Cookbook author Molly Stevens fillets chicken breast for crispy grown-up chicken nuggets dredged in panko and fried in olive oil and butter. Flattening chicken to even thickness (1/3 inch) is paramount: If the chicken is too thick, it takes too long to cook, and you risk scorching the coating before the interior is done; if too thin, it'll dry out before the breading has time to brown. The key to frying them is monitoring the heat; the nuggets should sizzle when you lower them into the pan. If the heat is too low, the breading will absorb the fat and become soggy. If it's too high, the outside will scorch before the inside cooks through. Stevens's favorite way to serve these chicken nuggets is to stack them alongside a bright and punchy herb and radish salad dressed in a lemon vinaigrette. If you like, you can also skip making nuggets and fry the cutlets whole—they're fantastic in sandwiches.
Classic versions of the patty melt often include caramelized onions, but those take time, so here cookbook author Molly Stevens leans on quick-charred scallions instead. Chipotle-spiked mayonnaise adds an extra dose of lushness and a punch of smoky heat. For the cheese, semisoft cheeses like Oaxaca or Monterey Jack add a satisfying tang, but any good melting cheese works—cheddar or Swiss are perfectly delicious stand-ins. You’ll need a heavy skillet (cast iron works great) that can hold four sandwiches; otherwise work in batches or in two skillets. Form the ground beef patties to match the size of the bread, ensuring every bite of the finished sandwich achieves a proper bread-to-cheese balance.
Baked ricotta may be my favorite dessert—it's light, not too sweet, easy to make, and, most importantly, it's downright delicious. And if that's not enough, the thin, pudding-like cake tastes even better when you bake it ahead of time. It also provides an ideal platform for seasonal produce (like the rhubarb here), so you can make it all year round and never grow tired of it. You can even play around with the flavorings (swap in orange or lime zest for the lemon, add rum in place of vanilla, use maple in place of honey, and so on) according to your tastes and the fruit accompaniment. Really, the only element that you need to be strict about is finding good-quality fresh ricotta.In Italy, where ricotta originated, the fluffy, fresh cheese was traditionally made by curdling whey, a byproduct of Pecorino and mozzarella cheesemaking, and then draining the fresh curds to create a pillowy, spoonable cheese. Today, most ricotta producers both in Italy and domestically augment the whey with milk or cream to create a creamier-tasting cheese. Many commercial producers also abridge the draining step, adding stabilizers to prevent the cheese from separating, leaving a much wetter, blander-tasting product. When shopping for ricotta to highlight in this dessert (or anywhere you want a better-tasting end result), it's worth the trouble and added expense to track down a brand made with nothing more than whey, cream, or milk; vinegar or rennet (which help form the curds); and maybe a little salt. Galbani is a good, readily accessible brand. If you're shopping at a well-stocked cheese shop, you may find ricotta labeled “basket-drained,” which refers to a traditional method of ensuring the cheese isn't wet and waterlogged. And if you're really lucky, you'll find sheep's milk ricotta, prized for its richness and tantalizing sweet-tangy flavor. If top-quality ricotta is new to you, take a moment to taste it in its natural state before adding it to a recipe; you’ll immediately understand what the fuss is all about. Indeed, if you want an even simpler dessert than this baked ricotta, spread a little of the uncooked ricotta on a slice of toasted walnut bread and drizzle with honey. Or mix in a little cocoa powder and sugar, and you've got an instant chocolate pudding.Versions of this baked ricotta dessert exist all across the Mediterranean, but many include flour, more eggs, and more sugar, making them closer to an American-style cheesecake. I prefer this more restrained approach that creates a cake about the height of a thick pancake, because it's lighter, simpler, and it's a better showcase for the sweet taste of the fresh cheese, lightly perfumed with honey. The way I cook the rhubarb prevents the stalks from collapsing into a compote-like mush. Instead, by baking the rhubarb in a low oven, the stalks poach in their own juices, holding their shape. (Bonus: They can cook alongside the ricotta cake.) Adding lemon juice to already tart rhubarb may seem misguided, but the lemon snaps the flavors into bright focus. I like to tuck in a piece of star anise and cinnamon into the dish before baking to provide a whisper of spice; if you want more, add a pinch of their ground counterparts instead. Both the ricotta cake and rhubarb taste best when left to cool before serving, or even with a light chill, making this the perfect start to a season of warm-weather eating.
