Ingredients and technique are the two things — really, the only things — that matter in cooking. Some will argue that without a good recipe, the highest quality ingredients and impeccable kitchen skills will be all for naught. And they would be correct, but good recipes are a given in cooking. Isn’t that the point? But what about a recipe that is so simple that it stretches the definition to call it a recipe?
I had an excellent quality chicken that I cut into pieces. I had a lemon. I had salt and pepper. And that was it. I also had no motivation to cook anything, but I also had to feed my lovely wife.
So I thought and thought and thought, for at least several hours, and came up with a brilliant and new recipe that would revolutionize cooking. Not really. I thought about the simplest thing I could do with a chicken, and then I did it. I preheated the oven to 300°, slapped an oven-safe sauté pan on the stove, and heated that to a respectable temperature. Then I salted and peppered the chicken pieces, and browned them in the pan, carefully turning them so that all sides got at least a taste of the heat of the pan. I was left with some nicely browned chicken, and a pan full of chicken fat.
In a former life I would have left the fat in the pan and hoped that the finishing time in the oven would do something magical with the fat and the skin and the salt. Of course it rarely works out that way, and had I simply popped the pan into the oven, I would have been left with chicken that had flabby, greasy skin. Not my favorite food, and not something to blog about. So I did the previously unthinkable and drained all of the fat from the pan. I assumed that there would be enough fat left in the chicken to keep it from sticking during the rest of the cooking, about 30 minutes in the oven. But plain chicken is just that: plain. I had no interest in doing any prep work, so minced shallots or garlic or whatever easy flavor enhancers were out. I barely got the knife through the lemon before unbearable ennui set in. A quick squeeze of fresh lemon juice over the chicken, a thorough toss to make sure that everything was coated with the lemon juice, a bit more salt, and into the oven it went, to be forgotten forever, or until the timer surprised me.
What we got was perfectly cooked chicken, with a nice light pan sauce of lemon juice, chicken juice, and just a bit of fat for richness. The only technique I demonstrated was the ability to brown chicken in a pan and, while I would love to consider that on par with Escoffier’s most complex work, I will admit that it wasn’t intellectually or physically taxing. This turned out well because I thought through what I wanted to do, before I did it. I realize that this is a trivial example; I have reduced it to an absurd point. But a fair amount of the cooking that most of us do is very simple stuff. And with a bit of prior planning we can create interesting twists on simple foods, as long as we use the experience of our previous successes, but more importantly, our failures. I will leave to your imagination how I know what chicken will taste like if one leaves it in its own fat to cook in a temperature that is sufficient to cook the chicken without drying it out, but insufficient to crisp the skin. And how did I resist the temptation to crank the heat another 150°? With difficulty. Most of us will reflexively use high heat, but with enough unpleasantly dry results, gentle heat becomes a viable option (I guess that too is technique). With just a few hundred more years of experience I will be able to challange Escoffier!