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Brilliant Basics

Must-have techniques for the kitchen in 3 easy, delicious recipes

As an owner and teacher of the Lancaster-based cooking school Essen, I am often asked which are the dishes everyone should know how to make. Without hesitation I reply, “roast chicken, risotto and mixed green salad with vinaigrette.”

When done well, these dishes showcase how command of a few basic cooking techniques and a handful of fresh ingredients can feed you and those around you a full-flavored, nutritious meal without blowing the budget. Without these fundamentals, dinner is just another bland Tuesday night.

Perfect roast chicken assumes you’re starting with the freshest chicken you can find. It’s also key that you build flavor from the get-go. As soon as you get home from the market, salt the bird, allowing the salt crystals to penetrate into the meat cells. Finally, cooking at high heat for a short amount of time (aka roasting) creates the delicious, brown, crispy skin while sealing the juices inside the flesh where they belong.

Risotto is the name of a cooking technique, not a type of rice, as many mistakenly believe. I love it because it defines “bare cupboard cooking” with a sophisticated edge—all of the ingredients can and should be on hand in your cabinet and freezer. You coat grains with a little fat, usually olive oil, and then slowly stir in warm liquid, ending with a creamy, yet creamless, side dish. Add-ins are often vegetables; meats make perfect additions for a main dish.

The third must-know dish is the salad. Many Essen clients claim the biggest improvement we’ve made in their lives is in their salads. Two keys: less is more and seasoning. This is not the place to clean out your fridge. Edit the ingredients to those that you would actually like to eat together, both raw and cooked. Add only enough dressing to very lightly coat each item in your mixture. The recipe includes only a variety of fresh, mixed greens and the simplest dressing on earth: oil, vinegar and salt. The trick is a light sprinkle of salt on the greens, which helps to bring it all together. Try this out with whatever’s in your nightly salad bowl and you may start to make room on your plate for salad.

Carrot Risotto

Serves 4 to 6
5-6 cups chicken or vegetable broth
1-2 tablespoons olive oil
1 small onion, finely chopped
2 cups carrots, peeled and finely diced
2 cups Arborio or medium-grained rice
½ - 1 cup dry white wine
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese, divided

chef’s knife  |  cutting board  |  measuring cups | measuring spoons  |  2 medium saucepans | wooden spoon  |  small skillet

1. Heat broth in a medium-sized saucepan. Off heat.
2. Cook the carrots. In a 3-quart saucepan, heat olive oil; add onion and carrots. Cook over medium heat until onion is translucent, about 5 minutes.
3. Toast rice. Add rice to carrot mixture and cook until rice has turned from opaque to translucent, about 1 to 2 minutes.
4. Stir, stir, stir. Add wine to cover rice. Cook, stirring constantly, until wine has been absorbed by the rice.
5. Add enough broth until rice is barely covered. Cook over medium heat and stir frequently, until broth has almost been absorbed and mixture looks set. Continue adding broth to cover, stirring and cooking until the rice is tender, but still firm to the bite (no white center in rice), about 15 to 20 minutes.
6. Add the finishing touches. During the last minutes of cooking, stir in butter and 1/3 cup Parmesan. The rice should have a creamy consistency, more like soup than cement. Add more broth to loosen, if necessary. Season to taste. Serve immediately. Risotto waits for no one.


Perfect Roast Chicken

Serves 4
3 - 4 pound whole fryer chicken
2 small lemons
olive oil

fork  |  baking pan with rack

1. Get ready. Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Remove chicken from refrigerator 1 to 2 hours before cooking. Sprinkle a generous amount of salt and black pepper on the chicken, rubbing it with your fingers over all its body and into its cavity. Discard fat pads inside cavity. Rub outside of chicken lightly with oil. (Make ahead note: For best flavor, season and chill chicken, uncovered or lightly covered with plastic wrap, for at least 8 and up to 48 hours before cooking.)
2. Release the juice. Using a fork, puncture the lemons all over. Place both lemons in the bird’s cavity.
3. Cook the bird. Put the chicken into a lightly oiled roasting pan, breast facing up. Place it in the upper third of the preheated oven. Cook for 20 minutes. Reduce oven temperature to 400 degrees.
4. Turn the chicken over to have the breast face down. When turning it, try not to puncture the skin. Cook for another 20 minutes.
5. Turn the chicken over to have the breast face up. Cook for 20 more minutes.
6. Rest, carve and serve. Let chicken rest 10 to 15 minutes. Remove lemons. Carve and spoon juices over chicken.


Classic Mixed Green Salad

Serves 4
1 tablespoon something acidic (e.g., lemon juice, flavored vinegar)
2 tablespoons olive oil
4 handfuls mixed greens, clean and very, very dry

wooden salad bowl   |   jar with lid   |   2 soup spoons

1. Make dressing. Pour desired amounts of acid, oil and a healthy pinch of salt into small jar with tight-fitting lid. Secure lid and shake vigorously until mixed together. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
2. Assemble salad. Tear the lettuce into pieces and place in salad bowl. Sprinkle from up high with a pinch of salt. Drizzle vinaigrette over greens. Toss lettuce gently with 2 spoons until each leaf is lightly and thoroughly coated; this may take up to a minute or two. Relax, it’s worth it.

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