Cassoulet ranks as one of French Provincial cooking’s most iconic recipes, and it’s one I've been besotted with since I was young cook. My first encounter with the regional classic (broadly described as a hearty casserole of beans, various meats, sausages, and poultry) was in the writings of Richard Olney and Elizabeth David. These legendary food writers portrayed the dish with such passion and poeticism that my 23-year-old self actually made a pilgrimage to southwest France just to eat it in situ—and, I dared hope, to unlock the secret to making great cassoulet at home.For more than a week, I travelled around Languedoc and Gascony voraciously tasting my way through versions that ranged from sumptuous feasts (crowded with duck confit, goose, sausage, pork belly, pork trotters, lamb breast, lamb stew, and game meats) to deliciously modest examples (no more than pork-studded bean casseroles baked under crunchy breadcrumb crusts). In the end, the infinite variety far outlasted my appetite—and my travel budget. I returned home with the understanding that there is no single best cassoulet, and, perhaps more importantly, I felt free to adapt this rustic dish to suit my own appetite and cooking routines.In the decades since my cassoulet quest, my fondness for this meat-enriched bean gratin has not wavered, and I continually play around with various formulas and techniques. But the version I crave most remains the simplest: one that I can get on the dinner table in under an hour. I start with boneless, skinless chicken thighs (unless I have leftover roast chicken, which works great, too). If I have duck fat on hand, I use it to sauté the chicken for an extra flavor boost (and because that's the fat most used in southwest France), but any neutral-tasting oil will do. Either way, the chicken should be tender, cooked through, and well-seasoned. Then it's a matter of sautéing an onion, a healthy amount of garlic, and a heap of smoked sausage to create a flavor base that will carry through the entire dish. A bit of tomato paste ups the umami quotient, and a splash of white wine contributes just enough acid to balance the richness.From there, everything gets gently folded together with cooked white beans (canned or home-cooked), spread in a shallow dish (either a gratin or a heavy skillet), topped with breadcrumbs, and baked until bubbling hot on the inside and crunchy-golden on top. Add a green salad, and you've got one of the most enduring and satisfying bean-and-meat dishes ever.
When I'm looking to put on the Ritz for a fancy dinner party, I often center the menu around a majestic lamb roast, either a whole bone-in leg of lamb or a rolled-and-stuffed shoulder. But when I crave lamb on a weeknight, it's lamb steaks all the way. Depending on where you shop, lamb steaks can be harder to find than other cuts, but their tender meatiness makes them worth seeking out. The best cuts for quick-cooking are sirloin and leg steaks (the sirloin, basically the upper leg or hip portion, will be boneless, while leg steaks contain a single round bone).The ideal thickness for lamb steaks is 3/4 to 1 inch, but thicker steaks are no problem, especially boneless sirloin ones. Just butterfly them by cutting the steaks almost in half horizontally and folding the meat open like a book to make thinner, quicker-cooking steaks. If the steaks have a thick cushion of fat around the edges, trim it down to a modest 1/4 inch, and, to keep leg steaks from curling during cooking, make shallow incisions every couple of inches around the perimeter to break up the membrane that will shrink and buckle in a hot skillet.Much of the excellence of lamb steaks comes from their natural tenderness, but if there's time, pre-seasoning the meat (anywhere from 1 to 8 hours ahead) will further enhance the texture and flavor. I keep the seasoning simple to allow the sweetness of the lamb shine through, but I do kick things up at the finish by slathering the hot steaks with a lusty anchovy butter. The flavored butter takes advantage of two things I learned about lamb long ago: lamb loves butter, and lamb loves anchovies. There's some magical alchemy that happens when the meaty lamb juices blend with the richness of the butter and the funky brine of the anchovy. A bit of fresh lemon zest and parsley provides the perfect counterpoint.Lamb steaks are best cooked to medium-rare, or medium, if you prefer; the most effective way to get it right is to brush the surface with olive oil and sear the steaks in a hot skillet or grill pan (cast iron works well). Once the surface develops a handsome crust, lower the heat and continue cooking until they reach the desired internal temperature (125°F to 130°F for medium-rare and 135°F to 140°F for medium). Transfer the steaks to plates or a carving board and immediately smear the tops with the flavored butter (the heat of the steaks melts the butter into an instant sauce), and let the steaks rest for 3 to 5 minutes before cutting into them. Of course, if it's grilling weather (or you’re one of those intrepid cooks who likes to grill no matter the forecast), by all means, cook them outdoors. A slight kiss of smoke will only make them better.
