Welcome to Clueless Chefs, a new cooking column featuring two women with — shall we say — limited culinary skills. For each segment, Pam Harvit and Maria Young will tackle complicated dishes with guidance from some of the best chefs in West Virginia. For this inaugural edition, they turned to Chef Paul Smith of Buzz Food Service for much-needed guidance.
Overcoming ‘Burnt Water,’ by Maria Young
Based on my genetic makeup, I should be a star on the Food Network, or killing it in a swanky, five-star establishment known for its divine mix of flavors and creative presentation. Alas, that’s not the case. And not for a lack of trying! Oh, how I’ve tried.
My mom’s mom was a solid home cook, known for her made-from-scratch biscuits and mouth-watering fried chicken. On my dad’s side, I practically have a culinary pedigree: My grandfather was a professional chef, and my grandmother was an unofficial pastry artist — the aromas of her cooking filled the house. Easter wasn’t Easter without her cast-iron lamb cake.
My poor mom didn’t stand a chance, but she sure tried hard — and took an awful lot of ribbing for her efforts. “Do I smell something burning?” became a family punch line. Her substitutions, in particular, were repeated (and possibly exaggerated) at family gatherings through tears of laughter: No cream cheese? Just use horseradish sauce — they’re both white!
Naturally, I rebelled. In college, I mastered the microwave — seriously. There’s a whole curriculum to be had on the ratio of oven watts to cooking time, and don’t get me started on the complexities of defrosting. Some lessons were learned the hard way, like: It’s important to remove the chicken from your dorm room freezer when you’re heading home for winter break and the place will be without power for several weeks. Oops.
Before we were married, my poor husband assumed that I — being from Louisiana, the land of jambalaya, crawfish pie, file’ gumbo — could cook. He assumed my mom could, too. To this day he remains baffled about his misfortune in this particular department, and he frequently wonders aloud how he managed to find the only two Southern women in the world who don’t know how to cook.
“At all,” he often adds.
Getting married marked a turning point. Slowly, I came to realize the impact of food on family and friends. It can comfort in times of sorrow and compound the joy of a celebration, feeding both body and soul. Nuking a frozen lump of something in a cardboard box just doesn’t have the same effect. I began to see cooking for what it really is: a way to welcome, to nurture and care for the people around you. And I was hooked.
In theory, I love to cook. In reality, I am big on ambition but woefully lacking in both skill and patience. Barely capable of frying an egg, I want to create culinary masterpieces, succulent works of art with my own personal touch. To that end, I have collected enough cool kitchen gadgets to stock a warehouse. No lie. I have cookie cutters in the shape of every continent on earth, icing tips the Cake Boss would envy and a crazy assortment of kitchen tools, many of them a complete mystery to me.
Often my downfall is in the recipe translation. For example, “Cover the chicken with cayenne” does not, in fact, mean “Turn the chicken into a red hot mess that will permanently sear the taste buds off your tongue.”
It should be noted that my mother-in-law is a fabulous cook who comes from a long, proud line of fabulous cooks. The first (and possibly the last)dish I ever cooked for my in-laws was Veal Scaloppine with Marsala, straight from the deceptively titled “Simple Classics” cookbook from Williams Sonoma. Among the many, many lessons of that night: Veal, apparently, does not come from a deer. You’d think the butcher would have clued me in, but no.
My loving step-daughters once entered me in a competition for the nation’s worst cooks. They gleefully made up a song they called “Burnt Water” to accompany the entry form, and sadly had plenty of authentic material to draw on. The last time my pan of food caught fire, I grabbed my cellphone — being a journalist, after all — to snap a photo before reaching for the fire extinguisher to put out the flames. For some reason, that really ticked my husband off.
The truth is, most women I know — heck, most people I know — can cook better than I can. They may not be creating works of art, but dang it, they can feed their families.
In Pam Harvit, she of the Gazette-Mail’s Mind Your Manners etiquette column, I found a kindred spirit, another person both intrigued and baffled by the cooking process. Together, we determined to tackle some of the most complex dishes by turning to some of the best chefs in West Virginia for guidance.
For our inaugural dish, we turned to Chef Paul Smith of Buzz Food Service, which provides meat and produce for many restaurants across the state. Surely, with Paul’s help, we could avoid burning the house down.
Going beyond my indiscernible palate by Pam Harvit
I come from a long line of some pretty incredible cooks. As a child, I remember visiting my great-grandparents on their Pocahontas County farm and watching them cook on a beautiful old Home Comfort wood cook stove.
There was no “preheat the oven to 350 degrees” or “cook on medium-high.” The temperature was determined by the thickness of the wood my grandfather would put in the simmering coals located in belly of the stove.
In the mornings, I would wake up to the smell of bread baking and bacon frying. It was shear olfactory heaven.
When neighbors stopped to visit, my grandfather would offer them fresh-baked bread with a slice of ham. My grandmother was at the ready with a humongous slice of strawberry cake or cherry pie. Needless to say, there was always a constant stream of people in and out of their kitchen.
I still marvel at how they could cook on that old stove. When they were first married, they were cooks for a lumber company based on what is now Snowshoe Mountain. The conditions were primitive, and yet they made it work. My guess is they considered that Home Comfort stove a real luxury after cooking in the primal conditions of that mountain-based company.
