Taste & Technique: Recipes to Elevate Your Home Cooking - Naomi Pomeroy (2016)
When I was seven years old, my mother taught me how to make a soufflé. An expert in making something from nothing, my mom was a military brat who spent her early adolescence in rural France and grew up loving food and rock and roll. Fast-forward to the late 1970s and early 1980s and she was a single mom raising me in Corvallis, Oregon. Getting by on clever resourcefulness, we lived in a house meticulously decorated with thrift-store finds and tended the little garden behind it.
Our food-stamp stipend always included rations of flour, eggs, milk, cheese, and butter. Luckily, they also happen to be the ingredients for a soufflé. We’d add all sorts of extras: in the winter, it might just be cheese; in the summer, we’d mix in puréed vegetables from the garden. Nowadays when I tell people that my mom and I ate soufflés three times a week, they’re always impressed. What I learned from my mother in all of this is that you can’t really ruin a soufflé. Even if it doesn’t rise as dramatically as a glossy magazine would have you believe it should, chances are it still tastes great. It’s just a few eggs. They shouldn’t intimidate you.
Both of my parents were big into food. In the same year that I made my first soufflé, my dad and stepmom ripped out their front lawn and planted an edible garden, and I learned pretty quickly that cooking was a good way to take care of people. My dad’s mother, a tough southern lady if ever there was one, spent hours with my grandfather picking through hundreds of pounds of pecans, hand-shelling each one, to send out as gifts to the family. That’s hospitality at its most stripped-down level. There’s a joy that comes from making something for someone, and that’s part of the reason why I spent more time baking elaborate birthday cakes and throwing dinner parties for my friends during my college years than I did writing history essays.
During those same years, I started working summers at a catering company in Ashland, Oregon. The owner, Jean Kowacki, a Culinary Institute of America-trained chef, kept saying, “You’re so young and smart, you shouldn’t get into this business. It’s not a business for nice people—it’s for alcoholics and assholes.” But I knew I couldn’t follow her advice. I was falling in love with cooking and the adrenaline rush that came from acting on your feet. It was totally addictive.
After college, I began dating Michael Hebb, the man with whom I eventually founded several businesses and who later became the father of my child. He suggested that we start our own catering company, which we called Ripe. For our logo, we “borrowed” the woodblock print of chickpeas from the Chez Panisse Vegetables cookbook. We didn’t have a commercial kitchen, or any professional equipment. Everything happened out of our house, the lower level of a duplex in a shady part of Portland, Oregon. We had a small electric range, a twenty year-old BMW, and not much else.
Despite all that, word about Ripe spread quickly, and I began cooking like crazy, teaching myself to do everything, from butchering to making stock, using cookbooks that I read voraciously. I must have cooked through The Kitchen Sessions with Charlie Trotter a hundred times, finally getting the sear on my scallops just so. I learned about balance, acidity, and seasoning from The Elements of Taste by Gray Kunz and Peter Kaminsky; worked my way through all of the different types of duck confit in Madeleine Kamman’s The New Making of a Cook; and learned how to shop for produce from Alice Waters’s Chez Panisse Vegetables. The more I cooked, the more I realized that great food starts with a handful of great building blocks. Once I knew how to make stock, then I could make demi-glace. Once I mastered the basic pâte sucrée recipe in Nancy Silverton’s Pastries from the La Brea Bakery, I could turn out dozens of different tarts. I still had a lot to learn, but I was starting to see how the pieces fit together.
In 2000, after our daughter, August, was born, Michael and I decided to start hosting dinner parties at our house as a way to see our friends and meet new people. We didn’t really own what we needed to throw a dinner party, however, so Michael “built” a table by setting a couple of hollow-core doors on top of sawhorses, we asked guests to bring their own chairs, and we rented plates and silverware. We also suggested that everyone chip in a few dollars to help cover costs. I cooked whatever I was in the mood for. It was a chance for me to experiment in the kitchen.
