Photos by (clockwise from top left) johnsul01, FotoosVanRobin, Machine is Organic, and Girl Interrupted Eating/Flickr CC
Welcome to a new Atlantic Food Channel series, in which I'll chronicle tasty, cheap dinners cooked at home for small gatherings--home cooking, but not necessarily homey.
After going to culinary school, I worked for a year as a line cook at one of New York City's most popular restaurants. When I resurfaced from the underbelly of the kitchen world, I got to thinking: customers paid an awful lot for the dishes I'd sent to the pass at the kitchen, considering the market price of ingredients. Salads for more than $10? Pastas for north of $15? Couldn't I use my skills to create high-end meals at a fraction of the cost? Sure, my friends wouldn't get an orchid on the table--they might not even get a table at all (my "dining table" barely seats four). But we could do without all that if we had good food and good company, couldn't we?
I drew up some guidelines. Each meal would include, at minimum, a main dish, some sort of vegetable, and a dessert. When appropriate, it would center on a particular noteworthy chef's food. It would require neither hours of preparation nor a parade of pots and pans. Guests could participate in the preparations if they wanted, but participation wouldn't be required. The whole shebang wouldn't run more than $15 per person.
I hadn't trussed a chicken since culinary school, when I'd had to prop the chicken up on its drumsticks and walk it across the cutting board to make sure I knew where the breast was.
For my inaugural dinner, I decided to tread back over my culinary history and assess how far I'd come. (I'm still hoping my endless hours of dicing, crepe-making, and glazing were worth it.) I'd start with my first cookbook: Jamie Oliver's The Naked Chef. If you're wary of the kitchen, buy this book. Oliver is the least intimidating of chefs, treats you like his best mate, and simplifies dishes without sacrificing taste. He writes in a breezy British patois, and sometimes I have no idea what he means. A glug of oil here, a knob of butter there, and, on his chicken: "Trust me--It's not fiddly, it's pukka." Quite. (For all I know, he's making up words. His three daughters are named Poppy Honey, Daisy Boo, and Petal Blossom Rainbow.)
As an amateur, I'd been able to execute most of Jamie's dishes perfectly, but I have vague, nightmarish memories of serving one roast chicken, years ago, that was alternately dried-out and raw, depending on the piece. The risotto I made, frantically stirring and rushing out to greet guests, then whizzing back to stir again, was overcooked on the outside and raw in the middle.
I needed to revisit those dishes. And for the shopping, I was excited to wield a new skill: the skill of "being-able-to-go-through-a-market-and-pick-what-is-fresh-and-make-a-delectable-dinner-from-it."
I can pinpoint the exact moment I knew I wanted to go to culinary school. I was walking through Fairway, a cook's mecca/grocery store in New York City with a friend who'd attended the Cordon Bleu in Paris. She made her way through the produce section, sniffing here, squeezing there, and assembled a basket of fresh goodies, from which she made our recipes, not vice-versa. (Of course I played along, idiotically squeezing lettuce and sniffing onions.) Now, post-culinary school, post-professional kitchen, was my time to shine.
I am lucky enough to live a few blocks from one of the biggest farmer's markets in New York City, so off I went. I emerged, victorious, with Brussels sprouts, mushrooms, and Crispin apples (sweet, crisp, great for baking), having spent $28 ($5.50 per person) and having gained self-confidence. I headed to get a chicken and decided to make an apple crumble with my Crispins.
Side note: Either you're a savory cook or you're a baker. And I'm not a baker. Baking scares the bejeezus out of me. Bakers are precise. They measure. They are culinary chemists. I prefer to add ingredients mid-recipe, taste, adjust, and shove the thing back into the oven, which is impossible in baking. Crumbles are baking lite.