I PROTEST. My kind of cook, the eager beginner with lots of desire but few delusions, is ignored by newspaper food pages. With the exception of how-to books, no chapter of the food literature is devoted to us. Yet, do we not eat? If you pang us (with hunger) do we not salivate? And, more to the point, perhaps, do we not buy?
The great mistake, it seems to me is that food pages are all written for people who are already good in the kitchen. You know the type I mean: people who eat truffles, for God's sake; people who make their own pate, love beets and turnips, and are on intimate terms with any number of slippery sea creatures that are swallowed rather than eaten.
Such things are not for me and mine. We are not and may never be sophisticated, highly experienced cooks. In fact, you could lump us all together and not find a single food processor. We think Cuisinart is a French novelist. We watch Julia Child for entertainmet. ("Five bucks says she takes another slug of wine before the next commercial.") But, and this is my point, we really like to cook, and some of us even aspire to greatness.
Some history may be in order. I come from a meat and potatoes, don't-get-fancy-with-the-food midwestern family, Catholics, who in those days still ate fish on Fridays. Thus I have a vivid memory of a long pink line of salmon patties introducing each weekend.
And in the summer there seemed to be more corn than . . . than anything else. Years ago, I told my bride that when I grew up we had nothing to eat but corn on the cob for Saturday night dinner. One visit back home, she mentioned this to my mother, being sympathetic about our financial plight. My mother hit the ceiling, and issued a furious disclaimer. Seems memory had selected out the rest of the meal; it was probably corn and salmon patties.
In the early 1960s, as a graduate student here in Washington, I was part of a group that set up a cooking co-op, where we all chipped in our money and took turns cooking. When mine came, I made for my first meal -- and I kid you not -- scrambled eggs, rice and noodles. For dinner. One of the group quit that night. His terse review of the meal cannot be printed in a family newspaper.
When I got married, I found that my wife did not know all that much more about cooking than I did. Her first meal is still talked about, in soft tones. It was a tuna casserole, and it was magnificent. I can still remember how good it tasted. Indeed, I looked forward to having the rest of it several days later. However, neither she I knew that the leftovers should have been put back in the refrigerator, the alumimun foil-covered pan sat on the counter for days.
As she prepared to heat it up, she said, "Should it be green?"
"I don't think so," I replied, sensing we'd be going out for burgers. I wanted to save the casserole (perhaps to use it one day as a doorstop), but my wife destroyed the evidence.
She became a good cook. (I originally wrote "fine cook," but on reading the draft of this she crossed out "fine" and changed it to "good.") With her help, I learned to make a number of simple meals, so that I could occasionally take a turn at feeding a family that had grown to include two boys whose view on food were as narrow and provincial as their father's had been.
My greatest moment was the time I conned them into eating ham -- by telling them it was "red steak." A week later, I asked them if they would like ham, "again."
"We don't eat ham," said the 10-year-old mouthpiece.
"Ah, ha!" said I, "just last week . . . " It was a grand moment.
About seven or eight years ago, I met Bob Cochran, who, like me, is a free-lance writer, but also does almost all the cooking for his large family. At his subtle urging, I began to venture into the kitchen and make something more complicated than your basic heat-it-and-eat-it.
The value of this new interest became plain when, a year and a half ago, my wife went back to work (or, to use the phrasing suggested by a female feminist friend of mine, "she took a salaried position outside the home"). I do fewer than half the dinners -- the boys wouldn't stand for any more -- but what I do is enough to spell my wife. And I am having great fun.
Let me say one thing straight, with no kidding: making and serving a good meal to people you love is a very special pleasure. You please them, but you please yourself even more.
Now, the idea of this article is to give you one of my recipes so that you too can be more than just a klutz in the kitchen. And I'll do that in a moment, but first I have to whisper a little secret: Cooking isn't as hard as you think it is.
Obviously, I'm not talking about the construction of some dream meal that involves spending a weekend in a closet with salad oil, scented pastry dough and a hundred-dollar piece of meat. But it is not all that difficult to spend an hour or two in the kitchen fixing a meal that will cause your guests to look at you as if you were the dessert.
The pep talk continues: Don't be intimidated by the directions in the recipe. If you don't understand something, call someone who does; it is not for nothing that most good-hearted cookbooks contain a glossary of terms. And, if the directions run contrary to your common sense, go with your common sense.
