are created contain a fabulous amount of flavor that simply can't be duplicated in any other way, with any kind of seasoning or artificial flavoring.
DEGLAZE! DEGLAZE! DEGLAZE!: Once you've browned your meat, deglazing the pan is essential to get the most flavor into a dish. It's the simple act of adding a splash of liquid (be it brandy, sherry or broth) to the pan while it's still hot and loosening those cooked-on bits of flavor so they can be absorbed into the sauce. Even if you're merely browning ground beef for tacos, add a splash of broth or water after the meat is well-browned and vigorously scrape the bottom of the pan. Then, simply cook a little longer to evaporate the liquid and concentrate the flavor.
SUPERIOR BAKED POTATOES: Food scientist and cookbook author, Harold McGee ("On Food and Cooking," and "The Curious Cook") determined that potatoes coated with oil before baking reach an internal temperature of 200 degrees 10 minutes faster than their unoiled counterparts. The oil also helps raise the skin temperature well above the boiling point, which drives moisture from the skin. So oiling the skins results in a fluffier interior and crunchier exterior.
GRILL CHEFS DO IT WITH FEELING: It takes practice, but the feel of cooked meat really is an accurate indicator of doneness. Grill chefs do it all the time. To "get the feel," practice by lightly pressing a piece of uncooked meat to experience what really rare feels like; the flesh becomes progressively tighter and more resistant as it cooks.
ONION SAUTE: This one drives me crazy and isn't even a cook's fault. Time and again, I encounter recipes that instruct you to saute onions (or other chopped vegetables) in a pan full of oil THEN drain off the fat. That's draining off a huge amount of vegetable flavor, as well. Instead, remove extraneous fat first, then saute veggies in the small amount of fat you are willing to leave behind.
DRY THOSE LEAVES: If you use wet lettuce in tossed green salads, dressings won't cling properly and you'll have a watered-down, weak-flavored creation.
SHAKE IT!: Like I said before, oil rises to the top of a vinaigrette dressing quicker than you can say "Holy Caesar salad, Batman!" So if not whisking or shaking the mixture immediately before adding it to salads, you're adding mostly oil and leaving all the zest and flavor behind.
SEASONING: Rubbing dried herbs between your hands before adding them to a dish improves their flavoring abilities. Herbs lose their distinctive flavor when cooked over a long period, so add some extra just before serving.
Here are a few more recipes, as shared by James Beard in his wonderful book, "Delights and Prejudices." The first is Beard's rendition of one of my favorite mushroom offerings, duxelles.
This is the answer to an all-purpose seasoning agent. Its flavor is irresistible. You will want to add it to everything you make. Chop 3 pounds mushrooms fairly fine. They do not have to be very top-quality. You can use little ones and mixed sizes. Melt 1/2 pound butter in a very heavy skillet and add the mushrooms. Stir them to blend with the butter and cook them over low heat, stirring occasionally until mushrooms have thrown off all their liquid and have turned a very dark-brown, almost black. It may be necessary to add additional butter, and care must be taken that they do not get crisp. They must remain soft. Add salt and pepper to taste and spoon them into a jar or bowl for keeping.
A little of this preparation added to eggs is delicious. It is an integral part of many sauces and may be used for a quick toasted sandwich or for hors d'oeuvres.
Use a loin of pork weighing 5 to 7 pounds. Very finely chop 3 garlic cloves with 1/2 cup parsley. Blend this with 1 tablespoon olive oil, 1 teaspoon thyme, 1 teaspoon salt and 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper. Add more oil if necessary to make a thickish paste. With a sharp knife, slash small incisions in the pork loin and insert some of the mixture. Rub remaining bits on the outside of the roast. Place pork on a rack in a shallow pan and roast at 325 F, allowing 25 to 28 minutes per pound. Remove pork, when done, to a hot dish. Pour off all but 2 tablespoons fat in pan. Add to pan 1 onion and 1 garlic clove, both chopped fine, and saute gently for 2 to 3 minutes. Add 1 cup tomato sauce made from 8 to 9 fresh tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped and sauteed in butter until well-blended and thick, or use 1 1/2 cups canned Italian-style tomatoes cooked down in butter for 25 to 30 minutes and forced through a food mill or sieve. Blend sauce with pan juices, bring to a boil and allow it to cook down, stirring until well-blended. Adjust seasoning and serve sauce with the pork and polenta or fresh hominy.
The Palace Court (in San Francisco) was a restaurant that prided itself on great food. And with its palms, rich draperies and carpeting and smooth, luxurious service, the hotel was comparable to the best European hostelry. Dishes emanating from its kitchens became classics. The food, as old San Franciscans know, was impeccable. Game, fine fish and seafood — all the glories of the region — were featured. It was here I learned the joys of the alligator pear, the versatility of the artichoke, the pleasures of ripe citrus fruit. And two famous dishes served there have stayed in my memory: Crab Legs Palace Court and Oysters Kirkpatrick
Crab Legs Palace Court: For each serving, make a bed of crisp greens. On it, place a large slice of tomato. On this, place a good-sized artichoke bottom with the inner choke removed and a few leaves left to form a cup. Fill this with "Salade Russe" (a salad of diced, cooked vegetables blended with mayonnaise), top with large Dungeness crab legs and decorate with thin slices of pimiento. Around the artichoke and tomato, press fine-chopped, hard-boiled egg yolk and serve with a well-flavored Thousand Island dressing.
The other dish — another Palace original that restaurants elsewhere have copied — is Oysters Kirkpatrick. The legend is that they were created for one of the staff at the old Palace. When Helen Brown did her "West Coast Cook Book," the Palace sent her a recipe, which she and I both think is not the original. Nor do she and I agree entirely on the one we first knew. The first one I ever ate, and the one which I had repeatedly, was this:
Oysters Kirkpatrick: For each person, arrange 6 oysters in their shells on a bed of coarse salt. Loosen each oyster from its shell, dip it in ketchup and return it to shell. Top it with fine-chopped scallions and a strip of partially cooked bacon. Bake at 400 F — just long enough to heat oysters and crisp bacon. Serve at once. Sometimes, a spoonful of grated Parmesan cheese was sprinkled over the bacon before it went into the oven.
Another famous recipe from the Palace, which has been subject to a number of variations since it was first created was Green Goddess Dressing for salads. This was much later than the Oysters Kirkpatrick period, and it was presumably done for George Arliss when he toured in "The Green Goddess."
Green Goddess Dressing: Combine 1 quart mayonnaise — it must be good, homemade mayonnaise done with olive oil — with 14 to 16 coarsely chopped anchovies, 1/2 cup chopped mixed parsley and chives, 3 tablespoons chopped fresh tarragon (or 2 teaspoons dried tarragon, or more to taste), 1/3 cup tarragon vinegar and salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste. Beat ingredients for a few minutes, adjust seasonings and allow dressing to stand for several hours (refrigerated) before serving.
Jan Roberts-Dominguez is a Corvallis food writer, artist and author of "Oregon Hazelnut Country, the Food, the Drink, the Spirit" and four other cookbooks. Readers can contact her by email at email@example.com or obtain additional recipes and food tips on her blog at www.janrd.com.