Chances are that you already cook in the bistro style at home but are not aware of it. Chicken cacciatore, beef stew, and chocolate pudding could all be candidates for bistro fare. (In fact, there are versions of each in this book, but they go by the names coq au vin, beef Bourguignon, and pot de creme.) Bistro cooking is delicious, but it's not fussy. You don't need to be a trained chef to execute it well, but there are some key things to think about as you approach these recipes.
Sometimes it's great ingredients that will make all the difference: dry untreated scallops, good-quality chicken stock, authentic sherry vinegar, ripe pears. Other times technique matters most: keeping duck legs at a slow simmer for confit, whisking eggs and oil properly for aroli, searing a rib-eye until well browned. Of course, high-quality ingredients combined with informed technique will always give you the best results. In the pages that follow, I talk about the key ingredients used in bistro cooking and describe my approach to various cooking methods.
Searing is believing. Many bistro recipes begin with this step--essentially browning food in a hot pan coated with a little oil--because it's a great way to build flavor. Searing gives the food, whether it's a rack of lamb, a bunch of mushrooms, or some chicken thighs, a ton of flavor. The browned bits left on the bottom of the pan after searing also add flavor to any sauce that you make in the pan. To sear well, use a pan with a heavy base that's large enough to hold the food without crowding. Heat the pan and then add enough fat--butter, oil, duck fat, or a combination--to just coat thebottom. When the oil is hot--a drop of water will sizzle immediately when added to the pan--add your food to the pan. Don't crowd it in there or it will steam; be sure you can see some of the pan around each piece. Now, here is the important thing: Don't move the food. Let one side get good and brown before you turn the food over. This often takes longer than you think. Then sear the other side (or sides depending on what you are cooking) before moving on to the rest of the recipe.
The best bets for braising. Braising is my favorite cooking method. For one thing, braising transforms tough, cheaper cuts of meat into meltingly tender morsels. For another, braises usually dirty just one pot and taste best when made ahead, all of which add to their efficiency. Most of my braises begin with browning (see Searing Is Believing), which gives the dish a huge head start in flavor. Next comes a saute of aromatic vegetables. The food is then surrounded by a flavorful liquid, often wine and broth, and left to simmer quietly in the oven, all the while building in flavor. You want to use a heavy-based pan in which the food fits snugly. As is traditional, I cook my braises covered, but I often uncover the pot toward the end of cooking to begin to concentrate the flavors in the liquid and let the contents brown a bit. When the cover is off for an extended period of time, however, you need to baste or turn the meat over, so that the exposed side doesn't dry out.
One mistake often made with braising is thinking the meat is done before it is; the meat should be so tender that you can pull it apart easily with a fork. The time this takes can vary; use the given time as a guide, but use the fork test for best results. Keep this in mind when reheating a braise. Cook it gently and don't call it ready until the meat reaches that same degree of tenderness as when it originally came out of the oven.
Degreasing the braising liquid is crucial, especially when cooking something fatty such as lamb shanks. To degrease the liquid, use a gravy separator to pour off the fat, or allow the liquid to chill and remove the hardened fat with a spoon. Cook the degreased sauce (remove the meat first) until the sauce is reduced somewhat and the flavor is intensified.
"Walk-away" roasting makes life easier. Every chef does things a little differently. For a while, the trend for roasting was to start with the oven on very high heat for a certain amount of time, then lowering it to finish. Another variation has you crank up the heat at the end. I prefer to roast with a moderate oven temperature and the same temperature from start to finish. I can pop the bird or beast into the oven, walk away, and then forget about it for a while. It's not just the ease of preparation that leads me to roast this way; I find that roasting longer at a more moderate temperature gives me juicier results. But because this moderate roasting can result in a less browned exterior, I often sear the meat before roasting it.
There are sensory clues to tell if a roast is done, and I always include them in my recipes. But a sure way is to take its temperature with a meat thermometer. The temperatures given in the recipes are for taking the meat out of the oven. As it rests, it will continue to cook with the residual heat.
