From $15 Salads to 'The Naked Chef'


Photos by (clockwise from top left) johnsul01, FotoosVanRobin, Machine is Organic, and Girl Interrupted Eating/Flickr CC

To try the recipes mentioned in this post, click here for roasted Brussels sprouts, here for mushroom risotto, and here for pancake-y fruit crumble.

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.

All in, the meal cost $64, or $12.80/person.

Dinner was at 8:30 p.m., so at 6:30 p.m. I put on some Ray Charles, poured myself a glass of wine, and decided to get my crumble in the oven. And then, a minor mishap: I didn't have any flour, which, judging from Jamie's recipe, was crucial. So I dumped the closest thing I had to flour into the bowl: Aunt Jemima's Complete Pancake Mix (just add water!). Despite my baking fears, when I took the bubbling crumble out an hour later, it looked great, and it tasted great too. Take that, bakers!

Next, the bird. 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. I ended up using two pieces of twine to get the legs nice and tight (quel catastrophe! I could hear my culinary instructor whispering, in disbelief), but it looked good enough. A friend of mine swears by Thomas Keller's simple chicken recipe (lots of salt, in the oven on high heat, take it out an hour later and voila), so I decided to mix 'n' match from the two recipes, and off it went into the oven, next to the Brussels sprouts, which I cook following my own, foolproof recipe, tweaked over the years to make the sprouts taste like popcorn. I know. You've gotta try it.

I par-cooked the risotto, a trick I learned in the restaurant: you cook it three-quarters of the way through, then let it hang out; when you're ready to serve, you stir in the last bit of stock, add your cheese and butter, and you're good to go. The doorbell rang.

I'd invited four humans and one canine.

1.) E, one of my oldest friends--We met each other in seventh grade and we've seen each other through the ups and downs of high school, college, and beyond.

2.) A, E's boyfriend--A is a real estate developer. I rarely have a clue as to what people do for a living if it isn't simple (lawyer, doctor, cook, actor), so whenever I picture him at work, he's wearing a construction hat. He has confirmed that this happens rarely.

3.) Georgie, A and E's dog --A havanese-yorkie mix whom A rescued from the pound, Georgie looks uncannily like Anna Wintour after her monthly fluff n' cut. (We she arrived, she quietly pooped in the corner, something I imagine her doppelganger rarely does at social engagements.)

4.) D, my boyfriend--We met the last week of college and he happily eats anything I put down in front of him and asks for seconds, even in the case of the infamous "mush stew" (I cut everything too small and cooked it way too long).

5.) F, D's friend, also from college--F is a successful venture capitalist. (When I picture him at work, he's shuffling piles of money around his desk and yelling into a phone.) Extremely meticulous, he makes his bed every morning and dresses in business attire--now, at least. At one college club party, I looked down from the balcony to see F working the room in his skivvies. Apparently he'd gotten bored.

After 45 minutes of wine and discussion, the chicken was done. While it rested, I added the last bit of stock, stirred in mushrooms, Parmesan, and a dash of mascarpone (I find this makes the risotto creamier, and gives it more body than just adding a "knob of butter"). E carved the bird and we sat down to eat.

The chicken was crisp on the outside and moist on the inside, the risotto had just the right bite, the Brussels tasted like popcorn, and the apple crumble tasted like apple crumble. Next time, I may swap out the risotto for another starch. Even using my shortcut, it's just a tedious dish to make, or, as F put it after taking a risotto class with his immigrant parents (he's full of surprises), "It's a nightmare." Perhaps polenta? But all the pre-dinner stirring paid off: there was none left over.

Thus, I pronounce this inaugural dinner a success. Or, as Jamie would say, pukka.