October 2007

Melissa Lion

Culinaria Bookslut

Prissy Little Bitches

Well, we’ve moved and we’re finally in our house. I’ve been unpacking boxes we stored in my mother-in-law’s garage and each box is like a new little gift. Two galleys of Collapse by Jared Diamond? You shouldn’t have, moving gods! My kitchen gear has been emerging too. Turns out I have a full set of beautiful Fiestaware and I uncovered my most cherished cooking item: my Le Creuset bright red round oven. If I could French kiss this particular piece of cookware, I would. Its beauty, its utility, its weight and girth are enough to keep me warm at night. Since unpacking it, I have used it to cook every single night. Even if it means boiling water for pasta, I must make up for it being stuck in a garage in the desert of east San Diego keeping company with a Toyota Camry and pallets of water bottles purchased at Costco.  

I have been unpacking my cookbooks too. I found a copy of Mario Batali’s Molto Italiano and I was very excited to cook from this one. I bought all the ingredients for the Hunter’s Chicken and sat down to read the recipe. The recipe’s introduction seemed pretty typical of cookbooks. It begins with an insult -- “Chicken “catchatori” seemed to be a subset for every mediocre chicken dish ever served to me in the restaurants in the ‘70s and '80s…” and ends with a purely unreasonable request, “Find a good organic poultry supplier and support them -- or raise your own.” The recipe itself was straightforward, and I believed that I would enjoy cooking this meal, until I got to the last sentence. “Transfer chicken to a festive platter, top with the sauce and serve.” A festive platter. The photo accompanying the recipe shows the chicken in a white serving bowl with handles. Granted the bowl is oblong and might not be a bowl at all, but still, it’s not painted with holly leaves or treated with puffy paint and a beadazzler, so it can most certainly not be considered festive.

I sighed. Lacking a festive platter, I was filled with culinary ennui.

“Hey, you haven’t had a chance to cook with the Le Cresset. Want to give Mario Batali a whirl?” I said to my partner.

“Sounds good,” he said and he made the recipe. Unfortunately, it turned out just the way Mr. Batali said it would -- mediocre and bland. I can say that because my honey follows a recipe to the letter and would actually make a far better cookbook tester than I would. Thus, I know that it is Mario Batali’s fault that I ate a so-so meal.

The trouble, in my opinion, lay in the four cups of liquid the recipe called for. Braise chicken in that much liquid and you get a soupy mess. I stewed over this whole debacle for a few days with that "festive platter" ringing in my ear like my son with a butter knife and a metal mixing bowl. I paged through Batali’s cookbook and I studied the picture of his bright orange crocs on the back. I thought, it seems that a large red-headed man would have to be somewhat tough, or have a great sense of humor to wear these things, but after that boring recipe with the unreasonable expectations, I wondered, if Mario Batali, was a prissy little bitch. I decided then, for this column, I would explore the culinary terrain of the prissy little bitch.

Don’t get me wrong, I have long admired the work of the prissiest of all the culinary bitches -- Christopher Kimball of Cook's Illustrated. With his little line drawn likeness and bow tie, Kimball just seems the type who would tsk-tsk this California girl for wearing pearls after Labor Day. I’ve been cooking from Cook's Illustrated for years and there has only been one recipe that led me astray -- the eggplant parmesan is just not worth the effort and the paper towels required to drain the necessary volume of eggplant moisture Kimball demands in his recipe. Ignoring the eggplant, every single thing I cook (down to hardboiled eggs) comes from Cook's Illustrated. I think I love Prissy Little Bitches. But is Mario Batali an exception or am I the type of woman who likes a recipe that tells me my butt looks fat and my hair color is just a touch too dark?

Onward I went to the Portland library and checked out America’s Best Chefs Cook with Jeremiah Tower, which should have been subtitled, the march of the prissy little bitches. Inside I found a recipe for which I had the half of the ingredients and it was written by none other than Alain Ducasse, whose bio states, “Ducasse’s culinary vision is international.” I hope one day a vision of mine is international.

The herb butter for Chicken Roasted with Herbs Stuffed Under the Skin calls for 2 ½ sticks of butter, and parsley, chervil and tarragon. The little gourmet grocery store didn’t have chervil and after tasting a bit of tarragon and realizing it must be from the same species as licorice (one of my least favorite flavors) I decided that just a parsley butter would do. The recipe also required me to sauté 1/2 pound of mushrooms, let them cool and then add them to the butter too. At this point, I nearly gave in. I thought, I could get these same flavors by pan roasting the chicken and sautéing the mushrooms in the pan drippings. So much simpler and it didn’t involve my shoving a few cups worth of butter under a chicken’s skin. But no, it is my job to actually cook the recipe and not close the book and walk away. I sautéed the mushrooms and because I couldn’t be bothered to wait for them to cool, I mixed them hot with the butter and stuck the whole thing in the freezer. After a few minutes, I stuffed about half the butter mixture under the chicken skin. I used only half, because that’s all that poor chicken could hold. I stuck it in the oven, ignoring the instructions to bake it at 350 for an hour and a half. Instead, I turned the oven up to 425 for crispy brown skin, then turned the oven down to 375 to finish cooking the meat. And while this was cooking I prepared my vegetable dish from none other than Mr. Batali -- Root Vegetable Mash.

Batali writes, “The complexity of the sweet potato and parsnip combo might seem as if it would be too sweet, but this really works well under any rich braised meat or bird.” It might be too sweet indeed if I could find a parsnip in Portland, and if all the vegetables weren’t boiled in order to soften them and if they weren’t mashed with regular potatoes and boiled onions. Alas, Batali had written another bland recipe, tasting of starched-down sweet potatoes, but because this mash is bright orange, I was able to mix in with my son’s boxed mac and cheese for a wholesome only half-processed dinner. Yes, I am parent of the year.

As for the chicken, the skin was crisp and the melted butter in the pan made for an excellent sauce to pour over the meat, but the mushrooms were lackluster and the chicken was, well, chicken. I would have done better to follow the advice of my true prissy love, Christopher Kimball and cook the Pan Roasted Chicken recipe from Cook's Illustrated where I would have, you guessed it, seared the (kosher, of course) chicken first, then put it in a 425 oven for a few minutes, turning down the heat for moist meat and sautéed the mushrooms in the pan drippings. Just goes to show, you can trust a prissy little bitch in a bow tie, but anyone with an international vision or a pair of bright orange crocs should be avoided, despite what they tell you themselves.