"Sear roasting" makes room on the stove and helps food cook evenly. At most restaurants, the stovetop is prime real estate. That's why so many chefs employ a technique called "sear roasting" or "pan roasting." A piece of meat, fish, poultry, or vegetable gets seared on the stove and then finishes cooking, usually for just a few minutes, in the oven. Aside from creating space on the stove, finishing the food in the oven cooks it evenly, and often more gently, for the most tender results. One warning: Be careful of hot handles. You might notice that professional chefs almost always wrap a towel around a saute pan's handle--whether or not the pan is even near the heat--before picking it up. It's a habit you develop quickly after burning your palm on an innocent-looking yet searingly hot handle. At home, try slipping a pot holder onto the handle as soon as you take the pan out of the oven, so that when you reach for it again you won't yelp with pain.
Sauteing, braising, and roasting may be the main methods employed in bistro cooking, but it's helpful to know some specialized techniques, too.
To blanch means to parcook something in boiling water, usually until just tender. A tip: Have ready a bowl of ice water to immediately stop the cooking.
A chiffonade means leafy greens or herbs cut into thin strips. To cut a chiffonade efficiently, stack the leaves, roll them into a tight cylinder, and slice crosswise with a very sharp knife to create thin ribbons.
To chop an onion efficiently, start with a very sharp knife. Cut the onion in half through the root, leaving the root intact. Put the onion cut side down and make 6 or 7 lengthwise (with-the-"grain") slices up to, but not through, the root to keep the slices together. Turn the knife blade parallel to the cutting board and carefully make 3 or 4 horizontal slices (depending on desired thickness) toward the root end. Finally, slice the onion crosswise. This method also works well on shallots, garlic cloves, and even fennel.
To toast nuts for deeper flavor, spread them on a baking sheet and cook them in a 350¡F oven, stirring them once or twice for even cooking, for 5 to 10 minutes, depending on the size of the nut. Or toast them in a dry skillet on the stove over medium heat, shaking the skillet occasionally for even cooking. Either way, check on them often to keep them from burning.
A note on cooling food safely: Cool down large amounts of soup or stew before chilling them. Foods spoil most easily at temperatures between 70 and 120 degrees. The faster you cool foods down to below 70 degrees, the less time they will be in the danger zone. Small containers are okay in the fridge, but a large pot will stay warm for a while. Set the food in a container in a larger bath of water and ice; stirring the food will speed cooling. Refrigerate the food only when it reaches room temperature.
I am not a gadgety guy when it comes to cooking, and there aren't really any tools specific to bistro cooking, but I do have some opinions on the tools I do use. So here goes:
Knives: Buy the best ones you can afford and keep them sharp.
Chef's knife: Also called a French knife, it has a wide, heavy blade. Get the biggest size you can handle well; a 10-inch knife works for most people. But obviously hand sizes differ. Before buying a knife, hold it in your hand. It should feel sturdy but not too heavy. It should also feel well balanced. Good-quality knives will have the tail of the blade running the full length of the handle. I find carbon-steel blades easier to keep sharp, and I like that they're a little lighter than stainless steel. When I find one I like, I buy them for the restaurant by the half dozen.
When using a chef's knife, go ahead and choke up on the handle for better control. You can even move your thumb and index finger onto either side of the blade, gripping the handle with the back three fingers. This is a good way to hold the knife for precise cuts. For less precise cutting, such as chopping herbs, move all of your fingers back on the handle. To chop herbs quickly, hold the tip of the knife down on the cutting board with one hand while you lift the handle up and down with the other, sweeping the blade across what you are chopping.
Boning knife: The second most-used knife in my kitchen is a boning knife. It seems this is not a common one in most home knife collections. But its short, sharp, semiflexible blade makes boning a chicken, filleting a fish, or butterflying a leg of lamb so much easier. Once you try one you will be amazed that you ever cooked without one.
