Restaurant Talk is an occasional feature written by Nick Freshman, a native Arlingtonian and co-owner of Spider Kelly’s and Eventide Restaurant in Clarendon. Photos added by ARLnow.com.
Sometimes people ask me: How can I cook like a pro? How can I make my food taste more like food that I eat in restaurants that I love?
There are certainly some tips you can take home that will improve your cooking, but it is important to note that technique will not replicate that amazing meal you had last week. Nor will the exact recipe, or even the top of the line commercial equipment in your kitchen (though that really helps). The fact is that your meal was made wonderful by much more than the food. Eating out is as contextual as any experience — it is all about the moment. It was the setting, your mood, your companion and many other things that worked together in concert with the food to make the meal special. That is why we go out, and it can’t be copied at home. Home is for different moments.
Okay, having got that out of the way, let me also throw this one out to you: I did not go to culinary school, and thus I am not a trained chef. I have spent plenty of time ‘behind the line’ in professional kitchens, but I am not a pro. I know how to cook, however, and I know what to look for in food. I also ran these ideas by the real pros that I work with for their approval before I submitted them. Given those disclaimers, take this advice for what you think it is worth.
These are some simple tips and strategies that should help your cooking at home. The most important tip I have is that the more you can approach cooking without anxiety or fear, the better your food will taste. Many people see recipes as intimidating and hosting as nerve-racking. I can guarantee you it comes out in your food. The more fun you have and the more relaxed you are, the more sumptuous your meal will be. Many chefs and cooks chose this line of work because it is their passion. It isn’t ridiculous to suggest that their passion as much as their expertise is what makes their food taste so good.
I cannot walk by the range in my kitchen when my wife is cooking without dialing up the burner. Whatever it is set at, it should always be higher. She used to put in the oil and the vegetables in the cold pan and then turn on the burner. Now she heats the pan, adds the oil and waits until it is hot. I hear it sizzle and pop, and I know dinner will be good.
Many home cooks are too tentative with temperature. Life in a restaurant is always hot; 350 is a minimum, 500 is lots of fun. Of course, there is simmering, slow cooking and baking, but most of your food benefited from a red hot skillet, grill or pot. Heat makes flavor—not only do you get that wonderful texture from a charred steak, but the marking also enhances the flavor tremendously.
Smoke in your kitchen is a good thing. Next time you ‘cook’ a chicken breast, try ‘searing’ it first: Turn the burner up and wait for the oil to almost start smoking. Drop in the chicken and listen to that sound. You’ll never go back. Just turn on the fan or open a window.
More fat and salt
No mystery and no secret ingredient here. Fat and salt make food taste good, and restaurants use more of it than anyone. Are you wondering what is missing from that soup you made? Is it close but something you can’t place isn’t there despite your total adherence to the recipe? It’s probably salt. Or bacon. Adding salt shouldn’t make the dish taste salty, and in the right proportion it makes every flavor in the dish taste better. Similarly, fats like butter and olive oil enhance every aspect of a dish including the texture.
There are, of course, drawbacks to over-abundances of these two staples — namely, your health. I don’t want to ignore that, and eating at home is a great way to eat healthy, but good food and flavor is all about balance. You can balance out your meal with tons of fresh vegetables, high quality lean proteins, whole grains, and there should still be plenty of room for some bacon to start your stew or a little butter to add some sheen and luxury to your sauce.
Cook with bones
The best stews and soups are often described as soulful and having a ‘depth of flavor.’ This comes from slowly building the flavors and letting them come together. The best of these start with a deep backbone of flavor that comes from rich stocks. Good restaurants make their own from veal bones, duck bones, fish, pork, you name it. That can be impractical at home—who has day after day to gently simmer bones on the stove? — but basic chicken stock is pretty simple and is a good place to start. Plus, any extra can be frozen and used to start a later dish.
If you’re not interested in making stock, then you should at least starting buying your meat with the bones in them. A bone-in chicken breast will be juicier and more flavorful than the standard boneless, skinless variety. A whole chicken roasted will be even better. The bones contribute a tremendous amount of flavor to your dishes, and they should not be ignored. Once the food is done, bones can easily be removed if you don’t want them on your plate. For instance, if your five-year-old-says, “Oh my gosh, gross!” Ahem.
Also, it is healthier to eat meat cooked this way, as the bones contribute the best nutrients to the food during the cooking process. That’s how I got my wife to start doing it.
Think about the plate
Most home cooks spend a great deal of time with the recipes. They carefully select them, spend a ton of time assembling the ingredients and then throw their heart into making the dish. Then they toss it on the plate. Have you seen any celebrity chef without that classic image of starched white jacket, furrowed brow, narrowed eyes radiating intensity as they carefully study their dish on a plate? Hyperbole? Yeah, a little, but not entirely.
Lots of time goes in to how dishes appear on a plate. What reads as appetizing on a menu should look at least as good on a plate. Think about your favorite dishes and how your face lit up when it was set in front of you. To get your guests — and maybe even your five-year-old — to do that, spend some time thinking about how you want to arrange your food. Line up the asparagus the same direction, tightly packed. Slice the pork and array the medallions around the curve of the plate. Sprinkle some fresh parsley or fresh grated Parmesan around the edges of the plate. Whatever it is, take one minute and think about how to make it look pretty on the plate. Makes all the difference, trust me.
Buy a squeeze bottle
Fancy plating 101: tools make the plate. You may not be able to replicate that unbelievable kumquat coulis you had downtown last week, but you can decorate your plate the same way. A simple squeeze bottle allows you to take your dinner to the next level. Even a basic balsamic vinaigrette looks cool when you try your best Jackson Pollack imitation on a bright white plate with some fresh greens.
Sear then roast
How did you make it so the chicken didn’t get dried out? I have gotten that question a dozen times. The trick is to use two methods: Cook the meat — and it can be any meat, even fish — in a pan or on a hot grill first, then transfer it to a hot oven. You will nail it every time.
Take the nightly staple chicken breast, for example: Season it well and heat up a stainless steel pan (better still, a cast iron skillet) with some oil. When the oil is rippling from the heat, drop in the chicken breast and leave it alone. Give it a few minutes until you can lift it up without difficulty. Flip it and throw the whole pan in a hot oven. You’ve even got a great base for a pan sauce when you are done. You’ll never go back, I promise. You can do the same with a thick steak on the grill — char it like you’re trying to burn it into coal and then flip it to get the other side. Pull it off and toss it in the oven. No more dried out meat from the grill. Even works great with burgers.
Want some more tips? Next time you have a great dish or a great time at a restaurant, ask for the chef. Then ask your question or present your quandary. If you start with a compliment or two, you will find them almost universally helpful.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ARLnow.com.