Too busy to braise on a weeknight? Maybe you should rethink your protein. A stovetop chicken braise is in regular rotation on my weeknight dinner table for several good reasons: it's relatively quick, it's nearly foolproof, it's endlessly adaptable, and who doesn't love tender, flavor-drenched chicken thighs bathed in a savory sauce?The basic technique is a valuable lesson in learning to manage your kitchen timeline. Sure, professional cooks—and many YouTube hosts—make a big deal out of preparing all their ingredients well before they start cooking. When cooking at home, however, it makes more sense to find ways to integrate the prep work into your actual cooking process. This not only speeds things up, but also it forces you to pay more attention to the process which in turn makes you a better and more efficient cook. It can also make the whole process more engaging and ultimately more fun.A classic chicken braise has three main elements: the chicken, the aromatics, and the liquid, and because these elements are added at various stages, you can stagger their preparation. For instance, the first step in my recipe below calls for browning the chicken thighs to develop a lovely dark sear and to render some of the fat, a task that takes about 10 minutes; but instead of just standing there watching the pan, I set up a cutting board next to the stove and use the time to slice the onion, since that's what gets added next. Then, once the chicken comes out of the pan, in goes the onion, and I use the onion-cooking time to slice the garlic and measure spices and liquids. Once those go in, I turn my attention to the lemon, apricots, and olives. The pace moves along quickly but not frantically, and if it ever gets away from me —or if the phone rings or the dog needs to be fed—I just switch off the heat and allow myself to catch up. At the end, there's a nice 30- to 35-minute window of hands-off quiet simmering that you can use to boil baby potatoes, rice, or egg noodles to accompany the braise—or just pour yourself a glass of wine and read the paper.The staggered process here is about more than just good time management; it's also a great lesson in building flavor into a dish. Browning the chicken pieces creates layers of meaty flavors, both on the chicken and on the bottom of the pan. It also creates delicious drippings that I use to sauté sliced onion until silky and infused with meaty flavor. Then I create a flavor base by stirring in some smoky pimentón (Spanish paprika). This gives the dish a rich, ruddy color and a hint of smoky sweetness that plays against the fruity apricots. I counterbalance the sweetness with bright lemon zest, crisp wine, and a handful of briny olives. If you've got ground coriander in the cupboard (or, better yet, whole seed that you grind yourself), it adds a faint hint of citrus to underscore the lemon, although the dish has plenty going on without it.Once you get the technique down, go ahead and tweak this recipe according to your appetite and what's in your refrigerator and pantry. For instance, consider supplementing the onion and garlic with other aromatic vegetables, like leeks, carrots, fennel, or cabbage, to make a heartier dish. Or maybe use canned tomatoes and/or chicken broth for the liquid. Or swap out the apricots for prunes, or leave out the dried fruit and double the amount of olives. You see where this is going. Taste, test, and play; it’s my favorite way to cook.
Long ago I worked as the lunch cook at a lively little café in Montpelier, Vermont, and every day meant coming up with a new soup du jour. I was relatively green and had no formal training, and I struggled to continually invent new combinations. At night, I would scour my meager cookbook collection for recipes I could master (this was long before Google), and the next morning I'd do my best to interpret these into something our customers might enjoy. Looking back, I can't say that every soup was a winner—not by a long shot—but my soups did improve over time, especially once I learned that the best way to create anything truly tasty was to start with a single good idea and build from there. The starting point might be an ingredient or flavoring, and then it's a matter of selecting complementary ingredients to generate complexity of flavor without it becoming a muddle. Through trial and error, my early soup experiments taught me that carefully handling a few well-chosen ingredients always produces a better result than assembling a thoughtless jumble. I also learned to taste my raw ingredients before adding them, and then to taste at every step along the way in order to best steer my cooking toward deliciousness. This process of thoughtfully tasting and tinkering is how this very recipe came to be—and it's the approach I still use to get it right.The starting point here are the chickpeas (either canned or home-cooked), and whenever I make this soup, I start by tasting a few to remind me of their nutty, slightly sweet taste and almost creamy texture. I also sample the liquid from the can (or the bean cooking liquid, if I had time to cook them from scratch). The liquid (the stuff in the can is called aquafaba and is sometimes used as a vegan egg white substitute) should be slightly viscous with a mild bean taste. I add it to the soup to provide light body and to underscore the bean flavor. For the balance of liquid, I use plain water, because it gives the soup a certain lightness and I like the way it lets the ingredients shine bright. If you want to make a deeper, heartier soup, you could certainly swap in broth (vegetable or chicken would be my first choice).Once I have the taste of chickpeas fresh in my mind, I envision the round-up of flavorings that will highlight this humble legume without overpowering. Gently sautéed onions add sweetness and a silky texture. Carrots provide heft, more sweetness, and their cheerful orange color complements the buff tones of the beans. For seasoning, a heady mixture of garlic, cumin, ginger, turmeric, and cayenne pays homage to the cuisines of North Africa where chickpeas prevail. And finally, tender spinach leaves bring a welcome jolt of green and their earthy minerality balances the sweet.Every time I make this soup, I'm amazed at how the simple lineup of ingredients can come together to produce such a satisfying and gorgeous soup. I also marvel at the transformation that happens in the 30 minutes it takes for the chickpeas to become silky and tender. When you make this at home—and I hope you do—I urge you to keep a tasting spoon nearby to sample the soup every step along the way. It's a great lesson in building and layering flavor, and a reminder of how a good pot of soup becomes much more than the sum of its parts.