That said, let's turn to the main meal. My favorite recipe -- now that I've eschewed noodles, rice and eggs in concert -- is chicken breasts baked in cream. This dish, which has won the unqualified praise of my friend Cochran, comes out tasting so good that people say they've never tasted chicken like it. And they mean that as a compliment!
At this point, it is traditional to print the recipe itself, but I have always found that to be a little too late. By that I mean the combination of terse directions and simple list of ingredents can sometimes mislead the neophyte. For example, the recipe I stole originally says to cut the chicken breasts in half. Well, the ones I buy from several supermarkets are already cut in half. But if you didn't know that, you would have a devil of a time trying to quarter them, unknowingly, and you'd end up with too small a portion. (Unless you or your guests are real chicken breast freaks, one half breast makes a good single portion. You can feed four adults on a two-pound package just fine. If necessary, serve more wine and put another candle or two on the table. Oh, if your pan will hold them, try to cook six, because this dish is every bit as good reheated several days later. Yes, refrigerate it.)
Another example involves the cooking medium. My first recipe said to start with three tablespoons of shortening. Now the word "shortening" gave me some trouble until I learned that was cooking code for something like Crisco (or oil, as in Wesson Oil), and all you had to do was dump the lumps in a big frying pay. While your waiting for the shortening to dissolve, or whatever it does, you should be turning the oven to 325 degrees, and wash off the chicken, 'cause you never know where a chicken's been. Then dry the chicken with paper towels; don't ask me why you have to dry the chicken, just trust me.
Brown the chicken on both sides until it is golden brown -- you will recognize that aptly named color when it comes up -- and then cut off the heat. Add all the other stuff, the onion, the garlic, the salt and pepper, and the worcestershire sauce. Nudge the chicken a bit with a wooden spoon (that's kinder than metal) so that all the pieces are neatly and snugly arranged, and then add the chicken broth and the cream. Cover, and stick in the oven for at least an hour. If you have the time, cook it at 300 degrees for an hour and a half or even two hours.
Oh, an important point I should have mentioned earlier: use a frying pan that can go in the oven. If not, after browning the chicken and adding the rest of the ingredients, transfer everything to a casserole dish (avec cover, as Julia might say).
About 10 minutes before the time is up, take it out and set it on top of the stove, with the cover still on, to rest awhile. Then make rice; the quick variety is just fine (if you don't like the quick kind then start the rice 10 minutes before you take out the chicken). tFind a nice oval-shaped platter and put the rice on it, leaving a hole in the middle. Uncover the chicken and stick your nose inside the wafting aroma. Then, place the chicken in the hole, and spoon generous amounts of the juice over it, or put some in a gravy boat and serve it alongside. Add a ring of green vegetables to the outside of the platter. (I don't care which ones you use; after all, I can't tell you everything.) Your guests will be astounded by your creativity.
Make sure the wine is dry and cold. (I serve chenin blanc.) Amenities such as salad and desert are up to you. Strong coffe is a must, but there's no need for heavy after-dinner liquers as as long as you've enough white wine. Ice cream, or sherbert in season, wouldn't hurt anybody.
And that's all there is to it. If you can't make and enjoy this meal, then you should turn in your white socks. CHICKEN BREASTS A LA GRENIER (4 servings) 3 tablespoons shortening 2 pounds chicken breasts 1/2 cup chopped onion 2 whole cloves garlic, "minced" (that means chopped very fine) 1 1/2 teaspoons salt 1 1/2 teaspoon pepper 2 teaspoons worcestershire sauce 3/4 cup chicken broth 3/4 cup cream
Melt shortening in a large skillet and add chicken breasts. Cook until breasts are golden brown on both sides. Add the onion, garlic, salt, pepper and worcestershire sauce to the pan. Add chicken broth and cream.
If the skillet is not oven-proof, transfer chicken breasts and cream to a casserole dish. Cook, covered, for 1 1/2 to 2 hours in a 300-degree oven. Remove from oven and let rest, covered, for 10 minutes before serving.
Serve with rice.
Editor's Note: In the interest of freedon of the press, the Food section is printing this recipe with no censorship at all, not even a suggestion that two hours may be overcooking or that butter -- with a dash of oil to lesen the chance of burning -- might taste better than shortening.