When Dave and I first met and started dating, he was the cook of the couple. I don’t think I even had a repertoire at that point, with the possible exception of Betty Crocker brownies and French toast. When I visited him in Toronto Dave would make a tangy homemade red sauce for pasta; crispy breaded veal cutlets; roasted chicken breasts with potatoes, sweet potatoes, and garlic; or penne with sausage and broccoli rabe. Satisfying and tasty dishes all. I would think back to when a prior boyfriend poured a can of condensed cream of mushroom soup over bland chicken breasts, opened a can of green beans, and proudly served it to me. I knew quickly that that relationship wasn’t going anywhere. Finally, with Dave, I was with a man that could cook! I was smitten, and my friends were impressed.
Over the years as I’ve begun cooking more Dave has begun cooking less, as one would expect. For a while, we split evening meals pretty much half and half, but since school I’ve been cooking virtually every night. This is by choice – there are so many dishes I want to try and practice that often I feel like seven dinners a week just isn’t enough. (Three weekend dinners DEFINITELY isn’t enough.) But, sometimes I’m busy at work or just don’t feel like cooking (it happens...occasionally). Last night was one of those nights.
Dave was game. He picked up some fat catfish fillets at Whole Foods and some ready-made broccoli rabe with garlic – an excellent start to a good weeknight meal. Unfortunately things went downhill from there. I sat down to a meal of unseasoned catfish, crunchy basmati rice, and the broccoli rabe.
The broccoli rabe was the highlight – slicked in olive oil and paired with plump pieces of roasted garlic. It’s not my first choice, but sometimes buying a healthy side dish on a weeknight isn’t a bad way to round out a meal. The catfish was well-cooked but very bland. And the rice was…crunchy, meaning not completely cooked.
My aim here is not to pick on Dave, because he is a very good cook when he tries to be. But, I thought this meal could help illustrate some of the super-simple things any cook can do to elevate his/her meals:
1. Season – Before cooking any piece of meat or fish on the stove, on the grill, or in the oven, season it with salt (and pepper if you wish) on both sides. And, don’t be shy with the quantity. You want a nice even sprinkling, preferably with coarse kosher salt. The salt will bring out the flavor of the protein.
2. Taste – I can usually tell if rice is ready by looking at it. If the centers of the grains are still opaque I know it needs a few more minutes. This may be too fine a distinction for everyone (is it?) but there is a surefire way to find out: taste it. If Dave had popped a couple grains of rice into his mouth he would have realized immediately that it wasn’t ready.
3. Pan Sauce – I mentioned pan sauces before as the busy weeknight cook’s best friend. They can be so incredibly simple. For a succulent fish sauce I remove the fish from the pan when it’s finished cooking and add some butter (a tablespoon or so…since there are two of us eating this is 50 calories each, well worth it for tasty fish), let it melt and turn a nutty brown while scraping up any brown bits on the bottom of the pan. These brown bits are pure flavor. When the butter is a hazelnut brown, pour it over the fish fillets. Mmmm.
Or, even, forget the pan sauce and spritz a little lemon on the fish.
Each of these three things – season, taste, and pan sauce – would have added less than five minutes onto the meal’s prep time, but made it considerably more pleasurable to eat.
I’m so lucky to have a husband that knows how to cook and appreciates good food. But sometimes even he needs a little reminder that with just a few basic techniques his cooking will rise above the average and, maybe, be almost be as good as mine. ;)