Celebrity chef Mario Batali was interviewed by Chris Kimball, host of America’s Test Kitchen Radio, a couple of weeks ago and Kimball asked Batali a question that I think will hit home for every cook, every parent who’s looked at the clock, seen it was time to start making dinner and was wrung out of ideas. They might be sick of the same old thing or just brain-dead tired, but don’t want to serve up yet another bowl of pasta or plain, old tuna fish sandwiches.
And so Kimball asked the famed TV chef, what are two or three concepts for home cooks trying to create something simple, but also really good? Here, in a nutshell, is what Mario said:
- Dinner preparation starts in the grocery store. When you do your shopping, whether weekly or daily or however often you go, start on the outside of the store, and in the produce section. The usual advice is to serve two or three kinds of vegetables and some kind of protein at dinner. Ask yourself, What can I serve raw? What can I serve kind of cooked? What can I serve really cooked?
- Almost any produce cut into 1 to 2 inch cubes cooked in a 450 degree oven with a little bit of olive oil and a little bit of salt for 30 minutes, will be delicious: carrot, turnip, pumpkin, potatoes, brussel sprouts, radishes, anything you can find. (We particularly like the cruciform vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower, brussel sprouts.) Mario said it can be anything with the exception of leafy green vegetables and then said, “Of course, you can break that rule and do those too.” (Kale done this way is particularly good.)
- That same kind of vegetable can be served the next day, cut into a very thin julienne or shredded in a food processor until it begins to look like hash browns, dressed in a little extra virgin olive oil, lemon juice and any herb (e.g. cilantro, mint) and a little bit of salt. Now it’s become entirely different vegetable with an entirely different texture. And you can do that with all of the vegetables you have.
- Every day have a salad. Period.
- For the protein, buy whatever looks the best and is on sale. With protein you either cook it for 5 or 6 minutes until it’s barely cooked through because it’s a better, pricier cut or cook it for a long time because it’s fatty and less expensive and full of big flavors.
- Marinate whatever it is for a half hour in some kind of vinegar, oil, and some herbs.
- If braising the protein, sear it in a pan and then add some vegetables and liquid and cook it from 45 minutes to an hour-and-a-half depending on the size.
- Other proteins can cook on top of stove in a sauté pan or under the broiler until they’re just cooked through, whatever they are, whether it’s poultry or any kind of meat you find in a grocery store.
That’s it. From there you can build endless variations. Cook whatever is fresh and in season. Use different herbs and spices; different braising liquids; other kinds of proteins. Use fish on Friday and make a stew instead of braise or sauté it on the stovetop and make a lighter dish.
With these principles as a foundation you can then mix it up a few tmes per week with a pasta night, a sandwich night, a special, time-consuming recipe on Sunday. But you will always have these concepts, these basic principles to fall back on. Really, it’s kind of brilliant if you think about it.