“The recipes in this book are easy. Easy to imagine why you want to eat them. Easy to cook, but more than that, easy to prepare in a low-stress way in any home kitchen…Most of the work-work in these recipes — the part where you mess up your counters and floor and generally feel like cursing — happens well before you serve the food, so by the time you are ready to serve, you can ladle it out and pretend like it was no problem.”
With an opening like that, how could I not love The Frankies Spuntino Kitchen Companion & Cooking Manual?
Danny and I had the chance to meet the Frankies, chefs and propietors of The Spuntino in New York (and several other places, including a place planned for Portland, Oregon soon). They are charming and impassioned, funny and connected at the hip. After having worked at some of the best restaurants in the world, stuffed full of classical techniques and elaborate meals, these childhood friends decided to open an Italian restaurant with food they wanted to eat. Slow-simmered tomato sauce? Meatball marinara sandwiches? Sure. But more, they wanted to eat more lightly, with vegetables at the head of the plate and meat a condiment instead of a hunk in the middle. Good cheese and cippolini onion vinaigrette both.
I loved what Frank Castronovo said about the food they try to create: “Anyone can make a meal that leaves you feeling good while you’re in the restaurant. We want to make food that makes you feel good six hours later.”
These Frankies — they have a mission. They want us all to start cooking and realize it’s not as difficult as it seems. Since that’s what Danny and I want too, we listened intently to their conversation about the importance of family meals and knowing correct techniques and where to find the good ingredients. (If you want to read more about our experience of meeting The Frankies, come on over here.) We were both inspired.
Before I met Danny, I thought that being a good cook meant having a tattered book full of trusted recipes. If I clutched my grandmother’s secret casserole recipe close to my chest, and brought it out on special occasions so that my guests would ooh and ahh, then I’d be a good cook. However, my grandmother didn’t have a secret casserole recipe. She wasn’t an inspired cook. She certainly never shared any secrets with me. Even if she had been, however, I would be more inclined now to give that recipe away immediately.
You see, now I know that for me (and I suspect for you too) cooking became easier and much more fun when I learned good techniques. How to sear a piece of meat in a hot pan. How to make a vinaigrette. How to choose fruit when it’s perfectly ripe. How to set up a mise en place so I’m not rushing around the kitchen, trying to find the onions to chop while the butter is burning in the pan.
Being married to a chef has given me a huge respect for good technique in the kitchen. I used to believe that only chefs needed strong knife skills or the ability to roast a pepper on a gas burner. I was a home cook. I could hack my vegetables with blunt force and buy the peppers in the jar. And sure, you still can. However, having a few basic skills as muscle memory makes time in the kitchen more relaxed, and thus more enjoyable.
When we were cooking the Dog Mountain Farm dinner, I was lost for a few moments in the rhythm of my knife on the plastic cutting board as I chopped herbs fine. Something made me listen to it, step outside of myself as my sharp knife divided the rosemary in half, then half again. It sounded good. It sounded right. The tip of my knife stayed on the board as the blade moved from right to left, like a lawnmower through tall green grass. I haven’t noticed, in months and months, just how evenly I cut something now. Chopping is meditation, getting a job done. Now that I have the confidence of hours of doing this the right way in my hands, I don’t have to think. I can simply step up to the counter and enjoy.
In my first book, I wrote about allowing myself to make mistakes. That was the first, most important step to enjoying myself in the kitchen. Once I relaxed my arms, and stopped worrying if my food wasn’t camera ready every time, I realized that this is a practice. No one is good at the violin when they first pick it up. Why do we expect to make music every time we cook?
The more I learn, the more I want to cook. The more I cook, the more confident I feel in the kitchen. The more confident I feel in the kitchen, the more I want to play. And the more I want to play, the more I want to learn the techniques and traditions that will let me play with confidence.
In fact, I’m going to stop writing now so I can go roast some more vegetables.
