Sometimes, the best recipes are really more instructions rather than recipes - instructions that manage to entirely change the way you think about food. Like when you learn that sprinkling flaky salt on a sliced tomato wedge will transform the taste of the tomato in your mouth. Or that a drizzle of good olive oil over a bowl of pureed soup will elevate it into something special. Or that a good stewing will give even the blandest supermarket apricot the tangy, warm flavor that a freshly picked one has.
These revelations may not be earth-shattering, but they change the way we nourish ourselves, the way we approach the humble stuff in our crispers and pantries. They're the things that make a good cook great.
Where and how do we learn these little trucs? Sometimes it's by accident or through experimentation. Often, I find that simple ideas about how to make food taste better crop up in the most unexpected of places. Would you believe that I learned how to poke holes into a leg of lamb for slivers of raw garlic in a book I read one summer when I was thirteen?
Last week I bought my first rhubarb of the summer, planning to stew it with sugar on the stove top as I always do, turning it into a soft, sweet, puckery mess of greenish strands to be stirred into yogurt and eaten with a spoon. But then I remembered Amanda Hesser's recent article on rhurbarb and a recipe she'd excerpted from Ruth Rogers's and Rose Gray's book, Italian Two Easy. Now, some people find their cookbooks too simplistic, too easy. To me, those two ladies have just understood that good, humble food is about sourcing great ingredients and using the lightest touch necessary.
But then again, my kitchen motto seems to be "The Easier, the Better". So they're preaching to the choir here.
In their recipe, lengths of rhubarb roast briefly in a vanilla-bean-infused broth of orange juice and Demerara sugar. I had to improvise, with neither vanilla beans nor oranges in the house. I cut up my rhubarb, spread the lengths out in a glass baking dish, zested half a lemon over the rhubarb, squeezed in the juice, sprinkled a bit more sugar than called for to counterbalance the sour lemon and dribbled in some vanilla extract. I tossed the whole lot around, then slid the pan into the preheated oven.
After 25 minutes, I pulled out the pan. The rhubarb was meltingly tender and bathed in a delicious vanilla-scented sauce. It was smart to have over-compensated with the sugar as the lemon had really punched up the already sour rhubarb. I ate a bowl, still warm, plain. And then, later, spooned the rhubarb lengths and the syrup into some yogurt. For a dinner party, I'd transform this into a classic English fool by gently stirring the rhubarb into some lightly sweetened whipped cream. You could even pile the fruit onto a meringue base topped with whipped cream for a twist on the classic berry pavlova.
But all these delicious possibilities aside, what really made me giddy was the fact that I'd finally stumbled on a way of cooking rhubarb that didn't reduce it to the usual muddy puddle of cellulose. Instead, the lengths kept their rosy integrity intact and were as pretty to the eye as they were to my palate. This trick is going into my kitchen arsenal. I don't know that I'll ever cook rhubarb any other way again.
So, tell me, dear readers: what are the simple kitchen tips and tricks you've learned over the years and how did you learn them? What has become so much a part of your cooking repertoire that you can't imagine living without it?
14 ounces rhubarb
1 blood or navel orange (or 1 lemon)
2 vanilla beans or 1 teaspoon of pure vanilla extract (or more to taste)
3 tablespoons Demerara sugar (more if you're using the lemon)
2/3 cup creme fraiche (optional)
1. Preheat the oven to 300 degrees. Cut the rhubarb into 2-to-2 1/2-inch pieces and place in a medium bowl. Finely grate the zest of half the orange over the rhubarb and then squeeze the juice of the whole orange into the bowl. Split the vanilla beans and scrape out the seeds and place both in the bowl. Add the sugar and stir to combine.
2. Pour the rhubarb into a baking dish and arrange the pieces so that they lie flat. Bake for 15 to 20 minutes. Remove the vanilla pods. Serve with creme fraiche.