My First Recipe

Photograph by Adam Roberts

“This is a really big step: you should be really proud.”

I’m talking to Molly Stevens, author of my new favorite cookbook—All About Braising—and she’s patting me on the back for something I haven’t done yet.

“When you don’t use recipes anymore, when you call on your own techniques, that’s when you can call yourself a chef,” she says. “Coming up with your own recipe is a big moment in your development.”

What Molly doesn’t know and what the voices in my head keep reminding me is that this big step I’m about to take is one I’m not ready for. Like some kid who likes to dive in the family pool and then enters the Olympics, I am in over my head.

You see, I’m an amateur cook, and I mess up frequently. Not only do my techniques suck (I recently peeled my finger when I meant to peel a carrot), but I’m a nervous person—a jittery cook—and I tend to cling to whatever recipe I’m using with disturbing desperation. Recipes do for me what the blue blanket does for Linus: They comfort me, they reassure me. As long as I have this recipe, I tell myself, I’ll be OK.

I’ve been following recipes for as long as I’ve been cooking. If I keep following recipes, the best I can be is a great recipe follower. Don’t I want more for myself? Why can’t I come up with my own recipe? I envy the home cooks who throw in a dash of this and a dash of that and make a mini-masterpiece. Why shouldn’t it be my turn?

“How do you do it?” I ask Molly, suddenly motivated by a need to innovate.

“Good question!” she says. “I wished more people asked me that. I do it a number of ways. Sometimes I’ll just start making something without a recipe. Other times, if I know what dish I want to make, I’ll read as many recipes and techniques and resources that I find reliable and then pick and choose the bits I like the best.”

This sounds logical. And doable. Hey, I say to myself (in italics), I can do that!

“You find inspiration in an ingredient or a technique and then you tweak it,” Molly says. “There’s nothing wrong with people saying, ‘This recipe comes from an idea from so-and-so.’”

Hunh, I think. This is going to be easy!

Technique-wise, my inspiration is on the phone with me. Molly’s recipe for chicken, bacon, and parsnips braised in hard cider convinced me (and several friends) that braising—the simple technique of browning, deglazing, and simmering—is the most foolproof and rewarding approach to cooking fathomable. The meat gives up fat and flavor as it cooks; the liquid and aromatics infuse the meat with their own unique characters. Braising is an orgy of smells, sounds, and tastes. If Prometheus discovered fire, Bacchus discovered braising. It’s like going to Las Vegas without leaving your kitchen.

But ingredient-wise, I am stuck. OK, so let’s say I want to make a chicken braise. What liquid will I use? Her book already has recipes for chicken braised with wine, beer, and cider. What’s left? Soda?

Soda! Of course!

“Do you think I could make a chicken braise ... with orange soda?”

Why orange soda? Well: Coke is so dark it’d overwhelm the chicken, and the lemon-lime flavors of Sprite may make the chicken too tart. But orange soda feels right for some reason. Maybe because of the sticky sweet orange chicken I like to order, sometimes, at Chinese restaurants?

There’s a bit of a pause and then Molly says, “Sure. As long as you balance the sweetness. I mean people braise with Champagne, why not orange soda?”

I thank Molly for all her help and then head to the store. I am feeling empowered and inspired—inspired by orange soda. Orange soda will do for me what lamb’s tongues did for Mario Batali. I enter my local Key Foods and race to the drink aisle. And then I’m face to face with a big bottle of Sunkist orange soda.

The bottle before me fills me with nostalgia (it was my favorite soda while growing up) but after I pick it up and study the ingredients, it also fills me with disgust.

Blech, I think. Would you really want to bite into a piece of chicken saturated with neon orange chemicals?

I reevaluate my goals. What did I like about the idea of orange soda chicken? Well I liked the idea of using oranges with chicken. So why don’t I buy a few oranges? I can use the zest and the juice. But what will be my braising liquid?

