As a chronically distracted home cook, I wanted to spend time in the kitchen uninterrupted by my life whizzing around me. I wanted to be organized, focused, and efficient, thinking only about what I was whipping, whisking, folding, kneading, searing and sauteing.
He actually laughed when I made the world's worst pizza, which stuck to the pizza peel, then stuck to the pizza oven, then shredded upon exit.
A mixed green salad with apples and mustard vinaigrette. A sauteed mushroom souffle. Poached pears with roquefort and vanilla ice cream, which required making a creme anglaise first. A cheese souffle, caramelized onion quiche with brie and smoked salmon, roasted beet and orange salad with goat cheese, molten chocolate cake. Margherita Pizza with homemade mozzarella. Gastrique. Yipes.
- It's all about Mis en Place. If the CIA is the holy grail of higher learning in the culinary arts, Mis en Place is its religion. I knew that Mis en Place referred to having all of your ingredients prepped and ready to go before you cook, but I learned that it also means that you understand the recipe, you've given it some thought, and you know how it's going to work. You are mentally prepared.
- Small details are important. You know that little green sprout that you'll find in a garlic clove? Do you remove it before chopping your garlic? Chefs do, because it makes the garlic taste bitter. Attention to detail is one of the qualities that distinguishes a professional from an amateur in the kitchen.
- Your most important kitchen utensil: the Tasting Spoon. At the CIA, we would each go through dozens of tasting spoons a day. You can't prepare a dish if you don't know how it tastes.
- When you are learning a challenging recipe, be prepared to chuck it and start over. Even though chefs frugally save every scrap of food that can be used somehow, they are not averse to tossing a failing dish in the trash. If you are challenging yourself in the kitchen, you are going to make mistakes. I noticed that chefs don't get emotionally attached to their food; if they mess up, they do it again until they get it right. (Although I did feel like crying when my bechamel base for the mushroom souffles was too thick, and I had to throw it in the trash. Twice.)
To print a copy of each recipe, click on the file below it.
Crispy Herb-Seared Salmon
This recipe is adapted from the Culinary Institute of America, where I learned the secret to perfectly seared salmon: grapeseed oil. Its high smoke point allows the herbs to form a nice crust on the salmon without burning.
I couldn't find savory or lavender at my little grocery store, so I used Herbes de Provence instead. Herbes de Provence is a spice blend of those herbs as well as rosemary, thyme and marjoram. Just make sure you have a fresh jar; it should give off an intensely floral aroma.
One other thing: dried orange peel comes in a jar, or you can make your own by cutting the peel from an orange in strips, leaving behind any white pith, and toasting it in a 300 F oven for 5 or so minutes. Watch carefully so that it does not burn. Once just toasted, cool and chop finely.
for the herb mixture:
- 1 tsp. dried thyme, 1 tsp. dried savory, 1 tsp. dried rosemary, 1 tsp. fennel seeds, and 1 tsp. dried lavender OR 4 tsp. Herbes de Provence plus 1 tsp. fennel seeds
- 1 tsp. crumbled bay leaves
- 1 tsp. ground cloves
- 1 tsp. ground nutmeg
- 1 tsp. dried orange peel
- 6 Salmon filets, 6 oz. each, skin on or off
- Kosher or sea salt and black pepper to taste
- 2 tablespoons grapeseed oil
- 4 tablespoons diced butter
- To prepare the herb mixture, place all the herbs and spices, including the dried orange peel, in a mortar and pound them to a fine powder. Or whiz them in a coffee grinder (I have an old one that I use just for grinding herbs).
- To prepare the fish, spread the herb mixture on a plate. Season the salmon with salt and pepper, then press the rounded side of the fillets into the herb mixture to coat evenly.
- Place a rack onto a baking sheet, and reserve.
- Heat the oil in a large sauté pan over medium heat until hot. Lay the salmon, coated side down, in the pan. Cook just until the herbs have formed a crust and have browned. Remove the salmon from the pan and transfer, herb side up, to the baking sheet. The salmon should appear very rare.
- Top the salmon filets with butter.
- Finish cooking the salmon in a 375º F oven until firm and just cooked through to your liking; if you like it rare, this should only take a few minutes.
- Serve the filets on a heated platter atop a heaping pile of Perfect Rice Pilaf, accompanied by the Lemon Beurre Blanc.
Perfect Rice Pilaf
- 1 1/2 tablespoons butter or vegetable oil
- 1-2 tablespoons minced onion
- 1 1/2 cups long grain white rice
- 2 1/4 cups chicken stock, heated
- 1 bay leaf
- 1 sprig of fresh thyme
- Kosher or sea salt and pepper, to taste
- Heat the butter or oil in a heavy saucepan over medium heat. Add the onions and cook over low heat, stirring frequently, for 5-6 minutes.
- Add the rice and saute, stirring frequently, until coated with the butter or oil and heated through.
- Add the heated stock to the rice. Bring to a simmer, stirring the rice once or twice to prevent it from clumping together or sticking to the bottom of the pot.
- Add the bay leaf, sprig of thyme, salt and pepper. (I use 1/2 tsp kosher salt and 1 grind of the pepper mill. You can taste again for salt before you serve it.)
- Cover the pot and place in a 350º F oven for 15-20 minutes. (Check for doneness at 15 minutes; at high altitude it may take the full 20 minutes.)
- Remove from the heat and allow to stand for 5 minutes. Uncover, and using a fork, separate the grains to release the steam.
- Adjust the seasonings with additional salt and pepper to taste. Remove the bay leaf and thyme.
- Serve hot.
Lemon Beurre Blanc
Yields 1 1/2 cups
- 6 tablespoons heavy cream (more if needed to thin the sauce)
- 2 tsp. minced shallots
- 2 black peppercorns
- 1/3 cup dry white wine
- 1/3 cup lemon juice
- 1/2 lb. unsalted butter, cold, cubed
- Kosher or sea salt, to taste
- ground white pepper, to taste
- 1 Tbsp. lemon zest, grated
- First, cut the butter into cubes, and place them in a bowl into the coldest part of the refrigerator, or the freezer. They should be ice cold when you add them to the sauce.
- In a small saucepan set over medium heat, bring the heavy cream to a simmer and reduce by half.
- Combine the shallots, peppercorns, wine and 2 Tbsp. lemon juice in a separate saucepan. Reduce over medium-high heat until nearly dry (au sec).
- Over very low heat, add the butter a few pieces at a time, whisking constantly to blend the butter into the reduction. (Do not boil the sauce as this will cause it to separate.) Continue adding the butter until the full amount has been incorporated.
- Season to taste with salt and pepper.
- Finish the sauce by adding the lemon juice and lemon zest. Remove the whole peppercorns with a spoon.
- Place the sauce in a hot water bath, and keep warm until ready to use.