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The mealtime mentor

Christopher Kimball has pasta machine envy.

Arms folded across his chest, signature bow tie crisply knotted, Kimball scrutinizes sheets of saffron tarragon pasta as Lauren Otis of the Ravioli Co. pulls them through her Italian pasta maker.

In the middle of the machine is the hopper where flour marries egg. The hopper sits above the "laminator," the part that rolls lumps of dough into smooth, thin layers. On the left side are angel hair, linguine and spaghetti cutters. On the right are molds that form ravioli.

"This is my baby," Otis tells Kimball of the machine she's had since 1989. She keeps her baby in arrested development, treating it like a newborn with a loving pat-pat when it appears shaky. Husband and partner Dwight Otis is on hand with wing nuts and other gizmos for more technical ailments.

"I'm coveting that machine," says Kimball, the founder, publisher and editor of Cook's Illustrated, a 525,000-circulation magazine that went advertising-less about 10 years ago. "I've never seen one machine that does all that."

It seems a coup to surprise Kimball, who for more than 20 years has made a living learning everything there is to know about home cooking and sharing it with readers. But culinary endeavors are his Holy Grail, and he's always gathering information to get him there.

Kimball is in Tampa to publicize Italian Classics, a book of 300 recipes exhaustively tested by the magazine's editors. He prefers to meet with print media because, he says, he can hardly teach anything in a three-minute television spot.

Kimball met us at the Otises' artisan ravioli shop on W Platt Street in South Tampa to talk about Italian cooking and cooking in general. If you've seen the PBS show America's Test Kitchen (3:30 p.m. Sundays on WUSF-Ch. 16), filmed in the kitchens of the magazine's facilities outside Boston, you've seen Kimball. His ubiquitous bow tie, preppy button-down shirt and wire-rim glasses are apt stereotypes for an exacting man who oversees other perfectionists. He and his staff cooked 35 vegetable lasagnas to find the best recipe for Italian Classics.

The private Kimball, 51, the one who owns a gentleman's farm in southern Vermont, has a friend with a .22-caliber rifle who helped him slaughter two pigs a few Sundays ago. The small farm also supports a couple of beef cows, half a dozen chickens and a sugaring house. He grows potatoes and corn there, too. Of his four children, two show an interest in cooking.

Kimball is a keen observer of the culinary dichotomy in American cooking. On one side is the high-concept, exotic-ingredients cooking perpetuated by metropolitan food writers and celebrity chefs. On the other side is the home cook, who, other than not cooking seven nights a week anymore, hasn't changed much in 50 years, he says.

"Food got hijacked in the mid '70s by the food media," Kimball says. "Frieda (Caplan of Frieda's Finest Produce) started selling kiwis out in California, and home cooking got ignored. The New York and San Francisco media don't want to talk about home cooking."

But it's home cooking that most of us do, or need to do. That's why Cook's Illustrated goes to such lengths to show us how to peel an avocado and tell us which dried pasta is best. (Cook's tasters like Ronzoni.)

Trouble is, Kimball says, we are trying to cook too many things.

"I am a big proponent of having a limited repertoire," Kimball says. "Fifty years ago, people didn't have a great repertoire of recipes, and we cooked at home a lot more. We live in a culture where the media feels we want new things, but we really don't."

Home cooks need to understand braising (wet heat, low temperature, long time) and sauteing (dry heat, high temperature, short time) and should be able to make a soup, a simple yeast bread and eggs, Kimball says. Once those techniques are mastered, just about anything can be prepared.

He's puzzled by cooks who try a recipe once, fail and then never try it again. Learn from musicians, he says, who practice and perform a single piece countless times and can discover something new about the music, their audience or themselves each time.

"I've made biscuits 1,000 times," Kimball says. "Each time I learn something new."

There's more to cooking than following a recipe, he says. It's important to understand basic techniques and terms. When a recipe says to brown a piece of meat, most people don't brown it at all, he says. They just let it get beige.

"The fact is, most recipes don't work," Kimball says. That's because our stoves are out of whack, our equipment is wrong, and we're using a recipe for an Asian or Mexican dish for which we don't have the right ingredients.

"For instance, people think an oven is a precise instrument. It's not. It's just a box that gets hot."

In fact, 350 degrees on your oven is different from Kimball's oven, which is different from your neighbor's oven. All ovens are not created equal, and they are certainly not calibrated. Kimball says that's why it's important to understand what it means when a recipe says to take the cookies out of the oven when they are lightly brown on the edges. In your oven that might be 14 minutes; in Kimball's it might be 10. Either way, you need to know what lightly brown looks like and what it means to the final product. That knowledge comes from experience.

"As a cookbook author, you have to tell people what to look for. Show and tell them what mistakes look like," he says. "People pretend cooking is an exact science, but it's not."

