Armed with professional equipment, well-stocked larders and more than two hands helping out in the kitchen, any chef worth his whites should be able to turn out a meal of distinction. Have a horn of plenty, can dazzle.
But take away the fancy gas range, the pedigreed ingredients and a dish washer with benefits and what do you get? We hoped to find out. Could a trained toque tackle the real-life drill faced by the home cook?
Fresh from having run 26 miles in the Marine Corps Marathon only a day earlier, chef John Cochran--co-owner of Rupperts restaurant in Washington and a glutton for punishment--agreed to take on the Food section's challenge and prepare a meal for four for $30 or less.
Oh, we threw in a few hurdles. Except for pantry staples such as salt, flour and oil, all the ingredients had to be purchased from a neighborhood grocery store. There was a time limit of an hour to cook--generous by any civilian's standards, we thought. And just to up the heat, dinner had to be prepared in a home kitchen; thanks to two years of nonstop restaurant-hopping, my bachelor setup had been barely touched. Perfect!
As it turns out, Cochran raids the refrigerator of his restaurant more often than he shops at his local Giant in the Shaw neighborhood, where the exercise begins at 6 p.m. "I don't eat at home much," the 33-year-old chef says, explaining that he puts in 12-hour days at his contemporary American restaurant, located at 1017 Seventh St. NW, just minutes away from the town house he shares with his wife and co-chef, Sidra, and 6-month-old daughter, Martin Lane. Who wants to drink coffee at home when there's a $10,000 espresso-maker at work, he figures. Diapers and frozen sorbet are his family's usual reasons for a trip to the market.
With a slight nip in the air and a display of root vegetables just begging to be turned into something satisfying, inspiration for dinner comes easily to the chef. The meal will be vegetarian and include lots of different tastes, he decides. "I want to hit all the bases," he adds, painting a picture where chunky meets creamy, crisp rides with smooth and sweet blends with savory. His eyes first catch a $3 container of shiitake mushrooms, but he decides that's too expensive. Some button mushrooms fill the role instead. Besides, "I'm leery of stuff that's prepackaged and already sliced. I can't see the quality." But he can and does warm to sweet potatoes from a nearby mound, massaging each tuber to identify skin that's not hard and selecting only those spuds with a welcome red sheen. At 69 cents a pound, the price is right, too. Into the cart they go.
Looking around, Cochran is also thinking of parsnips, which he likes to serve as french fries, and brussels sprouts, which are "good if they're grilled or roasted but not boiled to death." They're local, too, which appeals to the man who tries to buy nothing for his restaurant menu that's grown farther away than Pennsylvania. A humble head of cauliflower stirs his creative juices. "Pureed, it's like butter, man," Cochran offers. A white and a red onion are added to the cart, along with a fistful of collard greens, while spaghetti squash is ruled out because it would take too long to cook. An orchard's worth of apples beckons; Golden Delicious are available only in 3-pound bags, but the Rome variety, winking from an open stack, allows Cochran to select the fruit by the piece--but not before each apple is sniffed for flavor. If the nearby dates suggest indulgence at $3.99 a pound, they'll also play sweetly in a dessert. Cochran grabs a few, mentally tallying his choices to see how much more his budget might allow.
The purchases thus far spell rabbit food. "We need some grains, we need some protein," Cochran thinks aloud. On his way to Aisle 3 and some rice and legumes, he spies a pat of fresh yeast and yelps. "Fresh yeast! Brilliant!" Images of bread sticks suddenly dance in his head. "This makes better bread," he says of the small, foil-wrapped square in his hand. "It works faster."
Standing before a wall of canned vegetables, Cochran, whose expansive home garden overflows with sorrel, arugula, fig trees and more, shakes his head and jokes, "We could do this in a couple of minutes if we used Jolly Green Giant." Instead, he reaches for a bag of brown rice and some dried lentils, grabs some walnuts, thinks to pick up some vinegars for bolstering the flavor of his mainstays, returns to the produce section for a piece of ginger and a tiny green chili pepper and heads to a checkout line.