My dad’s mother was also a very talented cook. She raised five boys on start-from-scratch dinners every day. Her fried chicken was “other worldly,” and her spaghetti sauce? I could just cry thinking about the sheer deliciousness.
She never used written recipes — everything was in her head. Sadly, when she died in her early 50s, so did her recipes. The family has tried to replicate what she did, but no one has yet succeeded.
My mother, too, is an awesome cook. When we were growing up, she would have a four-course meal on the table in 20 to 25 minutes flat. Her cooking speed and skill is the stuff of legends.
I also have neighbors who are amazing cooks. When I ask how they prepare something, they usually start with “It’s so simple. I just...” You just? No disrespect, but your simple directions sound like a chemistry class to me.
Then there’s me. Not sure what happened, but clearly I did not inherit the cooking gene. Perhaps it’s that I don’t think I have a very discernible palate. For example, I loved camp food (shout out to all my Carbide Camper Peeps), and when Mom would let us have the occasional TV dinner, it was palate ecstasy. I mean who wouldn’t love that little piece of mystery meat bathed in a very salty supposed tomato sauce that would always spill onto the chocolate brownie. Holy cow, I loved that!
And therein lies the problem. I’m not a confident cook. I mean, if a tomato-sauce-covered brownie is sheer bliss to me, how can I trust that what I cook is palatable to anybody else?
Add to my indiscernible palate my desire to cook as healthfully as possible. Therefore, when a recipe calls for a stick of butter, I have been known to use half that amount (or maybe not at all). Salt? Nah — who needs it? Heavy cream — won’t skim milk do? These types of substitutions are a recipe for disaster. Trust me, I know firsthand.
As an example, several years ago I decided to make a healthier version of chocolate chip cookies by using whole wheat instead of regular flour. I was unaware you had to use half regular and half whole wheat. The results were absolutely horrible. The cookies turned out to be a cross between cinder block and sandstone — a sort of chocolate chip mortar. I threw them out and to this day can see traces of them in the yard. The kids use them as stepping stones.
Finally, cooking any kind of meat terrifies me. I usually overcook everything. Maybe it has something to do with the parasitology class I took in college (I’ll save you from those gory details).
When I attempt a filet of fish, I usually overcook it into something that resembles a fish cracker — dry and hard. Baked boneless chicken breasts are rubbery and look more like miniature footballs. Steak resembles shoe leather, and hamburger patties look a lot like hockey pucks.
So when asked to be a part of the Clueless Chefs series, I jumped on the chance. Here’s hoping I can go from clueless cook to confident cook. But in all honesty, at this point, I would settle for palatable.
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Editor’s note: For the first episode of “Clueless Chefs,” we tackled a dish I torched years ago, attempting to create a pleasant meal for my in-laws. The first challenge was locating veal scallops. After searching several grocery stores and local markets to no avail, we turned to the good folks of Paterno’s at the Park, who graciously provided the veal for our dish. We hope they’ll be pleased with the results.
Notes from the “Simple Classics” cookbook: Each scallop should be no more than 4-6 inches square, weighing 1 1/2 to 2 ounces, and pounded to a thickness of 1/4 inch. Cooking the scaloppine successfully depends on having hot oil in a large pan and searing the meat quickly. The sauce is then prepared quickly so the veal has no time to cool.
Notes from Chef Paul: Season as you go, adding salt and pepper to the meat as well as the flour. When pouring a flammable liquid into a hot pan, turn the flames off, add the liquid, then turn the flames back on. For best results, don’t use a cooking wine, use a wine you would actually choose to drink. And when it comes to plating your dish, practice the drip-and-drag technique for a picture-perfect presentation.
Veal Scallopine with Marsala
12-16 thin veal scallops, 1 1/2-2 ounces each
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
3-4 tablespoons vegetable oil
12 fresh sage leaves, plus extra for garnish
1/3 cup dry Marsala, preferably Italian
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
salt and freshly ground pepper
lemon slices for garnish
Trim any excess fat or thin white skin remaining on the veal scallops.
Make 3-4 small cuts around the edge of each scallop using a sharp knife to help keep them flat while cooking.
Place each scallop between two sheets of waxed paper or plastic wrap and, using a meat pounder or the side of a heavy cleaver blade, pound to flatten to an even thickness of 1/8 to 1/4 inch.
Pat dry with paper towels.
Spread flour on a large plate.
Dip half of the veal scallops in the flour, coating them evenly and shaking off excess.
Warm 3 tablespoons of oil in a large sautee pan or frying pan over high heat.
Add the flour-coated slices to the pan when hot along with half of the sage leaves.
Sear the meat quickly, turning once, until lightly browned, 40-50 seconds on each side.
Transfer the veal to a warmed plate along with the sage leaves.
Repeat with the remaining veal scallops and sage leaves, adding more oil to the pan if necessary.
Pour off the oil in the pan.
Place the pan over high heat and add the Marsala.
Cook, stirring to dislodge any browned bits, until reduced and thickened, 2-3 minutes.
Add the butter and stir until blended.
Season to taste with salt and pepper.
Return the meat, with any juices, and the sage leaves to the pan and turn the meat over twice to coat well with the sauce.
Transfer the veal and sage leaves to a warmed serving platter or warmed individual plates and spoon the sauce on top.
Garnish with fresh sage leaves and lemon slices.