Kimball says his staff was drawn to the idea of an Italian cookbook because the cuisine is close to American home cooking in technique and ingredients. Italian Classics differentiates itself from the many Italian cookbooks on the bookstore shelves by its detailed discussion of each dish, be it Chicken Under a Brick or Fettuccine with Bolognese Sauce.

"It's family food, not fancy food," he says.

While he's talking, Dwight Otis drops saffron tarragon fettuccine into boiling, salted water. In three minutes, the fresh pasta floats to the top, signaling that it's al dente, or "toothsome," as Kimball might say.

Little mounds on pewter places are dressed with earthy olive oil and chunky salt. Simple and rustic and delicious. And it's all ready in a jiffy.

Thanks to the machine that Kimball covets and its dedicated parents.

Fettucine With Bolognese Sauce

5 tablespoons unsalted butter

2 tablespoons minced onion

2 tablespoons minced carrot

2 tablespoons minced celery

} pound meat-loaf mix or \ pound each ground chuck, ground veal and ground pork

Salt

1 cup whole milk

1 cup dry white wine

1 28-ounce can diced tomatoes with their juice

1 pound fresh or dried fettucine

Freshly grated Parmesan cheese

Heat 3 tablespoons butter in a large, heavy-bottomed Dutch oven over medium heat. Add the onion, carrot and celery and saute until softened but not browned, about six minutes. Add the ground meat and { teaspoon salt; crumble the meat into tiny pieces with the edge of a wooden spoon. Cook, continuing to crumble the meat, just until it loses its raw color but has not yet browned, about three minutes.

Add the milk and bring to a simmer; continue to simmer until the milk evaporates and only clear fat remains, 10 to 15 minutes. Add the wine and bring to a simmer; continue to simmer until the wine evaporates, 10 to 15 minutes longer. Add the tomatoes and their juice and bring to a simmer. Reduce the heat to low so that the sauce continues to barely simmer, with an occasional bubble or two at the surface, until the liquid has evaporated, about three hours. (If the lowest burner setting is too high to allow such a low simmer, use a Flame Tamer, a metal disk that fits on top of a burner and reduces the heat reaching the pan.) Adjust seasonings with extra salt to taste. Keep the sauce warm. (The sauce can be refrigerated in an airtight container for several days or frozen for several months. Warm over low heat before serving.)

Bring 4 quarts water to a rolling boil in a large pot. Add 1 tablespoon salt and the pasta. Cook until al dente. Drain the pasta, leaving some water dripping from the noodles. Toss with the sauce and remaining 2 tablespoons butter. Distribute among individual bowls and serve immediately, passing the Parmesan cheese separately. Serves four.

Source: Italian Classics by the editors of Cook's Illustrated (Boston Common Press, $29.95).

Chicken Under A Brick

1 cup kosher salt or { cup table salt

1 small whole chicken (3 pounds), butterflied

Ground black pepper

1 teaspoon vegetable oil

\ cup extra-virgin olive oil

1 medium clove garlic, minced or pressed through a garlic press

{ teaspoon minced fresh rosemary or fresh oregano leaves

Pinch hot red-pepper flakes

Dissolve the salt in 3 quarts water in a large container or bowl. Submerge the chicken pieces in the brine and refrigerate until fully seasoned, three hours. Remove the chicken from brine, rinse under running water and pat dry with paper towels. Season the chicken with black pepper to taste.

Adjust an oven rack to the lowest position and heat the oven to 450 degrees. Heat the vegetable oil in a heavy-bottomed, oven-proof 12-inch skillet over medium-high heat until it begins to smoke. Swirl the skillet to coat evenly with the oil. Place the chicken skin-side down in the hot pan and turn the heat down to medium. Place a small baking sheet and two bricks on top of the chicken and cook, checking every five or so minutes, until evenly browned, about 25 minutes. (After 20 minutes, the chicken should be fairly crisp and golden; if it is not, turn the heat up to medium-high and continue to cook until well-browned.)

Meanwhile, mix the olive oil, garlic, rosemary and hot red-pepper flakes together in a small bowl and reserve.

Remove the baking sheets and bricks. Using tongs, carefully flip the chicken skin-side up. (If more than 3 tablespoons of fat have accumulated in the skillet, transfer the chicken to a clean plate and pour most of the fat out of skillet. Return the chicken to the skillet, skin-side up, and continue.) Brush the skin with the marinade and place the skillet in the oven. (Be careful handling the pan once it is in the oven, as the handle will be very hot.) Cook until the thickest part of the breast registers 160 degrees on an instant-read thermometer and the thickest part of the thigh registers 170 degrees, seven to 10 minutes longer. Transfer the chicken to a platter and let rest five to 10 minutes. Carve and serve.

Source: Italian Classics by the editors of Cook's Illustrated (Boston Common Press, $29.95).

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