Sunday, December 11, 2005

The best ingredients

There's a cooking truism to the effect that a meal's quality depends directly on the quality of the ingredients. The freshest produce and meat, unadulterated seasonings; all of these will combine for a fine meal. Reality being what it is, however, every cook without unlimited time and an unlimited bankroll (i.e., most of us) has to make certain tradeoffs. Sometimes these tradeoffs can be downright idiosyncratic. In my case, I hardly ever cook with frozen fish; I want it as fresh as I can get it, or at least bought the same day I eat it. On the other hand, I think nothing of buying beef, pork or poultry and tossing it into the freezer until I want it. Go figure.

Yesterday I tried making a variant of rosemary chicken. I started with the big skillet, which had had bacon fried in it recently (the bacon has no further part in this meal). I added a bit of vegetable oil to eke out the traces of bacon grease and the remaining crusty bits, then stir-fried quarter of a cup of sliced onion for a minute. Then I added some sliced chicken tenderloin and stir-fried until it had mostly turned color. The onions and chicken picked up the browned bacon leftovers from the skillet quite nicely, cleaning the pan up. I then added half a cup of homemade Chinese-style turkey-chicken stock, brought it to a boil, and did the same with half a cup of sake (the real stuff, not cooking sake).

I removed the chicken pieces with a slotted spoon and got to work on the sauce. A bit of salt and pepper to taste livened it up a bit, as did half a teaspoon of sliced fresh rosemary. From there, I just reduced the sauce. As it reduced, it remained close to the "au jus" end of the spectrum, so I added a teaspoon of cornstarch to thicken it up. This did the trick and soon I was pouring the chicken and the sauce over a big pile of jasmine rice.

The sauce tasted wonderful as it was bubbling away in the pan, but it was quickly lost in the pile of jasmine rice, becoming a mere shadow of a memory. This threw the spotlight squarely on the chicken which, it quickly became evident, was not quite ready for prime time. It was tender and moist, but it had an off-putting cardboard-like aftertaste. It was still edible, but clearly it had sat in the freezer a little too long.

Little details mean a lot. The sauce was perfect, but there was too much rice to absorb it. The meat was the right consistency, but just not fresh enough. On the other hand, there's reason to be hopeful. With just a few minor changes, last night's disappointment is sure to become another evening's beautiful centerpiece.

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