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This article was published 15/11/2011 (3188 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
On a warm spring evening at a 2009 food conference, author Michael Ruhlman was at the bar discussing kitchen skills with a powerful cookbook editor.
"In between sips of his mint julep," Ruhlman recalls, "he said to me, 'You know, Michael, I love to cook but I don't seem to be getting any better."'
The author replied that there are "'really only about 20 things you need to know in order to cook just about anything,' and then I watched his eyes light up."
Two years later that conversation has produced Ruhlman's Twenty: 20 Techniques, 100 Recipes, a Cook's Manifesto, a thick but accessible tome aimed at taking your cooking game to the next level -- no matter where you start.
"People have gaps," says Ruhlman. "I have gaps. Everyone has gaps. But that's the great thing about food and cooking. The topic is just inexhaustible. You never know everything. It's why cooking is never boring."
Ruhlman, who co-wrote The French Laundry Cookbook (with chef Thomas Keller) and Charcuterie (with Brian Polcyn) and famously documented his year at the Culinary Institute of America in The Making of a Chef, notes that most of us pick up cooking skills on a need-to-know basis without a teacher at our side.
But he also believes "there are too many cookbooks published each year." So before committing to Ruhlman's Twenty, he explored the subject of teaching cookbooks on his blog and concluded there was "no simple but systematic guide for becoming a better cook."
Not even the Culinary Institute's The Professional Chef?
"I tried to cook from it, but I didn't understand half the terms at the time, and it's a big text," Ruhlman says. "I wanted something simple, something that could make my mom feel more comfortable in the kitchen. And I thought, gosh, if we just understood these basic ideas that apply to everything and explore them a bit, I think we could become better cooks."
The 20 techniques are broken up in chapters that range from Think, Salt, Water and Egg to Grill, Fry and Chill, with plenty of Butter, Batter, Sauce, Soup and Braise in between. Each chapter offers recipes and concepts that build on each other. Recipes are aimed at demonstrating techniques and building confidence while putting something delicious on the dinner table.
Each section is filled with dozens of explanatory photos -- by photojournalist Donna Turner Ruhlman, the author's wife -- that skip the glamour shots and simply illustrate exactly how the different stages of the dish should look in your kitchen.
Many of the early chapters demonstrate what Ruhlman calls tools, which include salt, water, acid, onion, egg and butter. On a recent visit to the Chicago Tribune test kitchen, Ruhlman took on the subject of water by whipping up a weeknight coq au vin.
Instead of using a dry pan, he rendered his bacon chunks and onions in three fingers of water, explaining, "The moist heat helps tenderize the bacon but also pulls out sugars from the onions that help them brown and caramelize in the pan, creating flavours we wouldn't otherwise have. It's a very powerful tool here to extract flavour and develop the texture you are looking for."
Later, he skipped canned chicken broth for, again, water in the sauce, saying, "Why add a mediocre canned chicken stock (he is very pro-homemade stock) when you've got fresh chicken, bacon, onions, garlic, bay (which) already have everything that makes a great stock."
As the kitchen filled with warm, lovely aromas, the dish became a tasty lesson on the role of water as a tenderizer, flavour extractor, flavour melder and tool for rendering a neutral-tasting lard.
"And so once you know it works this way, you can use it in all kinds of applications," he says. "It doesn't have to be a coq au vin; it could be a ratatouille, or beans or a quick pan sauce after a roasted chicken. Pull the roasted chicken off the cast iron pan with skin stuck to the bottom, throw in some onions that get coated with chicken fat and start to caramelize; pour in some wine or water to pull out the sugars and amino acids, and cook it down until it caramelizes; then add water and do it again, finally deglazing into a quick sauce."
Once the author gets started, it's hard to stop his enthusiastic narratives on the easy magic most anyone can pull off with a few simple tools and techniques.
A big fan of family meals, Ruhlman says his ultimate goal for the book is just to make it easier to share home-cooked meals with loved ones and fill your homes with enticing, comforting aromas.
"Our lives are just better when we cook for ourselves," says a man who has worked with some of the world's greatest chefs. "This is even truer than most people realize. Studies show that good cooking smells, for example, affect our nervous system to trigger relaxation. So it's this natural stress reliever that we all need in our busy lives.
"If we would just take some time out to cook, it's pretty clear we would be less stressed, our families would be healthier and our chequebooks would be happier too."
Prep: 25 minutes
Cook: 1 hour, 10 minutes
From Ruhlman's Twenty, by Michael Ruhlman
4 chicken legs
4 ounces bacon strips, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
1 medium onion, finely diced
4 cloves garlic, smashed
3 tablespoons flour
1 carrot, left whole
8 shallots, peeled, left whole
2 bay leaves
1/2 pound white mushrooms, quartered
1 1/2 cups red wine
2 tablespoons honey
Freshly ground pepper
Chopped fresh parsley, grated lemon zest
1. Heat oven to 220C. Place chicken legs on a large baking sheet; roast, 20 minutes. Remove from oven; reduce oven temperature to 165C.
2. Meanwhile, put the bacon, onion and garlic in a large ovenproof skillet or Dutch oven. (The pan should be large enough to hold the chicken legs in one layer.) Add 2 three-finger pinches of salt and enough water just to cover ingredients. Cook over high heat until the water has cooked off, 5 minutes. Reduce the heat to medium-low; cook, stirring, until the onion has begun to caramelize, 5 minutes. Sprinkle with the flour; stir.
3. Nestle the chicken, skin-side-down, into the onion mixture in one layer. Tuck the carrot, shallots and bay leaves into the pan; add mushrooms. (The mushrooms can rest on top if there isn't enough room in the pan; they will cook down.) Add the wine and honey; season with pepper to taste. Add enough water to reach three-quarters of the way up the chicken. Heat to a simmer over high heat; slide the pan, uncovered, into the oven.
4. Cook 20 minutes; turn chicken pieces skin-side up. Stir ingredients to make sure they cook evenly. Taste the sauce; add salt if needed. Return to oven; cook until chicken is tender, about 20 minutes. Remove pan from oven; just the skin side of the chicken should be above the liquid. Broil the chicken until the skin is crisp, 3-4 minutes. Remove and discard carrot and bay leaves. Serve chicken in shallow bowls garnished with parsley and lemon zest.
-- Chicago Tribune
Updated on Wednesday, November 16, 2011 at 10:26 AM CST: Rearranges photos, formats text
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