Friday, January 23, 2009

More Cooking without a Recipe

I like making soups and casseroles on cold winter days. When something is simmering on the stove, it keeps both me and the house warm. I tend to go overboard and make large quantities, so I often stock our tiny freezer and have nice leftovers for days.

I have a difficult time following recipes — not because I don't understand them, but because more interesting ideas occur to me. All of the best dishes prepared by long-gone family cooks were never written down, and I rarely saw them consult a recipe (I'm not sure they all could read). So I guess I absorbed the idea that great cooking is done by instinct. It's unfortunate that none of those ladies took the time to teach my generation any of their techniques. When I'd ask, all I'd get was a vague, "Well, you do this, take some of that — don't ask me, I just do it!"

So nowadays I do most of my cooking on the wing. It helps to be alert and to keep tasting as you go along. I like to read recipes and books about cooking, so I often have a rough idea of what someone else might do, but I try to pay attention to my ingredients and do what seems best for them.

I'd never try this with baking, however, because creativity can backfire in the oven. Even when I follow a baked recipe scrupulously, things — a doomed batch of popovers, a memorable cranberry-orange loaf — like to explode all over my oven. So while I might double the oatmeal or chocolate chips in mom's toll-house cookie recipe, I try to stick to the straight-and-narrow if flour and leavening are involved.

My latest creation is a mushroom ragout with sautéed chicken. I buy a pound and a half of sliced baby bell mushrooms and cook them in a big pan with olive oil and butter. When there's a little juice in the pan, I add some chopped shallot and a handful of dried porcini that I've reconstituted in a cup of hot water. (In the water, I add a Knorr porcini bouillon cube. You can only get these from grocery stores in Tuscany, so be sure to hit one before you get your fresh ingredients! Or use a chicken cube... but what fun is that?)

Add salt, pepper, a splash of sherry, fresh rosemary sprigs, and chopped thyme (the only herbs that grow indoors for me: what a coincidence). While that's cooking, I sauté pounded chicken cutlets in butter and olive oil, and then cut them into little pieces. (I only buy Empire Kosher chicken: It's by far the best, beating the pinfeathers off the average free-range organic bird. Kosher brining makes the meat juicy, salty, and flavorful no matter how hard you try to ruin it.)

When some of the liquid has cooked off the mushrooms, stir in a couple of tablespoons of butter. Put the chicken and mushrooms together in a shallow casserole dish, pull out the rosemary sprigs, and top it with shredded cheese. I've used Comté and fontina so far, with outstanding results. Then roast at 400 for about 20 or 30 minutes. Stirring it occasionally gives me an excuse to add even more cheese when it's out of the oven.

We eat it with a sliced, buttered baguette (Iggy's) and plain greens with vinaigrette. It's a satisfying blend of simple flavors, perfect for a cold winter night. Tomorrow, I'll use the leftovers on top of egg noodles.

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