The first dinner was a hit, so we did it again. We had an e-mail list, and the first eight people to respond got a seat, the only requirement being that they had to bring someone new. That way, we were always assured a mix of different people. We started doing the dinners twice a month, but the list kept growing, and people started clamoring for seats. Our underground dinner parties dovetailed with the strong DIY ethos pervading Portland, and we started getting some attention from the press. Eventually we gave the dinners a name: Family Supper. We even received a letter from Charlie Trotter in praise of our efforts.
A few months later, we took over a commercial kitchen space in a renovated mattress factory and moved the dinners to the sprawling, raw space of beautiful old Douglas fir floors, a skylight, and exposed brick walls. We’d prep for our catering gigs during the day and throw Family Supper, which was now operating as a legitimate restaurant, at night. A lot of chefs were moving to Portland at the time, and they wanted to break out of the routine of toiling in other people’s kitchens and instead work with other young, high-energy chefs who weren’t following the old rules. I had no formal culinary training and little traditional restaurant experience, so the way we worked was totally different from the traditional model, a suppressive approach where one person (usually an older man) was in charge and always right. Some chefs are afraid to hire people who are better than them, but I was thrilled to learn from experienced cooks.
In 2004, we opened clarklewis. Our amazing chef, Morgan Brownlow, taught me the importance of seasonality and how to choose our purveyors carefully. He knew how to talk to the farmers at the market. He showed me how to set up a mise en place (literally “to put in place,” or the process of organizing yourself and your ingredients) to maximize efficiency and minimize mess. Morgan also taught me how to move in the kitchen. He was like a ninja; all of his actions were so graceful. Even when hurried, he was still calm and focused. That’s when I began to realize that cooking is a dance, and knowing this has had an enormous impact on the way I carry myself at work to this day.
In April 2005, we opened Gotham Tavern with Tommy Habetz, one of our favorite chefs from the catering business, running the kitchen. We billed it as a gastropub, and it is where I picked up a lot of the little tricks that set professional chefs apart from home cooks, like how to emulsify pasta with a bit of the cooking water for starch, which is something Tommy had learned from working with Mario Batali in New York. I also honed my skills at writing of-the-moment menus that captured the best of what was in season that week, and I spent a lot of time thinking about how all of the elements of a dish should work together on the plate.
Michael and I had broken up as a couple by this point, but we were still running the restaurants together. In April 2006, things started to fall apart. Michael came to me privately and said, “We’re not going to make payroll.” We had never really paid attention to costs at any of the restaurants, foolishly thinking that because we were busy we were making money. As it turned out, we were spending more than we were making. There was no way we’d be able to pay back our investors. We shut down Gotham Tavern immediately to avoid incurring more debt, and Michael distanced himself from the situation. I spent a few more months working with lawyers and accountants to restructure clarklewis so it could be sold to the investor to whom we owed the most money, and I filed for bankruptcy.
I took some time to lick my wounds and figure out what my next move was. I had just very publicly closed three restaurants and had lost ninety employees and a significant amount of money. I had the seeds of a new idea in mind, but I was nervous about going ahead with it. A big voice in my head said, “You’re a failure,” but a bigger voice said, “You have nothing left to lose.” So I decided to go back to my roots, and that’s how Beast was born.
The Rise of Beast
I started throwing underground dinner parties at my house again with one of the best cooks from clarklewis, Mika Paredes. These back-to-basics meals—no waitstaff, BYOB, composed plates served in the backyard—became the basis for Beast. When it opened in September 2007, I really didn’t know if it would be successful. I was afraid my passion wouldn’t carry me and that the whole thing might fail. But I had a choice about how I reacted to what happened in my life, and I realized how important it was to move forward, rather than let my failures paralyze me. So, I picked up the pieces and got back to the stove.
When Beast first opened, Mika and I had virtually nothing. It was like the start of my catering days all over again. There was no stove, only two tiny electric induction burners and no hood, so we’d go to the restaurant next door to sear all of our meat. We put together two big communal tables for a purely practical reason: you can seat more people that way. We decided to have only two seatings each night, and we settled on a set menu because we had to. With only a tiny open kitchen, we could not cater to dozens of different orders. It was like planning a dinner party every evening, and we deliberately went with an aesthetic that made the space feel comfortable, like a home.
