Being Bruce -: What Kind of Cook Are You? - Do Recipes or Ingredients Rule?

Monday, November 3, 2008

What Kind of Cook Are You? - Do Recipes or Ingredients Rule?

“The discovery of a new dish does more for the happiness of mankind than the discovery of a star.” - Anthelme Brillat-Savarin (1755-1826)

With all respect to our busy lifestyles and easy-to-nuke foods, there are only two kinds of real cooks: recipe cooks and ingredient cooks. Successful recipe cooks follow instructions exactly and, assuming they start with good recipes, can knock out good food consistently. My conception of a very good recipe cook is someone who consistently has a well-stocked kitchen – or who shops a lot. Ingredient cooks, on the other hand, compose their own recipes. Ingredient cooks may start in the kitchen, preparing a meal based on what’s on hand, or at the grocery or market, wandering around choosing what looks, smells, and, possibly, feels right. Which type of cook are you?

I’d love to hear other views on this, or get a vote on how many people who actually cook consider themselves recipe- or ingredient-driven. I fall into the latter group. When I actually cook (which is not the same as “preparing” or “getting out a meal”), I like to start without a preconceived idea and let the universe guide the process. It turns out my universe responds best when I start the process by dolloping olive oil into a heated garlic-rubbed pan to set the mood. I particularly like to just start cooking this way and then scurry around our kitchen looking in cabinets and in the fridge and freezer to see what’s next to put in the pan or what looks like a great accompaniment to whatever will eventually come out of the pan.

The end result is usually edible. As the years have gone by I’ve gotten better at preparing food people can actually eat. And every few years I am guided to create a meal that works well enough that I later capture it on paper so I can re-create it and share it with others. This article is about such a meal; based on a recipe we later called “Vineyard Chicken”.

In 1996 I came up with a chicken dish that had several twists. I considered calling it Chicken Surprise, but that sounded too much like dorm food and had scary implications. My second suggestion for a name for the dish was Chicken Gimmick since I thought it a bit “gimmicky”, but my wife thought that would turn people off. So, since we had a place on Martha’s Vineyard at the time, we named it Vineyard Chicken, and it’s been a family favorite ever since.

Vineyard Chicken

1 pound boneless, skinless chicken breast with all fat removed, cut into chunks or strips
2 medium plum tomatoes, cut into chunks
2 oz. feta cheese
1 Granny Smith green apple, cut into chunks
1 medium onion, chopped
1 green pepper, chopped
1 cup extra virgin olive oil
Minced garlic
Coarse or freshly grated black pepper
Fresh or dried sweet basil

How to make it:
Heat some extra virgin olive oil in a large pan on medium heat
Add minced garlic and chopped onion, cook for a bit
Add chunks or strips of chicken breast and cook till no pink showing
Add black pepper, basil, and oregano (be generous)
Add apple and tomato chunks, cook for a minute or two (don’t overcook!)
Drizzle on more olive oil
Add chopped green pepper, cook for another minute or so
Stir in feta cheese, cook for just about another minute

Serve over rice or with pita bread.

Local note, now that we live in Wilmington, NC, we have served it with grits, and that's great, too. So, maybe served that way it should be called Wilmington Chicken.

Serves four restrained eaters, two enthusiastic ones.

Tip: Once you’re sure the chicken is cooked thoroughly, turn up the heat a bit. Don’t overcook the apple, tomato, or green pepper, their respective textures make the dish an OK meal or a raging success.