I think about wine and then I remember something Molly said. "People braise with Champagne...." What if I mixed the orange juice and Champagne? Why that’s a mimosa. I can make mimosa braised chicken!

Invigorated, I skip quickly down the aisles. I decide to give the recipe an Asian spin. Molly’s book gives examples of flavor profiles you can create with different aromatics; so, thinking about the orange chicken I get at Chinese restaurants, I imagine that the orange components will match well with the Asian components. So I buy green onions and lemongrass. I also buy sesame seeds. Oh, and chicken—four chicken legs, with thighs attached.

When I get home, I immediately get to work. I brown the chicken in butter and olive oil. I remove the chicken, then add the scallions, lemongrass, and orange zest. I add some red pepper flakes for heat.

When it’s time to deglaze, I use a mixture of Champagne, orange juice, and Grand Marnier. I let the alcohol burn off, and then I put the chicken back.

I cover and let it simmer for 30 minutes. Meanwhile, I make rice.

And then the magic moment, the moment that will reveal how far I’ve really come. I mound the rice on the plate, top with a piece of chicken, and add some sauce, which I’ve reduced. The smell is potent, citrusy, and alive.

I sit on the couch and take my first bite. Immediately, the brightness of the flavors makes a party in my mouth. "Mmmm," I say to no one in particular. "This is good! I’ve done it!"

Soon my roommate Diana comes home and says she’ll try a bite. I watch her eagerly, nervously, and when she finally puts a piece in her mouth (after what seems like an eternity) a big smile grows on her face. "This is good," she says. "I mean it. It’s tasty."

I breathe a sigh of relief and smile at myself in the mirror. Who’s that looking back at me? I’m Linus without the blanket; a real grown-up cook.

Maybe even, dare I say it, a chef.

About the author: Adam Roberts is The Amateur Gourmet. His book, The Amateur Gourmet, will be published by Bantam/Dell in summer 2007.

Mimosa Braised Chicken
serves 4

Ingredients 3/4 cup Champagne 1/4 cup Grand Marnier 1/4 cup fresh squeezed orange juice (from the same oranges you’ve zested; make sure you zest first, it’s easier) 1 teaspoon soy sauce 4 chicken legs, thighs attached (about 3 pounds) Kosher salt Freshly ground black pepper 1 tablespoon unsalted butter 2 tablespoons olive oil 2 scallions, thinly sliced 1 stalk lemongrass, thinly sliced 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes (to taste) Zest of three oranges (about 1 tablespoon) White sesame seeds (optional) White rice (optional)

1. In a measuring cup, mix together the champagne, Grand Marnier, orange juice and soy sauce. Set aside.

2. Wash and dry the chicken thoroughly. Sprinkle generously with kosher salt and pepper, on both sides.

3. Heat butter and oil in a large sauté pan until hot enough to make the chicken sizzle. When ready, add the chicken and brown thoroughly (careful not to move the chicken for the first few minutes, so it develops a nice golden brown sear.) When golden brown on all sides, remove chicken to a plate and set aside.

4. Pour off all but 1 Tbs of fat. Add the scallions and lemongrass and sauté for 30 seconds. Make a hot spot and add the red pepper flakes and allow them to toast. Incorporate into the rest and then add the orange zest. Mix another 30 seconds or until the green onions are wilted.

5. Deglaze with the champagne, Grand Marnier, orange juice and soy sauce mixture. Make sure to pick up all the brown bits from the chicken.

6. Bring to a boil and return the chicken to the pan, pouring all the chicken juices back in from the plate. Reduce the heat, cover, and allow to simmer for 30 minutes. Check the pot every 10 minutes to make sure it’s not bubbling too rapidly.

7. After 30 minutes, remove the chicken to a plate and taste the sauce. If not concentrated enough, bring to a rapid boil and reduce until thickened.

8. Mound rice on to a plate, top with a piece of chicken, spoon on the sauce and garnish with sesame seeds. Serve to your surprised and delighted friends.

Suggested drink: Mimosas, of course!