From the start, we were committed to creating an enjoyable environment, for both our customers, who were eating in what was essentially our home, and for us, because the mood you take into the kitchen really does translate to the food. We had fun cooking, and people picked up on that. Our cooking at Beast has grown more polished over the years, but we’ve always worked to create an enjoyable atmosphere as much as we work to make great food.
The most valuable thing I’ve learned since opening Beast is the importance of teaching, and how to translate my experiences in a way that helps others learn to cook. My staff may make a mistake the first time, but that’s just part of the learning process. The key is to ensure that they improve the next time. As I’ve matured as a chef, I’ve learned to step back and take pleasure in helping others find confidence in their own ability to get the job done.
That’s why I’m writing this book now. Over the years, I’ve learned a lot—much of it the hard way—from books and other cooks, but at the end of the day, I’m a self-taught chef. How I got here largely has to do with developing and sharpening my habits through a series of culinary “building blocks.”
How This Book Works
Building blocks are the foundations that allow you to become truly comfortable in the kitchen. It can be a single technique, such as whipping cream, which you could do with an electric mixer but should do by hand to understand the mechanics of incorporating air into liquid. Or it might be an ingredient that you deploy over and over again, such as homemade stock, which can be used as is or reduced to a demi-glace or clarified for consommé. I hope that as you cook your way through this book and see how techniques and ingredients fit together and build off of one another, you will master an arsenal of building blocks that will boost your kitchen confidence.
That brings me to my next point: cooking should be a pleasure. All too often I hear home cooks talk about being scared, overwhelmed, or otherwise intimidated by the prospect of getting into the kitchen. I get it. No one has the time to spend hours shopping, preparing, and presenting a magazine-worthy spread on a daily basis. But you can go a long way toward having a better time and making a better meal by simply setting the right mood for yourself as soon as you begin to cook (or even think about cooking). I am a pragmatic person, but this is one of those times that my West Coast hippie upbringing shows through: if you’re having a miserable day and you go into the kitchen carrying that energy, the food you make will absolutely not taste as good as if you entered the kitchen in a better mood. Cooking is more than a physical act. Indeed, it is every bit as emotional as any other art form.
Where should you begin? First, think about what to cook. I often start by choosing my protein. Let’s say I want to prepare beef. Seasonality often naturally dictates the specifics: If it’s July and humid, I won’t want the oven on for hours, so I might choose to quickly sear a thin marinated flat iron steak. In the depths of winter, chances are I’ll crave something rich and comforting, like braised short ribs.
From there, I start to consider what else to make with the beef. It’s all about creating balance within a meal: the flavors, textures, and even colors of your dinner should be complementary but still distinct, and seasonally appropriate. Take those braised short ribs I’m making in December. Because of all of the bone and connective tissue in a rib, they’re rich, with a deeply meaty flavor. So I’ll think of a side dish that contrasts with the taste, texture, and appearance of the meat and that features in-season produce, such as Orange-Caraway Glazed Carrots. The carrots provide a bright blast of color and a sweet-and-sour quality that helps cut some of the richness of the beef, and the caraway seasoning complements the earthiness of the meat, tying all of the elements together. For a final touch, I’ll make a quick Horseradish Gremolata, which offers an herbaceous note that brings a needed freshness to the dish.
That’s enough to make a beautiful meal: three simple ingredients—beef, carrots, horseradish—prepared with attention to how their textures and flavors interact. It’s important to strive for balance within each individual component, whether it’s a side dish or main course. Even something as seemingly minor as a garnish of crème fraîche deserves the attention of seasoning: salt, pepper, or a squeeze of fresh lemon juice. I say this not to make beginner cooks nervous but to encourage you to pay attention to every element of your meal. As I’ve matured as a cook, I have learned that balance and restraint are two of the best skills a chef can have. All of the recipes in this book are balanced, and as you cook your way through them, you too will hone your understanding of how a dish should taste. It won’t take long before you start to train your palate, though it will take practice to perfect it.