Good cooking starts at the market, and cultivating a curiosity about ingredients before you put them into your shopping basket can have more impact on your cooking than any amount of technique or kitchen wizardry.Take apples, for instance. Honestly, they’re the most prosaic of fruits. Not only are they the third most widely grown fruit on the planet (after grapes and bananas), but, thanks to their ability to store and travel well, fresh apples are available year round in nearly every market. But you don't have to be an orchardist to realize that not all apples are the same. Even at the most bare-bones grocery, you'll find a range of shapes, colors, and sizes. If you visit an orchard or a farmer's market during apple season (an unrivaled activity for a fall weekend), you'll discover a dizzying array of varieties in hues from bright cherry red to russet gold, from golf ball to softball size, and many with lyrical names, like Belle de Boskoop, Reinette, and Ambrosia. But no matter where (or when) you shop, it helps to know a thing or two about apple varieties to make the best selection for your recipe.It would be simple if we could divide apples neatly into "cooking" apples and "eating" apples, but in truth most varieties are good for both. It's more a matter of what kind of cooking—or eating—you're after. A more useful distinction may be that drier, firmer apples (like Granny Smith and Northern Spy) tend to hold their shape best after cooking, while juicier, more tender varieties (like McIntosh and Macoun) are more likely to soften into a compote-like consistency. You'll find my cheat sheet for these general characteristics below, but the question of which apples to use when will depend on the results you're after, and which apple flavors you prefer.Many pie pros suggest using a mix of firm and tender apples to create a filling with a perfect balance of chunky and juicy texture. You also want to choose apples with some level of tartness, or a mix of sweet and tart fruit for deeper, more complex flavor. The same goes for crisps and cobblers. If you're making a classic whole baked apple or a French tarte Tatin, you'll want to select apples that won't collapse as they cook (Golden Delicious and Granny Smith are good candidates).In my kitchen, my favorite apple dessert is a pan of butter-roasted apples, because it works with whatever apples catch my eye at the market (with the exception of Red Delicious, which may be the only variety not worth cooking) and because the simple seasoning highlights their intrinsic flavors without masking them. I like to include a tiny bit of Chinese 5-spice because the blend of familiar (clove and cinnamon) with more exotic (star anise, fennel, and Szechuan pepper) adds warmth and complexity. Just take care not to add too much—it should be a backdrop to the other flavorings. The beauty of this recipe is that there's no fussy pastry or batter to weigh things down—or to give me an excuse not to whip this up on a weeknight. I often include a mix of varieties when I make this, and I've yet to find one that doesn't work. It's also a great way to learn firsthand how various apples behave in the kitchen. So the next time you stop by your local farm stand or market, grab a handful of different varieties and use this recipe to give them a taste test. It’s all in the name of research, after all.Apple Shopping Tips:- Choose fruit that feels heavy for its size. Apples should have tight, firm skin with no bruises or soft spots. A ripe apple will have a sweet, fresh aroma.- Apple season in North America starts in August and runs through November. Outside of these months, storage apples are readily available and often in great condition.- The earliest apples tend to be the most tart; fruits become sweeter as the season progresses. Sweetness can also vary from season to season.Apple Cheat Sheet:- Firm apples that their hold their shape after cooking: Honeycrisp, Golden Delicious, Granny Smith, Northern Spy, Pink Lady (aka Cripps Pink), Rome- Tender apples that tend to collapse when cooked: Cortland, Empire, Gala, Fuji, Macoun, McIntoshApple Cooking Tips:- Always taste a slice of raw apple before cooking. Ideally, you want a balance of tartness and sweetness. If the fruit is overly tart, balance with additional sugar (or by combining with sweeter varieties); if too sweet, add lemon juice (or cider vinegar).- Avoid over-sweetening apple desserts; doing so weighs them down and destroys the nuanced flavor of the fruit.- Apple peels often have the most flavor. Unless the peel is super ruddy and tough, consider leaving the fruit unpeeled.