Most of us learn to cook by first watching other people do it. Perhaps you’re a son whose mom made blue-ribbon pies, or a daughter with a dad who slung pizzas at his own father’s pizza parlor. Or anyone, anywhere, who once asked someone cooking over their stove, “So, how much salt did you just add?”
I learned much about cooking from my parents, especially my mother, and from cooking with friends. But I also learned from watching the cooking—to be precise, the finished results of the cooking—of hundreds of restaurant chefs.
I reviewed restaurants hereabouts for 15 years, mostly in the 1980s and 1990s, a bit into the aughts, eating and assaying thousands of restaurant meals.
Tips for cooking at home from a restaurant and food critic
Here’s (some of) what I learned about home cooking from reviewing all those restaurant meals. These are lessons that I’ve taken to “hearth,” most especially when cooking for guests in my home. Sitting down to a meal at another’s table is close to being a restaurant reviewer at a chef’s restaurant.
I remember writing recurrent criticisms in my reviews, about how the butter on the table tasted “of the refrigerator” or how mealy or stale the bread was. These are little things (that, in the nature of little things, add up) that a good cook should monitor.
For example, in the frig, keep the butter in its own shed, away from the foods from which it can pick up odors and off-flavors. (This caveat applies to many foods that might absorb the malodorous: a slab of polenta set to cool, for example, or certainly many a baked good.)
From all those years’ restaurant meals, I learned lots of solid cooking techniques, for example how hand-patted burger meat way outshines, especially texturally, pre-formed, packaged pucks. How mushrooms are sponges, really, and so to mind my hand when adding moisture (if at all) when cooking or serving them.
Mushrooms are like meat as plant matter and profitably can be cooked in the same way—on or over high dry heat.
I learned not to soak chopped nuts in a salad dressing for more than a few minutes lest they lose their crunch. Or to beware how easily it is to eradicate the crispness that I’d achieved on roasted vegetables or the edge of a steak or the bottom of a risotto cake by either letting it steam if contained somehow (covered in a serving dish, say) or by dousing it with an embarrassment of saucing.
Some things really annoyed me, mostly dishonesties, it turns out. I used to rank or grade a restaurant on the correspondence between what it said it was and what it delivered on the plate. A really fine pho joint got the same sorts of positives as a posh fine dining establishment if both were honest in their own ways.
One thing totally bugged me: canned corned beef, which to my mind looks and smells just like anything wet for the pooch from Purina. (It may taste like it too, but I cannot and will not go there.) So, whenever I asked a server if the restaurant made “its own corned beef hash” and they said it did but it did not, I got peeved. Cooking from a can is re-cooking someone else’s cooking. Don’t do it; cook whatever it is yourself.
I suppose what I learned most about cooking from all that restaurant reviewing is also another form of honesty, that is, to buy the best quality ingredients that you can afford, prepare them simply or straightforwardly, with fine focus, all the while keeping the plate balanced (among textures, tastes, savors, aromas, indeed all the senses).
That sounds like a lot, and actually it is, which means that it also allows for the play and pretention that can be its downfalls. Dining out — and, similarly, entertaining at table — is beset by the urge to splurge, to impress or wow.
It’s important to check that, just like an autumn or winter coat at the door.
Grilled Portobello Burgers
6 medium to large cremini or portobello mushrooms
6 egg-based (brioche) hamburger buns or rolls
1/4 to 1/2 cup good quality olive oil
Several grinds of black pepper
Kosher or sea salt
Several pinches herbes de Provence, crushed in palm of hand
Leaves of romaine lettuce
Choose mushroom caps larger than the diameter of the buns, to allow for anywhere from 25-50 percent shrinkage from the heat of the grill. De-stem the mushrooms (use the stems later for stocks or broths) and brush or quickly rinse away any noticeable growing medium from them. If unsliced, slice the buns or rolls crosswise along their equators leaving a slight “hinge” just before slicing all the way through.
Add the remaining ingredients, except the lettuce leaves, to a small bowl and mix together well. Just before grilling, liberally brush the mushroom caps on both sides with the flavored oil.
Grill the caps on both sides until they have released much of their water and are beginning to darken well and turn “meaty,” taking care not to blacken or burn them. Set them aside. Briefly toast the insides of the buns atop the grill. Layer the caps onto the buns and top with the lettuce leaves. Serve with any number of possible condiments or sauces.
Corned beef hash
2 cups cooked corned beef, trimmed and cut up into small cubes
2 cups cooked waxy potatoes (such as Yukon Gold), cut up into small cubes
1/3 cup heavy cream
1 medium onion, peeled and small diced
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, in two equal portions
Flat-leaf parsley, chopped fine
Freshly ground black pepper
In a bowl, gently mix together the corned beef, potatoes and cream. Set aside.
Over medium-high heat in a large skillet, preferably nonstick or seasoned cast-iron, melt 2 tablespoons of the butter and in it cook the onions for 6-7 minutes to soften them.
Add the remaining butter to the skillet and, when it has melted, the meat and potato mix, pressing down on everything with a spatula to flatten it uniformly. Cook like this for 10 minutes, or until a crust forms on the bottom. (Peek to see how it’s coming along.)
Next, brown the topside in any of three different ways: by broiling it close to the broiling element for 5-6 minutes; flipping the hash over in broken sections and cooking the new sides for 8-10 minutes; or (this is the most difficult but can be the most attractive) placing a large plate over the hash in the skillet, flipping over both the skillet and plate together, then sliding the less-cooked side of the hash from the plate back into the skillet and cooking that side for 8-10 minutes.
Garnish with chopped flat-leaf parsley and serve with plenty of ground pepper and hot sauce or ketchup. Poached eggs are a traditional topping, but any soft-cooked eggs work well too.
Reach Bill St John at [email protected]