The everyday challenge of feeding your family can be downright daunting. If the thought of another night of sautéed chicken breast bores you to tears, Michael Anthony, the chef of one of New York's most beloved restaurants, the Gramercy Tavern, has some tricks to bring life back into your kitchen. He is co-author of The Gramercy Tavern Cookbook.
Dorie Greenspan: How do you start thinking about cooking at home?
Michael Anthony: First of all I'm a father of three daughters, so it's a necessity for me like it is for most folks around the country. Just because I wear a white chef's jacket does not make me immune to all of the challenges that any home cook faces.
Sure, at the restaurant we're likely to make a dish with three or four sets of hands and five, six or seven pots and pans. At home I'm not willing to do that. It's usually me, alone, and one or two pans. Because let's face it, if it takes more time to clean up than it does to actually prepare the meal, not so many folks are going to make that a regular part of their lives.
DG: That's actually a great rule of thumb -- it shouldn't take more time to clean up than to actually make what needs to be cleaned up.
MA: That's the reality of it.
DG: We need a little help as home cooks. Can you think of three techniques that we need at home? What are the basics?
MA: In the spring chapter I present a recipe that is an asparagus salad. That asparagus salad starts in a pan with a drizzle of olive oil and some fresh spears of asparagus that are roasted, browned a little bit. It is just as easy as any other technique, and quite frankly maybe even faster and easier.
DG: Pan roasting is a technique that you can use for chicken, for fish, for other vegetables.
MA: Not to mention most folks at home do have a skillet and are comfortable cooking with that. Then with a drizzle of olive oil to finish, a squeeze of lemon juice, and then a little shaving of raw asparagus to top it, you can add an herb, another vegetable, or just leave it simply as it is. In a 15- to 20-minute time period, you have a really complex salad that echoes and layers this idea of asparagus.
DG: You said add a squeeze of lemon juice. That little bit of acidity at the end, whether we're cooking pasta, chicken or fish, adds freshness.
MA: You're hitting on something that I think is becoming a defining quality of American cooking. If you look across the country, this use of acidity, whether it comes from a citrus fruit, from vinegar or from products like verjuice and any sort of condiment, vermouth, all sorts of products. If they bring a touch of acidity that makes your tongue water, then they add interest.
I think American cooking is all about these highs and lows. French cooking is about harmony, Japanese cooking is about nature, American cooking is about these exciting, liberating highs and lows. A little bit of spice, a little bit of acidity really I think starts to define who we are and how we eat.
DG: I love that description of American food. If we want to hit those highs, are there ingredients that we should have on hand? I know you use an ingredient that I've never used: shiro dashi.
MA: That is one that I think is worth mentioning. Shiro dashi literally translates into white soy sauce. It's a brewed Japanese condiment similar to soy sauce, but a little smokier, a little saltier. It actually isn't all that widely used throughout Japan, certainly not in restaurants, but it is used at home. It's a simple way to bring a great smoky and slightly salty aspect to a dish.
Another beautiful way to make a dish pop would be to have a vinegar that you feel connected to. I use rice wine vinegar, but you could substitute white wine, Champagne or any other vinegar that you really feel connected to.
There's a whole section on making vinegar pickles. They're pickles that I keep in the refrigerator. They'll hold for months and months and can be included to make dishes exciting.
Anthony's recipe: Slow-Roasted Pork Shoulder with Bacon Broth and Corn Bread (Photo: The Gramercy Tavern Cookbook)
MA: When I have some scraps of bacon, I take an onion, a little piece of carrot and a clove of garlic. I slice it, lightly sauté it with those bacon scraps. You can even do them in advance; they're wonderful to just warm up. Whether it's used in this recipe, the slow-pulled pork, or it's applied to another dish, a vegetable dish, you get to enjoy these smoky flavors.
At the same time, one dish or one meal leads into the next. After all, cooking at home is not really a collection of recipes, it's more like this continual story.
DG: I will be making this slow-roasted pork shoulder, I will be making the bacon broth that's part of it, and I will be finishing it as you do with some vinegar to give it some bite.