Guest columnist Don Michak: What the pandemic has taught me about home cooking

  • Home cook Don Michak. SUBMITTED PHOTO

For the Gazette
Published: 5/19/2020 2:03:55 PM

I’m a serious cook. I buy all of the food for my household and prepare every meal. When we entertain, I’m the prep cook, patissier, chef de cuisine and executive chef. I’ve also catered multi-course meals for events with dozens of guests. Nobody complains, except for that time I seriously over-salted the salmon.

OK, so I’m a “foodie.” I’ve dined at some of the finest restaurants in Europe and North America. I’ve fallen in love with family-run bistros and brasseries across France, where I’ve also shared a home kitchen with a noted cookbook author. I’ve driven way out of my way to enjoy countless “road food” joints from Maine to California. And, oh, yeah, I’ve been a judge in an annual contest pitting restaurants against each other.

This pandemic thing, however, is a very unusual culinary adventure. Farmers markets are just starting to open, and as Mick Jagger presciently sang about supermarkets, “you can’t always get what you want.”

Now I like to carefully follow recipes, if only to better understand the palates of the chefs who created them. That means no substitutions, no adding this or that. Master a good recipe, then you can revise it to your own taste. Of course, recipe writing is difficult, and some of the best chefs in the world have their names on books with at least a few recipes that just don’t work, period.

So thank goodness for the food magazines, websites and newspaper sections currently churning out reams of recipes for this strange time. Most of them follow the same theme: how to make do with what you’ve got in the pantry and fridge. Return to comfort food, to the simple meals you always enjoyed when your mom did the cooking! Here’s a dozen ways to deal with all those dry beans you’ve been hoarding! One-pot wonders and sheet-pan wizardries await you! Unearth your slow cooker, and eat like royalty!

Bah. Too often these “simple,” “easy” and “fast” recipes produce food without real flavor and texture. The supermarket may be out of your favorite cut of beef, they say, but it usually has chuck or round steak. Give this great Swiss steak a try! I did. It was mushy beef stewed in an innocuous tomato sauce. Low on decent cheese? How about a mac-and-cheese recipe that incorporates a full cup of cottage cheese? That’s exactly what it tasted like.

All this is not to say you can’t get lucky. Something invariably called “one-pot lasagna” — which involves baking supermarket ravioli (I use one with ricotta, preferably not frozen), basic marinara sauce, mozzarella, a sprinkling of Parmesan and fresh basil really — is easy and fast, and it delivers.

Nevertheless, allow me to make a few suggestions:

The internet is not necessarily your friend. Type a dish into a search engine, and you find countless recipes. But finding a good one can drive you nuts. Boston baked beans? Soak your beans, and use the soaking water when you bake them in the oven. No, use fresh water. Use canned beans, drain them well and toss in the slow cooker.

Use the cooker, but nobody in their right mind uses canned beans. Cut the salt pork into small pieces. Leave the salt pork in two big slabs. Use bacon instead. Add a tomato product. Never use a tomato product. Dry mustard. Wet mustard. Molasses. No molasses. Don’t be afraid of salt. Avoid salt.

Be especially wary of dumbed-down recipes for international foods. Enjoy Vietnamese cuisine? I’d skip the “fast” recipe for caramelized chicken thighs on a sheet pan, which can end up a soggy, albeit flavorful, mess. But beef or chicken pho almost always works, especially if you make your own stock. And you can use that slow cooker. How about an allegedly Indian curry? I tried a “curry in a hurry” recipe that took three times longer than advertised to prepare and was as bland as cream of wheat.

Sometimes you can get better results by adding “chef’s recipe” to your search terms. But that can be tricky. The previously unknown “Chef Bob” from Alaska might not be your go-to guy. Then again, the popular TV chefs may not be, either.  I’m not a “Pioneer Woman” or Alton Brown fan, but I’ve had success with recipes attributed to Ina Garten, Emeril Lagasse and even Martha Stewart.

Bottom line? Stick with the classics. Something Latin? Black bean soup, completed with cilantro, cheese and avocado couldn’t be simpler and more satisfying. Continental? Eggs quickly baked atop sautéed mushrooms and finished with a little shredded Gruyere or other cheese and a couple of tablespoons of cream. Irish? Guinness pie: boneless chuck braised in stout with a little Worcestershire sauce, tomato paste and thyme, covered with puff pastry from the supermarket freezer. Italian? Try “Roasted Sausages and Grapes” ala Al Forno, the Providence restaurant. It’s hot and/or mild sausages, red and/or green grapes, a touch of butter and balsamic vinegar, and it’s good. French? In a half hour, anyone can easily do Pierre Franey’s poulet vallée d’auge, just chicken sautéed with reduced apple cider (preferably hard cider) and cream, surrounded by apple slices briefly caramelized in sugar.

Nobody will complain, and you’ll be proud of the results.

Don Michak, a longtime Northampton resident, is a former statehouse reporter for a newspaper in Connecticut. His debut crime novel, “Murder by Mistake,” will be published later this year.


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