When you’re deciding what to cook, go to the farmers’ market to see and taste what’s available. If the ingredients you were planning to buy don’t look or taste good, reconsider what you intended to make. The menu at Beast changes every week, largely depending on what produce looks and tastes best within those seven days. Subpar raw materials result in subpar finished dishes. And although this is something that took me a long time to learn, you must keep in mind the power of simplicity: a salad made with tender Little Gem lettuces needs nothing more than a creamy pistachio vinaigrette to impress.
Invest in a handful of ingredients that might be more expensive or harder to find than what you are used to, like fleur de sel or ten-year aged balsamic vinegar (for a full list of recommended ingredients, see here). Such purchases will pay off exponentially in the degree to which they will enhance your food. I have little use for expensive professional tools, like sous vide machines or Combi ovens, but some of my recipes call for equipment (see full list) that you may not already own. If you can find a way to purchase them, they will greatly improve your cooking—a high-powered blender and a black steel pan in particular.
Once you’ve decided what to cook, set yourself up physically to do it well and enjoyably. Chefs often talk of the importance of mise en place, the process of organizing and arranging ingredients and tools ahead of cooking. This is important in both professional and home kitchens, but what we often neglect to emphasize is the importance of mental mise en place, too. Do what you need to do to feel good going into a cooking session: crank up your favorite music, pour yourself a glass of wine, and focus on what you’re about to create. You will have a more relaxed time as a cook when your space is organized, and you will enjoy the act of cooking in a more meaningful way. Get yourself a notebook to take notes as you cook your way through a recipe, so you can reference them next time. Organization allows you the freedom to relax and enjoy the act of cooking, which ultimately extends to the quality of the meal.
But most important, don’t psych yourself out. All too often we fall into a trap of thinking that everything must be perfect, and all hope is lost if the fluting on your pie crust is uneven or your chicken is slightly overcooked. I often think of what my mother told me about a soufflé: you can’t really ruin it. Even if it doesn’t poof into that picture-perfect dome, chances are it will still taste great, and if you serve it with confidence and grace, few people will notice its minor imperfections.
This book is organized fairly classically, starting with sauces before moving into starters, soups, vegetables, proteins, and desserts. The techniques employed in the early chapters will help you master some of the recipes in the later chapters, and though you certainly don’t need to cook this book from cover to cover, I encourage you to familiarize yourself with each of the chapters, as many techniques build off of one another. Do take the time to read each recipe all the way through before you begin, as it will prepare you for what is to come. Each of the main recipes focuses on learning a specific cooking method, such as braising, pan searing, or gentle poaching. With each of the main dishes, I have suggested a series of seasonal vegetable side dishes and sauces that pair with the meat, poultry, or fish. That said, nearly all of the side dishes work beautifully on their own, too.
Take Fennel-Brined Pork Loin with its suggested summer accompaniments of baby artichokes and hazelnut romesco, for example. The flavors and textures of each component are complementary, but they each work independently, too. Romesco is a versatile sauce that is equally delicious on crispy baby artichokes as it is on a hunk of crusty bread. Trimming, blanching, and frying artichokes is another set of skills to learn even if you are not making the artichokes as part of this recipe. The ability to brine and sear a beautiful piece of meat will serve you well when making countless other meals. In other words, you don’t have to make all three components of this dish at the same time: the meat can be prepared and served as is or with some simply dressed greens, and the side dish and sauce can either be skipped altogether or paired with a completely different main dish. In the end, every recipe stands alone as a valuable way to improve your skills as a cook.
Finally, I cannot overstate the importance of learning how to season—it’s one of the easiest ways to improve your home cooking. Instead of directing you to season “to taste,” I almost always provide measurements for salt and pepper, so you can learn how much to actually use—it may surprise you. When you have cooked a recipe enough times to become comfortable with its rhythms, feel free to stop measuring and season to your own taste. I use natural sea salt and recommend that you do the same. (Before making any of these recipes, see my notes on using salt.)
It’s my hope that this book will encourage you to get into the kitchen, take cooking seriously, and feel good about it. The only secret to becoming a great cook is to practice, practice, practice. If you like doing it, dedicate some time to perfecting it. Even if (and when) things don’t go exactly as planned, you should take deep pleasure in the act of making and sharing food with the people you love. That, to me, is the true joy of cooking.