Monday, May 26, 2008

Do blogs have mission statements? I don't know, but this one will. I write about food and drink for the Times-News in Burlington, N.C. (every third Wednesday of the month) Unfortunately, newspapers only have so much room and I have a lot to talk about. So this blog will serve as a catch basin for all the thoughts, recipes and photos that don't make it into the paper. It's also a place that I can tackle other topics, like craft beer -- which is thankfully on the rise across the country -- and hopefully open a dialog about food and kick things around a bit.

Right, so here's my most recent (and first) food column and photos:

An obsessed amateur's guide to gastronomy
May 19, 2008

Gastronomy: the art or science of good eating

As the old cliché goes, there are people who eat to live and people who live to eat.

I live to eat.

If I were to be honest, I'd say that I not only fall into the live to eat category, but I'm way out on the fringe side of the crowd. Thinking about what I'm going to eat, where I'm going to eat it and when it's going to happen next is an ongoing activity with me.

In fact, I obsess about the whole experience. I love to cook. I love to eat. I'm fascinated by cooking techniques and kitchen gadgets. I own a small library of cookbooks and pore over the latest offerings of the food media regularly.

I've slow-smoked pork butts through the wee hours of the night until the meat was so soft and succulent that it collapsed around the bone. I've also slow-cooked a pot of chili so long that it reduced into an evil-looking inedible paste. The chili was meant to feed a hungry Super Bowl crowd. It didn't and my friends have neither forgotten nor allowed me to forget the incident.

What I have not done is work a day in a professional kitchen. Everything I know about gastronomy is self-taught through need and interest.

Sure, I slung drinks and made sandwiches in college, but it's not the same as working the line in a professional kitchen or catering an event for an army of hungry souls. Not even close.

But that's what's important here.

I'm an amateur cook fascinated with all things gastronomic. And if I can figure out how to cook something or cook something better, so can you. That is the mission of this food column. I plan to focus not only on food, but how to cook it, when to cook it and why. I believe that good technique is as important to the home cook as it is to the professional.

I will delve into culinary trends and occasionally discuss spirits and the art of cocktail making, itself a resurgent trend.

Alas, I will also venture into baking.

I hate baking. Baking is difficult and unforgiving. I cook by the force. Yah, that force. Anyone who has cooked for a long enough time knows what I mean. After a while, you develop a sense of how long something should cook for, what doneness looks like, what flavors can go with other flavors. If you screw something up, it's easy enough to fix.

In short, cooking is forgiving. Baking is Nurse Ratched: ridged and demanding.

There's precious little room for error in baking. Forget the baking powder and your bread won't rise. Fail to add enough sugar to your cake and no amount of frosting will make it taste right.

It's an intimidating art. But if the idea of the column is if I can do it, you can do it, then I will attempt to bake. And when I fail, I'll let you know. I will also tell you how I fixed it.

I will also show you what I've done. Every column will include a recipe and photographs depicting what I went through to put the dish together. Photos that don't accompany the column in the print edition of the Times-News will be available on the Web site.

Finally, I want to hear from you. Is there a recipe that you've wanted to try or failed to get right? Let me know, I'll take a crack at it. Is there a dish or cooking technique that you've wondered about? Let me know, I'll try to find it or explain it.

Ideally, cooking is about nourishment and sharing. Ideally, the same principles will apply to this column.

Perfect baked chicken with asparagus

Using this broiling technique produces perfectly crisp chicken skin. It's also dead simple and requires no more than 22 minutes of cooking time. The keys to this technique are to move the rack to the center of the oven, preheat to 350 degrees and use chicken parts rather than an intact whole bird. Once you're ready to put the chicken in, switch the oven from bake to broil and you're good to go. The ambient temperature of the over bakes the inside of the chicken, while the broiler cooks the exterior. In no time at all, you will have perfect baked chicken from the broiler.