Paring knife: Every kitchen has one or more of these knives, which are essential for fine work and peeling. Once again, look for one that feels good in your hand and has a sturdy blade; some versions have very wimpy, thin blades that are almost useless.
A 6-inch utility knife: For when you don't need the big guns of a chef's knife, and it can stand in for filleting a fish in a pinch.
Pots and pans: I love cast iron and cook everything I can in it. It's got a heavy base and conducts heat in a great way. Once it gets hot, it stays hot with no hot spots. I once bought a round, 24-inch cast-iron pan with sides 3 inches high for the restaurant. The cooks looked at me like I was nuts. Two weeks later, they asked me to order two more. We do everything in it, from roasting birds to making polenta. Cast iron is also really cheap. People get nervous about it because you have to season it, but that just means coating the pan with oil and letting it heat in a 375¡F oven for a couple of hours. Then you have a virtually nonstick interior that gets better every time you use it. Enameled cast iron, which has a light-colored interior, heats as well as uncoated cast iron and doesn't need to be seasoned. It also won't react with acidic food. It's not cheap, however.
As for the styles of pots and pans you'll need: Heavy-based roasting pans and braising pots (often called Dutch ovens) are especially crucial for the success of the long-cooked roasts and braises. A saute pan that's large enough to hold your steaks or burgers without crowding--one that's at least 12 inches across if you often cook for four--makes all the difference in getting good browning. In many of these recipes, the saute pans go into the oven, so be sure yours are ovenproof.
Other "must-haves" include a couple of saucepans. Here is where you might want to opt for a stainless interior instead of cast iron to allow you to see a sauce better, especially important when gauging the color of a caramel, for instance.
A good nonstick pan comes in handy, especially for searing fish and duck. But I don't recommend nonstick interiors for roasting pans; those flavorful juicy bits that stick to a regular pan add flavor to sauces. Speaking of roasting pans, I prefer a flat roasting rack to a V-shaped one.
Tongs: I use tongs so much in the kitchen they are practically an extension of my hands. I use them for the obvious--turning over meat or fish that I'm searing--and the less obvious: fishing for a french fry to taste for doneness, lifting ramekins out of their hot water bath, grabbing baked potatoes out of the oven. Tongs should be long enough to keep your hand away from the heat, but short enough to offer good control, about 12 inches seems right. They must have a spring-action handle. A lock on the handle makes them easy to store, but they'll probably be out all the time anyway.
Thermometers: An instant-read meat thermometer is a handy tool to ensure that you cook a roast safely without overcooking it. As you take the temperature of your foods, also note the physical signs of doneness. Over time, you will need to rely less and less on the thermometer to tell when food is cooked to your liking. A candy/frying thermometer will come in handy for making the pommes frites in this book, and you will likely find other uses for it as well. You might also want to buy an oven thermometer, since oven temperatures can vary widely, affecting cooking times greatly.
To cook in the bistro style at home does not require a pantry filled with exotic or unusual ingredients. Most of the items I define and describe here can be found in your supermarket.
As I tested the recipes for this book, I did most of my shopping at the supermarket. (We restaurant chefs can get a bit spoiled; we order the best produce, fish, and meat for the restaurant and just tack a little more on if we want some for home.) What I found as I shopped was that the folks working at the store were more than happy to help. Your supermarket butcher will cut a roast to size, french a rack of lamb, or order a special cut of meat for you. You just have to ask. As with my suppliers for the restaurant, I find that the more genuine interest I show in what they have to offer, the more interest they show in me. So talk to the folks working at the grocery store. If the whole side of salmon they ordered and cleaned for you was fabulous, let them know. If you wish the market carried saffron, chanterelles, or skirt steak, tell the head of the appropriate department. The way most supermarkets are designed, you may have to look hard to actually find the right person to talk to, but you'll be glad you did.
Copyright© 2003 by Gordon Hamersley with Joanne McAllister Smart