When the register flashes his total, he's relieved to see "$26.55" brighten the screen. So far, so good.
Cochran is no more than a minute into an unfamiliar kitchen than he turns on all four electric burners to "high" and the oven to a toasty 500 degrees. After organizing his bounty on the counter, he quickly surveys the contents of my cupboards and the state of my equipment. It is 7:45 and he has 60 minutes to transform the groceries into a dinner that any of us could--and would want to--make. The game plan: vegetable soup and a centerpiece of rice and lentils fleshed out with side dishes of roasted sweet potatoes, rutabagas partnered with onions, grilled Brussels sprouts with fresh ginger, bread sticks and "a free-form apple pie"--apple compote sheathed in a crackery walnut crust.
Dishes that will take the longest are started first. Cochran sprinkles some sugar over the fresh yeast, dissolving in some warm water, and decides to cook the rice with the lentils to save time. Water, grain and legumes are added to a pot and placed on a red-glowing burner. Mushrooms and onion tops, the beginning of a stock for vegetable soup, are tossed into another pot. And the sweet potatoes and parsnips are whittled into finger-length slices for faster cooking before getting shoved into the oven. "This is harder than a marathon," Cochran says as he juggles against time.
He asks if there's any cheesecloth, a staple in his kitchen (but not mine, alas). And while he praises the edge on my blades, he gives my flimsy vegetable grater no stars. "This is going to kill me," he whines as the dull utensil disses a hunk of fresh ginger and a sturdy rutabaga. Switching back to the knife, he makes short work of both ingredients. A cutting board the size of a Hallmark card gets a disapproving glance and my choice of a pungent, extra-virgin olive oil wouldn't be his. (Cochran prefers the neutral flavor of grapeseed oil, which has the advantage of a higher burn point.)
My entire batterie de cuisine is being pressed into service. "Make sure your pans are large enough" for the food to fit in, the chef advises. "The temptation is to use things that are too small." Unexpectedly, the knife slips from his grasp and soars through the air, landing with a clank on the floor. "Rule No. 2: Don't ever try to catch a knife!"
Another close call follows: When he removes from the oven a super-heated pan of sweet potatoes to check for doneness, the paper towel he's got in his free hand bursts into flames. Fortunately, he's standing over a sink. Unfortunately, the smoke alarm directly above the torch bleats for three ear-splitting minutes. The scene is not unlike rush hour in any home kitchen.
Forty-five minutes have flown by. "You know what?" Cochran announces. "Things have got to change. At this point, it's called survival." Surveying the scene, he decides that the soup is going to become a stew thick with unpureed cauliflower and parsnips. Chop, chop, chop. The heap of greens is washed and reduced to a fluffy and quick-to-cook chiffonade and added to the stock pot. The bread sticks and apple tart? Suddenly, they're being rethought as flatbread and walnut flatbread, respectively. The latter will be paired with dates and slices of apple--raw as opposed to cooked. To minimize mess, Cochran uses his hands to crush the nuts in the bag. Without benefit of an apron or rolling pin (a bottle of vinegar is substituted), the dough is pressed out to the edges of two olive oil-slick cake pans and shoved in the oven.
"I need two more minutes for stress!" the chef playfully begs. But the clock slows down for no one.
Besides, Cochran is making the most of the minutes he has left. Halved Brussels sprouts sizzle to a light golden turn on the stove; they are but a sprinkle of minced ginger and a few tablespoons of rice wine vinegar away from readiness. The gently caramelized rutabagas and softened onions are pulled from the oven and given a splash of balsamic vinegar. The craggy breads, now filling the air with their perfume, are flipped over for an even tan. They're as good as done.
Touch, sight, hearing--no sense is left out of the ballet. As he moves from dish to dish, Cochran also tastes and tastes some more. Partial to kosher salt, he is settling for regular tonight, but not without imparting that the difference between the two is "the difference between a tuba and a trumpet." Chock full of vegetables, the stew is missing something. Tang? Sass? That minute chili pepper, inadvertently tossed into the trash, is fished out from a plastic bag. Thrown into the simmering liquid, it adds a welcome piquancy.
