One game-changing recipe can make you a better cook

Bethany Jean Clement
The Seattle Times

A recipe doesn’t trust you; you have to trust it. And the best recipe — or so we’ve learned from everyone from Betty Crocker to Julia Child, Cook’s Illustrated and Modernist Cuisine — is a super-specific one, tested, adjusted, exacting. You need a roster of ingredients in precise amounts, followed by all the steps for putting it together — along other avenues lies madness and, potentially, disaster. Especially if you’re a less experienced — or just more anxious — cook, the recipe guarantees that what you make will be good … right?

Tasting what you’re making is something very few recipes recommend, not to mention what to do if you’re unhappy with the taste. And if you simply follow traditional recipes, it can take a very long time to go from being an insecure (even scared) cook to an intuitive (even happy!) one.

What if a recipe was more like some informal directions from a friend — which that friend could help you vary, depending on what you’re in the mood for and what you have on hand?

Reading the introduction to Susan Volland’s new cookbook, “Searing Inspiration,” got me thinking about how uncomplicated recipes can be — and how good ones can accelerate timid cooks to that ineffable turning point of confidence. A Seattle chef and writer, Volland’s dealt with the outer limits of cooking complexity (and intimidation!): testing recipes for the highly scientific, cutting-edge, multivolume Modernist Cuisine tomes. But her hope for “Searing” is, she writes, that “you will become more comfortable with your ingredients and tools, will cook with more spontaneity, and, eventually, will trust your own taste and instincts enough to create unique dishes with ingredients on hand rather than be strictly bound to written recipes.” Yes! And the book’s full of adaptable recipes for fast entrees, each with its own sauce made in the same pan. Every dish involves the same three basic steps: “Sear. Deglaze. Embellish.” Sounds good!

The very back of the book, though, is where to find the all-prose, free-form recipe at its heart: It’s-Been-a-Long-Damn-Day-Wine-from-Your-Glass Pan Sauce. When Volland included it in her first cookbook, “Mastering Sauces,” the Long-Damn-Day sorta-kinda recipe got a ton of feedback. “People said, ‘That’s how I want to cook,’” Volland relates. “And I said, “OK, I’ll write a book that way.” She went after “a conversational tone that isn’t scary, that is informative — I think that’s how people learn,” she says. “Hopefully!”

It’s an immensely reassuring approach, and both worried novices and more advanced, adventurous cooks can benefit from both the Long-Damn-Day and the more specific recipes in the book (one Volland points to as particularly flexible is Chicken with Garlic, Greens and Salty Cheese). “I was raised in this sort of irreverent, throw-things-in-until-it-tastes-good way,” Volland says. (Maybe some kind of Throw-Things-in-Until-It-Tastes-Good prose-recipe is in order?) Her husband, she says, is a “very nervous” kind of cook, most comfortable with a recipe to follow and, if necessary, blame. “I always have him in mind,” when developing recipes, she says. “But I try to explain why you can branch out and kind of trust your own taste and flavors and perceptions” — what you’re seeing, smelling and even hearing, she notes.

“You have to taste your sauce,” she stresses — and trust your own taste, not try to hit some imaginary objective. If you get it to where you like the flavor and the texture, she points out, “There’s a guarantee that one person at the table will be happy!”

And even though she’s cooked in the beyond-fully-tricked-out Modernist Cuisine Cooking Lab, she says you don’t need fancy equipment — at home, she’s got an electric range and a $24 cast-iron skillet. Just don’t use a nonstick pan for searing, she notes. Add tongs and a wooden spoon, and stay stocked with some basics — shallots, garlic, good olive oil, a bottle of dry vermouth, fresh herbs and butter – and you’re pretty much set. And here, a glass of wine while you’re cooking is strongly recommended. As Julia Child said, “I enjoy cooking with wine — sometimes I even put it in the food.”

It’s-Been-a-Long-Damn-Day-Wine-From-Your-Glass Pan Sauce

From “Searing Inspiration: Fast, Adaptable Entrees and Fresh Pan Sauces,” by Susan Volland

“I will boldly assume that if you are enjoying a glass of wine with dinner,” Volland writes, “you have chosen something taste-appropriate to your ingredients … stick with the accepted generalizations: reds with dark meats, whites with lighter meats and seafood … Ales and hard cider also make good pan sauces, but they tend to need more concentration to become as flavorful as wine. Stocks, broths and some juices (she’s lately into deglazing with carrot juice!) can also work.”

Prep: Choose a quick-cooking entree such as boneless chicken, thin steaks, fish fillets, shrimp or firm tofu. Pat dry and season generously with salt and pepper. Dredge lightly in flour if the food is wet or soft, like tender fish fillets.

Sear: Heat a large skillet over medium-high heat. When it is hot, swirl in enough oil or clarified butter to just coat the bottom. Arrange the food in the pan so the pieces are evenly spaced. They should each sizzle as they touch the hot pan. Sear until browned on the first side. Flip. Brown on the other side and then continue cooking, flipping as needed, until just done. If the pieces are very thin and quick-cooking, they may actually be cooked through before the second side is thoroughly browned. If the pieces are thick or uneven, reduce the heat after the first flip and consider a secondary technique like steaming or pan-roasting. (Here Volland refers the reader to “Searing Inspiration” tables for more information.) Lift the cooked food out of the pan onto a clean platter or plates, then remove the pan from the heat if you have not already done so.

Add aromatics: Discard the cooking oil and analyze the pan residue. Remove any burnt residue or unappealing bits. Let the pan cool slightly if it is very hot, and wipe it clean if necessary. Add fresh oil or butter and saute some aromatics such as minced shallots, onion, garlic, tomatoes and/or chilies. Do not let them burn.

Deglaze: Pour in enough complementary wine, beer, or cider (or juice or good-quality stock) to cover the bottom of the pan. It will instantly bubble and start to evaporate. Use a wooden spoon to soften and dissolve any brown residue. Simmer until the alcohol loses the strong, sharp, “raw” aroma. For a more concentrated, intense sauce, simmer longer. You should end up with about 2 tablespoons of intensely flavored liquid per serving.

Embellish: To enrich a sauce, stir in some cold butter, heavy cream or good flavorful oil at the end. A teaspoon or two per person is fine. Add additional flavorings or ingredients such as Dijon mustard, chopped fresh herbs and/or a squeeze of lemon if you like. Taste and adjust the seasoning with salt and pepper as necessary. Return the seared ingredient(s) to the pan to coat with sauce, or simply pour the sauce over your entree. Serve immediately.