October 15, 2007

The Weary Epicurean—October 16, 2007

Your parents may very well be arriving this Friday. You’re probably obsessing over this. Rooms will be hurriedly cleaned, vacuums borrowed, nicotine gum purchased, drug paraphernalia tucked away in quiet corners, but have you thought at all about what mom and pop are to eat?

You want something impressive, something that screams, “I have a new home and I’m taking very good care of myself, thank you!” But up until this point, the most complicated dish you’ve attempted is a Moo and Oink patty with “spice rub” and a can of Pabst Blue Ribbon. Well, never fear: there are many impressive-looking (and -smelling) recipes that require little to no knife skills, preparation or clean-up.

Meals are much more impressive in courses. Serving multiple courses communicates forethought and patience—qualities you very much want to convey to the ’rents if you want them to entrust you with, say, a car. Here I suggest a simple tomato bisque, a roast chicken, and a plain chocolate mousse. Not exactly molecular gastronomy, but the flavors are classic, they follow each other with a certain logic, and they’re very easy to amplify with a little ingenuity (but virtually no skill).

First of all, the soup: while this recipe only requires three or four ingredients, it is a classic. In fact, I got it from the great chef Auguste Escoffier, via my grandmother. All you need is two or three very red, very ripe, vine-grown tomatoes per person. It will not work with grainy or orangey ones.

You plunge these individually into a boiling pot of water for about 10 seconds each (this is known as “blanching”), peel off the skins, and slice them in half. Score them on their backs with a sharp knife and sprinkle them with salt and pepper. Heat up some butter in a large pan—be generous here, say one tablespoon of butter for two tomatoes. When it’s hot, but before it browns—start over if the butter browns—lay the tomatoes on their backs. They should start to lightly hiss after about 20 seconds. When you hear that sound (you can actually smell this happening, too), time 10 minutes.

Then flip them on their fronts and salt them a little bit. Time five minutes. Take the pan off the heat, add one tablespoon of heavy cream for every two tomatoes, and immediately scrape them out of the pan and into bowls with a wooden spoon. A little dried basil doesn’t hurt at the end, but it’s by no means necessary. The whole process should only take 20 minutes, really.

Secondly, the chicken. Do not buy a “roasting chicken.” The American roasting chicken is a 6-pound abomination of dry breast meat, crispy-critter skin and excessive salt. It requires obsessive-compulsive basting on its side on a rack in a Dutch oven with a lid and must be turned three times to be anywhere near tender, and even then it takes two hours and provides more meat than you can eat in two weeks. Yuck.

Buy a 2-and-1/2–to–4-pound “frying” chicken—look for one with legs that you can wiggle easily and skin that looks moist and fresh. When you get it home, make sure it’s fully defrosted, rinse it, and lay it down, breast-side up, on a cutting board.

Loosen the skin with your fingers and separate it from the flesh around the cavity, then slide in your fingers while taking care not to rip the skin. Work in some butter, salt, and minced garlic here, evenly if possible. Sprinkle fresh tarragon all over the breast and inside the cavity. Cut an onion into quarters, tuck it into the cavity, and tie the bird up neatly if you know how. Don’t worry about it if you don’t.

Stick it in the middle of the oven on a tray (a rack on a tray, if you have one). After half an hour, baste it as often as you can stand, but at least twice. Start checking the temperature after an hour.

When it reaches 175 degrees in the center, it’s done. The temperature will go up another five degrees while it rests. Do let it rest while it comes to temperature; it will taste much better, and carve much more easily.

Finally, the simple chocolate mousse. All you need is 1 and 1/2 cups of unsweetened dark chocolate, some milk, 6 eggs, some confectioner’s sugar, and two cups of heavy whipping cream. Melt the chocolate in a metal bowl resting in a pot of boiling water (not touching the bottom) until smooth.

Meanwhile, beat the yolks of the six eggs and 1/4 cup of the confectioner’s sugar with an electric mixer for five minutes, or with a whisk by hand for 10–15 minutes, until it’s almost thicker than the cream. Stir it into the chocolate, take the mix off the stove, and let it cool slightly.

Then whip the cream separately with a whisk until it stands up in peaks, fold it (i.e., very gently scoop/stir it) into the chocolate with a spatula, and let it chill in the refrigerator for three or four hours. Serve it with berries, say, or some more cream.

Pretty easy, right? It’s what’s the Irish call “a good feed.” And you do most of the work before mom and dad have even shown up for dinner, so you can clear most of the mess out before they get there, too. It probably comes to about $7 per person, if you get a group of four together. Serve the soup with a bottle of Bodega Septima ($6 per bottle at Kimbark—it’s on sale), and the chicken with a bottle of “House White” by The Magnificent Wine Company ($10 at Binny’s).