Tick, tick, tick. Sliding into a few seconds of overtime, Cochran's efforts are transferred to serving plates and put on display on the counter: half a dozen dishes that could convince any home cook that he could do the same. Warm-from-the-oven bread is dipped into the soup. Sublime. Our fingers return again and again to the nouvelle Brussels sprouts as well as the batons of sweet potato, gussied up at the last moment with cider vinegar. Pieces of walnut bread are mated with crisp apple and sweet dates. A rustic finale.
It's a meal that celebrates autumn and serves up a moral, says the champ of his workout: "You've got to be flexible!"
The Chef Makes a Choice
Here's one way to enliven a vegetable that doesn't get much respect.
1 pint (about 12 ounces) Brussels sprouts, cut in half through the stem
2 teaspoons olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1/4 ounce fresh ginger root, peeled and minced (about 1 tablespoon)
About 2 tablespoons seasoned rice wine vinegar
In a medium bowl, toss together the Brussels sprouts, oil and salt and pepper to taste.
Heat a large cast-iron skillet over high heat. Place the Brussels sprouts, cut-sides down, in the skillet and cook, without stirring, until browned, about 2 minutes. Add the ginger and cook, without stirring, for 60 seconds. Add the rice wine vinegar and toss to coat. Taste and adjust the seasonings accordingly. Serve immediately.
Per serving: 56 calories, 3 gm protein, 7 gm carbohydrates, 2 gm fat, 0 mg cholesterol, trace saturated fat, 78 mg sodium, 3 gm dietary fiber
The natural sweetness of the rutabaga and caramelized onion is heightened with a splash of balsamic vinegar in this easy dish.
1 large rutabaga, cut into quarters and thinly sliced
1 small red onion, thinly sliced
About 1 tablespoon olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
Preheat the oven to 500 degrees.
Heat a large cast-iron skillet over high heat.
In a medium bowl, toss together the rutabaga, onion, oil and salt and pepper to taste.
Add the vegetable mixture to the skillet and stir-fry until the onion is slightly wilted, 1 to 2 minutes. Transfer the skillet to the oven and roast until the rutabaga is tender and the onion is lightly brown, about 10 minutes.
Toss the vegetable mixture with the vinegar, taste and adjust the seasonings accordingly. Serve immediately.
Per serving: 66 calories, 2 gm protein, 11 gm carbohydrates, 2 gm fat, 0 mg cholesterol, trace saturated fat, 79 mg sodium, 3 gm dietary fiber
Cochran suggests serving this flatbread with a plate of fruit--sliced apples or dates--and a round of goat cheese.
1 envelope (1 generous tablespoon) active dry yeast or 3/4-ounce cake compressed fresh yeast (fresh works faster)
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon sugar
1/2 to 3/4 cup all-purpose flour
4 ounces walnuts, chopped
4 tablespoons warm water
In a large bowl, stir together the yeast, salt, sugar and 2 tablespoons of the flour. Stir in the walnuts and water. Set aside to proof for 20 minutes.
Place a 9-inch pie plate in the oven and preheat the oven to 500 degrees.
Gradually stir in enough of the remaining flour until the dough is no longer sticky and pulls away from the sides of the bowl.
On a lightly floured surface using a lightly floured rolling pin, roll the dough into a 9-inch circle. Carefully remove the hot pie plate from the oven, pour in the oil and swirl to cover the bottom and sides of the plate. Carefully transfer the dough to the pie plate and bake for 3 minutes. Using a wide spatula, flip the dough and bake until the bottom is golden brown, about 3 minutes. Cut into wedges or serve whole and pull apart. Serve immediately.
Per serving: 295 calories, 11 gm protein, 26 gm carbohydrates, 18 gm fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 1 gm saturated fat, 585 mg sodium, 4 gm dietary fiber