1 chicken (2 bone-in, skin-on thighs, 2 bone-in, skin-on drumsticks, two boneless, skin-on breasts)

1 pound asparagus (I chose asparagus because it's in season now. Feel free to use a different vegetable, I won't be checking.)

3 tablespoons olive oil

2 tablespoons garlic powder

2 tablespoons paprika (I use paprika to add color to the chicken. Such a relatively small amount will not affect the flavor, so if you don't have any paprika on hand, don't worry about it.)

Salt and pepper to taste

Chives to garnish (completely optional)

Pull the chicken and asparagus out of the fridge, preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. and move the rack to the middle of the oven.

Prepare the chicken by trimming off any excess fat. But don't go crazy, you want some fat on the pieces to add flavor. Cover the chicken pieces with 2 tablespoons of olive oil and apply the garlic powder, paprika, salt and pepper to both sides. Makes sure you rub the oil and seasonings into the skin. (Tip: Rub some of the oil and seasonings under the skin. This will ensure the meat is also seasoned.)

Next, prepare the asparagus by snapping off the hard, bitter ends. This should be the last inch or so of the asparagus, which will snap off naturally if you grab the end and middle of the stalk and bend it until it breaks.

When the oven has preheated and the chicken has lost most of the chill from the fridge, switch the controls from bake to broil. Place it on a baking sheet skin side down and cook for 10 minutes. Flip the chicken over so the skin is exposed to the broiler and cook for another 12 minutes. When the time is up, pull the chicken out and let it rest for 7 to 10 minutes (go with 10 minutes unless you can't wait). The skin should be crisp and the meat should be perfectly moist.

When it comes to asparagus, I prefer to steam it for about 7 to 10 minutes (7 minutes for about a half pound, 10 minutes for a pound). This allows the vegetable to retain most of its flavor and color. However, if you don't have a steamer, boiling the asparagus works nearly as well. You can also bake it along with the chicken.

Steaming asparagus: Prep the steamer by adding the water, making sure it's not so full that it will touch the asparagus, and set it to boil. Once the water is boiling and the steamer is steaming, add the asparagus, making sure not to pile it in a big clump, and reduce the temperature to simmer. Again, a half pound of asparagus should require about 7 minutes of steaming, a full pound requires about 10 minutes. The important thing is to keep an eye on it. After about 5 (or 7) minutes, check it. If the asparagus has softened a bit, but retains its rich green color, its done. If it's still firm, give it another two minutes or so. Once you've plated the asparagus, drizzle the final tablespoon of olive oil and add salt and pepper to taste.

Boiling asparagus: The rules for steaming asparagus more or less apply to boiling it. Bring a good size pot of water to a boil (The pot has to be big enough to fit the asparagus). Once the water has come to a boil, add a good bit of salt (about a tablespoon) and drop in the asparagus. As with steaming, a half pound should take about 7 minutes (check it at 5 minutes, though) and a pound will take about 10 minutes (check it after 7 minutes). Once the asparagus is al dente (cooked, but with a slight firmness and crunch) it's done. Pull the asparagus out and let it drain. Once you've plated the asparagus, drizzle the final tablespoon of olive oil and add salt and pepper to taste.

Baking asparagus: Spread the asparagus out on a baking sheet, cover it in the last tablespoon of olive oil and add salt and pepper to taste. When you flip the chicken over for the final 12 minute stretch, stick the pan of asparagus in underneath it. Remember, you've preheated the oven to 350 degrees F., so it is plenty hot to cook the asparagus even though the vegetables are not directly exposed to the broiler. When you pull the chicken out, the asparagus can come out too.

I threw on some wild chives at the end for a garnish. If you don't have any chives or don't want to add them, don't worry about it.

Makes 4 servings.

1 comment:

Adopt a Robin said...

Still haven't tried your recipe, but my mouth waters every time I see the photos (yeah, I know the chicken is still raw but I have a good imagination). Love your blog!