This post has, so far, been the hardest to complete.
I’ve sat down at my computer at least five times in the last two weeks, if only to stare at the screen, my brain unable to send anything of value to my fingers on the keyboard. I suppose a writer’s psychologist (if there is such a thing), would be quick to diagnose me with a severe case of writer’s block.
However, after having some time to mull over the state of things, I have an entirely different explanation. Here’s where it starts.
Yes, I know what you’re thinking. Judging by looks alone, that’s a plain ol’ piece of chicken breast, resting atop some nondescript sauce, much like you might find on your plate at the next lazily-catered wedding you’re invited to attend.
But haven’t we all been taught not to judge a book by its cover?
So what in the world is so great about this piece of chicken? That, my friends, is what has made this review so difficult to do, properly. I feel the responsibility to do this perfectly roasted and sauced piece of chicken justice, but, at the same time, the words I know cannot match the simple elegance of chicken, as it was meant to be served.
Is Ruhlman’s Twenty about one chicken recipe? No. But it’s this recipe, that, in my mind, summarizes the greatness of the whole book.
First, allow me to show you how it was made.
A whole chicken was trussed, salted and placed in a 475 degree, preheated saute pan in the oven. After somewhere between 30-35 minutes, the oven was shut off, and the chicken was left to finish cooking in the cooling oven, the lower temperatures gently finishing the interior of the chicken without drying it out.
Why bother with trussing (tying) up a chicken, you say? Well, as Michael Ruhlman explains, trussing a chicken accomplishes two very important things. Firstly, it plumps up the lean breast, adding to its cooking time and ensuring that it does not dry out in the time that it takes the legs and thighs to cook. Secondly, tying the legs together seals up the cavity of the chicken, preventing hot air from circulating under the breast, and thus, drying it out further. Plus, it just looks much better than a chicken all sprawled out like a fat dude on a beach towel whom you hope doesn’t pick the spot next to you on the beach.
After the chicken was done roasting, I poured out all but one-or-two tablespoons of the molten chicken fat, and put the pan on a high flame, to cook off whatever water may have accumulated from the chicken.
I then began sauteing one thinly sliced onion and carrot in the chicken fat. When the veggies started to look translucent, I added roughly half a cup of Barkan Chardonnay, deglazing the pan, and scraping up all the browned bits of chicken and vegetable.
I allowed the wine to cook almost all the way off, and repeated this process twice more, adding a cup of water to the pan each time there was nearly no liquid left. On the second time, I let the liquid reduce two thirds of the way through, before removing the pan from the heat and straining it into a saucepan with some vegan butter sweated shallot.
I brought this mixture to a simmer, and whisked in another tablespoon of vegan butter, to thicken the sauce and make it richer, along with some freshly minced parsley and tarragon (I didn’t have chives on hand, which the recipe also calls for.)
Here, once again, is the final plate.
So what is so great about this? Or, what is Ruhlman’s Twenty about after all?
According to the book, at least, Twenty will teach you twenty techniques (illustrated through one hundred recipes) that will make you a better cook.
This is so true. The twenty techniques:
Think, Salt, Water, Onion, Acid, Egg, Butter, Dough, Batter, Sugar, Sauce, Vinaigrette, Soup, Saute, Roast, Braise, Poach, Grill, Fry, Chill.
What I would add to this description, is, that Twenty won’t teach you twenty new techniques (as you may have noticed, reading through them.) Instead, it crystallizes our own cooking into twenty techniques that all of us probably use on a semi-regular basis. Far and beyond that, however, Twenty teaches, in a concise, detailed and accessible manner the how and why of taking those already-used techniques to the next level and beyond.
The truth is, the skill of cooking can be learned from any decent cookbook. But that doesn’t mean that a cookbook filled with amazing recipes will teach you to be the best cook you can be. There was nothing mind-blowing about that chicken breast. But there was something supremely comforting about it. Knowing that I was able to cook the chicken perfectly and deliciously, while not wasting time or any part of the chicken, even the leftover browned bits, added to my satisfaction, and taught me the skills to enhance several other recipes in my repertoire.
Someone I shared this with tried to argue, that, most home cooks don’t have the time or patience to make such a recipe. Seriously? This whole preparation took me less than ten minutes of active cooking time. Plus, would you rather pour a can of coke and some BBQ sauce over a pan of chicken before putting it in the oven, or spend an extra five minutes prepping a dish that is guaranteed to not only fill up your home with the most delicious aroma, but also be comforting, satisfying, and nutritious? I, for one, think we’ve gotten so used to instant foods, that, as a culture, we’ve forgotten the value of a warm, home cooked meal.
Take pride in what you cook for your loved ones, and you’ll enjoy each other’s company over dinner that much more. Good food can be a bond between family and friends, not merely an end in and of itself. Twenty is a masterpiece in educating the home cook, and to that end, I cannot more highly recommend its rightful place in every kitchen.
Perhaps another giveaway is in order?
Wishing you a blessed new year!