This post is part of a group conversation about what made it easier and more fun for us to cook food from scratch. I asked the question on Twitter, and this is what emerged. Please go on over and read what other people have written:
Jennifer of In Jennie’s Kitchen
Tia of Glugle Gluten-Free
Shae of Hitchhiking to Heaven
Lori of A Family’s Life
Jen of Kitchen Dweller
Carolyn of What Life Dishes Out
Erin of Mysteries Internal
Tamiko from Kiku Girl
Glutenista from Glutenista
Amanda of Gluten-Free and Tasty
Heather from Gluten-Free Cat
Maybelle’s Mom from Feeding Maybelle
Hanna of Java Kim
Irvin from Eat the Love
Of course, I forgot that a national holiday was coming up when I asked the question and suggested everyone do a blog post for Monday. If you’d like to write about this, send me your blog post and I’ll add it to the list. Or simply write a comment about what has helped you become more comfortable in the kitchen. Let’s see if we can inspire some people to give cooking a try.
Roasted Vegetable Pasta Salad
When I learned to roast vegetables well, I felt like I was really cooking.
Roasted vegetables give a depth of flavor to a dish that simply isn’t there when you use those same vegetables raw. Lately, I’ve been playing with more and more dishes without meat for these hot summer months. Danny is still happy because I have been roasting and smoking and pickling things. With all the flavors, the meat doesn’t feel so central.
After hearing the Frankies talk about the light feeling of the food at their restaurant, I read this passage about roasted vegetables:
“At the Spuntino, simply prepared vegetables are a cornerstone of our way of cooking. We mainly serve them roasted…and then repurpose them in countless ways: the sweet potatoes get mashed into a filling for ravioli and a topping for crostini, the cauliflower replaces sausage in a vegetarian version of our cavatelli with brown butter. A mix of all these antipasto vegetables plus a little dressing become our roasted vegetable salad and the roasted vegetable sandwich, and all work well as side dishes.”
(By the way, the recipes for everything they mention is in their utterly useful cookbook.)
And so, I’ve been roasting vegetables for snacks and sandwiches, goat cheese tarts, and this pasta salad. We’ve been eating well.
Think of this as a template, rather than a recipe, a series of techniques that will build a delicious dinner.
Preheat the oven to 350° or 500° (I’ll explain in a moment.)
Take handfuls of vegetables of your choice: green beans, yellow wax beans, orange cauliflower, Roma tomatoes, asparagus, fava beans, broccoli, etc.
Coat them with a little olive oil, then season with salt and pepper.
(As the Frankies explain about this technique: “Its important to slick the outside of the vegetables with a thin coat of oil. Why? If you don’t, the surface is going to stay at right around 212°F, which is the evaporation point for water, and the vegetables will go limp before they get browned. But when you coat what you’re roasting with fat or oil, the exterior can reach the temperature you set the oven to, because the oil will heat up to that temperature despite the water in the vegetable. This is important because it’s the only way to ensure that the proper development of sugars is taking place as a sugar browns.”)
Splay the vegetables across an oiled baking sheet. Or, you can do as we did and roast handfuls of each vegetable in a separate sauté pan. Put them in the oven.
If you have set the oven to 350°, roast the vegetables until they are browned and soft, about 40 minutes. The lower heat means softer vegetables, and perhaps a greater depth of flavor.
If you have set the oven to 500°, you’ll only need about 10 minutes to roast the vegetables. You may not have the same depth of flavor, but the vegetables will brown and stay a little more crisp. I like this texture for the pasta salad.
When the vegetables are roasted, allow them to cool to room temperature.
Toss the roasted vegetables with cooked pasta (gluten-free for us, and in this case we used Tinkyada penne), some good Feta or blue cheese, and a simple lemon vinaigrette. Or a red wine vinaigrette. Season with salt and pepper and whatever spices or herbs you might like: pimenton, cumin, tarragon, etc.
Serve and eat.
p.s. I know it’s hot hot hot on the east coast. You could easily roast vegetables on the grill, instead of turning on a hot oven.