People who ask what chefs cook at home are often disappointed. They don't want to hear, "Oh I fried up a steak, zapped a potato and made a salad." They expect a hand waved in the air and something like: "Oh, nothing much. Pine Nut-Crusted Rack of Lamb With Thai Basil Foam, Truffle-Scented Gnocchi With Wild Mushroom Ragout, Twenty-Vegetable Brunoise, a Triple-Chocolate Souffle . . . you know, the usual."
Those things are a breeze to prepare when you have a staff of 10 to do the grunt work and scrub the pots. When chefs cook at home, we keep things simple and make them fast. We keep our eyes on the same prize as other people: the sofa.
When cooking for one or two, for example, we know that good things come from foil packets. They are especially useful for hurried city-singletons like me; my small apartment has no grill and a tiny kitchen that features a ventless, electric range-oven combo with a noisy fan that turns cooking vapors into facials. Such limitations require either ingenuity or a large collection of home-delivery menus. (As a chef, I possess both of those things.)
Foil packets are interpretations of paper papillotes and commercial, heat-resistant nylon baking bags. The method involved, basically a form of oven-braising, has several advantages: It creates an intensely savory product with little prep time and no messy cleanup. Close wrapping with tight seals allows flavor to cycle back into the contents of the packets instead of evaporating.
I started experimenting with this technique when I had a hankering for barbecued ribs. I needed to figure out how to make them in my pitiful kitchen and still approximate the carbon-crusty smokiness that a grill does. In my first attempt, I added water because I was not sure there would be enough liquid to braise the ribs. I discovered that there was sufficient water in the meat and ketchup to do the job, and that it was better to add water to the sauce at the end of the process because the flavor was more intense.
Broiling the meat after the packets were opened was crucial; the sugar in the ketchup caramelized and combined with the rub to make a charred crust on top of the ribs. Chicken thighs and wings barbecued just as nicely. A chipotle hot pepper sauce imbued the pork and chicken with a pleasant smoky quality. I imagine using a few drops of bottled hickory-smoke flavoring would have that effect, but I do not care for the chemical aftertaste of those products.
It took only a few minutes to assemble the packet. The only dishes to clean were a plate, a mixing bowl and a Pyrex measuring cup. I ate all the ribs, but the serving was ample for two.
Giddy with success, I attempted other dishes. Moroccan vegetable tagines and salmon packets turned out nicely, but Rack of Lamb With Basil Foam and Chocolate Souffle failed. Which just goes to show that not every craving can be satisfied by reaching for the foil.
For this and other recipes, see Page 2.