When I first started to take cooking seriously, I focused my eye on the most difficult and complicated recipes I could find. I wanted to prove something, I suppose, and leave the Hamburger Helper and Taco Casserole of my childhood firmly behind. At first I began by exploring more authentic Italian food, instead of the dime store variety I’d grown up with— things like my dad’s hamburger Bolognese and veal scaloppini made from cube steak. Instead, I took on handmade raviolis and then learned to make true polenta thickened with cream and made irresistible with Parmesan cheese, all the while practicing pan-roasting bone-in chicken breasts with whole garlic and rosemary finished with lemon.
Perhaps, because I worked as the cookbook buyer in a gourmet retail store, it was inevitable that sooner rather than later, I would fall in love with Julia Child, who was still the reigning Queen of the classic kitchen. To be a serious cook, I thought, I needed to master French techniques. And so for a long, long time, I cooked only things classically French as a way of demonstrating my culinary chops. I made soufflés and sauce bordelaise and launched six course dinners from the string of tiny apartment kitchens I inhabited in my late 20s and early 30s using master recipes I’d studied carefully. I planned, diced, blanched, stewed, fricasseed, braised, and deglazed for days on end. I threw Dionysian dinner parties, epic in their ingredient count, the legends of which still circulate among my friends.
Every meal, no matter how big or small, was epic. Crepes for breakfast, beef bourguignon for dinner. I used to joke that each feeding required four pots even when I was cooking only for myself.
It was good practice learning techniques from Julia and Jacques and a fistful of others in the days before there were celebrity chefs and cooking shows. Yet, perhaps it’s a matter of age that now, after so many years of making food that was so busy, that I no longer feel the need to prove myself with convoluted menus in the kitchen. After thirty years of cooking, I recognize what I so often tell my writing students: Less is more. Simple, unadorned food is both a deep pleasure and an exquisite surprise. Think of a peppery bit of arugula served with lemon and shaved Parmesan or the creamy goodness of softly scrambled eggs on the perfect whole grain toast melting with sweet cream butter.
|Greg Marquez’s painting of the peeper pond|
I often dream of a meal Hemingway wrote about. It was simple: Roasted chicken, good sharp cheddar, a fresh Parisian baguette and four bottles of white wine that had been chilled in the river. This meal comes to mind when the spring turns to summer and all I want to do is lie outside on a blanket in the park or near the peeper pond by my cabin while Greg paints. I have replicated it in all its satisfying plainness at least a dozen times.
Plainly put: It’s a mistake to confuse simplicity with the mundane. I have learned this from my artist lover who makes luminescent landscapes using watercolor. He paints what is out there, but his horizons, his skies evoke something transcendent–a belief in the uniqueness of the moment, that something in its original form is utterly beautiful.
|Mt. Silverheels by Greg Marquez|
Recently, I was taken aback when a friend, someone who thinks seriously about food, balked at my request for homemade salsa for an upcoming outdoor party.
“But it’s BORING,” she said.
Alas for a lack of imagination: Not the lack of imagination that fails to think of some combination of interesting ingredients that may or may not produce something marvelous, but the lack of imagination that distrusts the components in their most basic form to stand on their own.
|Karen’s Buttermilk Fried Chicken|
My favorite simple food du jour is Fried Chicken. Good fried chicken seals in the chicken flavor, preserving the juice and pulp of the meat in a succulent, delightfully crackly coating that elevates it from a down home staple to real live soul food. It is neither greasy nor heavy nor laden. Great food, food worth writing and thinking about, food you remember, food that sustains us, should enliven, not leaden. It should pave the path to deep or scintillating conversations and camaraderie–or, the very least, lots and lots of fabulous kissing.
|The Chicken & Waffles at Aceq, Arroyo Seco, NM|
Until recently, I was certain I’d perfected fried chicken, but while celebrating my birthday in Taos with Greg in May, I discovered a version so good, my culinary roadmap has shifted. Aceq fries its chicken off the bone, while still managing to preserved the juicy bird flavor under a coating so light and crispy, I was sure they’d used something other than flour for the breading. Greg ordered his chicken as a sandwich while I ate mine with waffles and real maple syrup. Despite accouterments, the chicken tasted like chicken instead of breaded chicken or fried chicken or chicken paired with something else. The frying enhanced rather than masked the flavor of the bird. Together with a Cline white Mourvedre, the meal was perfect. We’re still talking about it.
And, like the Hemingway meal, I expect Aceq’s chicken will be on my mind for years to come. The secret, I think, lies in trusting the ingredients. The chicken was local. Beyond that, I am unsure, except—it was utterly beautiful.
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