Updated: Sep 4, 2022
Take the time to master these culinary “Five Easy Pieces,” and you’ll be well on your way to becoming an accomplished kitchen maestro.
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My good friend AndyT. (fraternity brother, college football teammate, fellow Big C survivor, and regular follower of Danny’s Table) recently asked me for THREE recipes that are relatively straightforward to prepare, relatively easy to master, and would give him or anyone else a useful arsenal of dishes for impromptu home entertaining. I tried, but I couldn’t narrow it down to just three. And so, because I love the title of this obscure cinematic masterpiece and its iconic diner scene, I’ve decided to codify Five Easy Pieces worth learning: Pork Tenderloin with Wild Mushrooms, Roasted Salmon Filet, Balsamic Chicken, Pan-Seared Sea Scallops, and Mini Pot Roast. (I said “codify” instead of “create” because neither I nor the vast majority of cooks– amateur or professional– ever come up with truly original recipes; rather, like Keith Richards “borrowing” guitar licks from Chuck Berry or lesser-known bluesmen, we merely appropriate, modify, re-purpose, update, or just plain steal the works of our predecessors.)
Before we get to the actual recipes, we need to cover a few minor details– ONE, all of these can be served with either potatoes (mashed or otherwise) or some sort of rice, or neither if you want to go full paleo. (You can also serve at least the chicken and salmon directly over salad greens.) TWO, I always keep blanched broccoli on hand, and you can simply sizzle a few fleurettes in butter for a quick side veggie. (Alternatively, a quick sauté of spinach is also tasty and convenient.) And THREE, a simple and elegant salad before dinner works beautifully. So first, the salad–
Roasted Pepper Salad
Here’s a great hack for salads that you can make a day or more ahead. It borders on actual work, but is well worth the effort for its make-ahead convenience as well as its deliciousness.
Purchase two sweet peppers– one red, one yellow. (Feel free to double the quantity if you love peppers.) Preheat your oven to 400º. Lightly rub each pepper with grape seed oil and then roast them whole in a pyrex dish. It’s okay if they start to scorch a little; just give them a turn and keep roasting until they just begin to collapse. (Interestingly-- in my test run, the red pepper took 30 minutes while the yellow needed 45.) Allow to thoroughly cool. Peel them, reserving the juices. When properly roasted, the skins will remove easily but the flesh will still be firm enough to remain intact. Remove and discard seeds. Slice the pepper flesh into finger-wide strips. Combine with reserved juices and your favorite vinaigrette (homemade or store-bought) and refrigerate. To serve, simply plop a tong-pinch of peppers over a handful of your favorite mixed greens. This salad will dress itself as the pepper-flavored oil drizzles over the greens. (If the oil has solidified in the fridge, just leave out at room temperature for a few minutes before using.) If you are making dinner for two, you will have plenty of peppers left, which will keep for several days. And if you are not into peppers, this pre-soak in vinaigrette also works with other veggies. (See my earlier take on beets.)
And so, in no particular order, here are the Five entrees–
Pork Tenderloin with Mushroom-Madeira Sauce
In this dish, pork tenderloin is merely a vehicle for the fabulously rich and delicious sauce. I saw two prices for pork tenderloin at my local store– $4.99/lb. for standard issue, and $16.29/lb. for organic. In a moment of economic irrationality that, writ large, would explain a lot of consumer behavior, I bought the organic tenderloin because it was smaller.
Whether organic or not, pork tenderloin is very popular. It is also tricky to cook at home because of its small diameter– while beef tenderloin is sufficiently large that one can roast it whole to exterior crispness while keeping the interior rare, it is way too easy to overcook a skinny pork tenderloin if you roast it like that. We avoid this problem by diagonally slicing the raw tenderloin into medallions and then scorching them on both sides in a hot iron pan. But before that, we need to make the sauce… and before that, we need to discuss Madeira.
Let’s say our Founding Fathers went out drinking after penning the Bill of Rights. It is highly likely that Madeira would have been their drink of choice, as it was quite popular back then. Madeira is a fortified wine like Port, Sherry, and Marsala, and therefore has an alcoholic content of 18-20%. Such a high alcohol level– provided by the addition of brandy– neutralizes the bacteria that would otherwise convert wine to vinegar. Madeira, produced on the Portuguese-owned island of the same name, comes in several different styles ranging from light and dry to rich and sweet. “Malmsey” is a nickname for the Malvasia grape variety and also indicates a rich and sweet style that I find perfect for this and other recipes. You should of course taste some before you cook with it… you might be surprised how delicious a wintertime sipper it is. (It is close in flavor to Marsala, but no one actually drinks Marsala.)
So, for the sauce–
1/2 Pint Heavy Cream
4oz. or so of Malmsey Madeira
1 Large Shallot
A Small Handful of Portobello Mushrooms, Sliced (Shiitakes also work.)
1 TSP Glace de Veau Gold Demi-Glace (available at quality grocers or here.)
Salt & Pepper As Needed
Heat up the cream in a saucepan with low heat. Add the demi-glace and stir periodically until it is completely dissolved. While that is happening, slice the shallots and saute them in just enough grape seed oil. When the shallots are browned and wilted, add the mushrooms and saute until slightly scorched. Add the Madeira and cook until almost all liquid is gone. Add the cream and stir, reducing until it is nicely thickened. (Avoid bubbling over– you can transfer this back to the saucepan for the reduction.) Add salt and pepper as needed, and it’s done… just scorch your pork medallions, sauce them, and enjoy.
Roasted Salmon Filet
Unless you feel like spending $28-30/lb. on fresh King Salmon, I recommend buying quality farm-raised (and certified organic) Atlantic Salmon for about half that price. Plan on 6-8 oz. per person; HOWEVER– check the prices! if you purchase it conveniently pre-portioned, you might get hosed for as much as three bucks a pound. (Nice work if you can get it.) But because leftover cooked salmon is so delicious in omelets and salads, you might want to buy a large piece and portion it yourself. (Pro Tip– Your dinner plates will be much prettier if you cut your portions before cooking instead of cooking it whole first.)
The cooking part is stupid-easy– preheat the oven to 400º. Place salmon portions skin side down on foil in a pyrex dish and then rub the exposed flesh with grape seed oil. Roast for 13-15 minutes, and then check for “wiggle.” Cook more as needed, mindful that high-quality salmon is much better slightly undercooked than overcooked. After a single practice session with one filet, you should be able to correlate your preferred degree of doneness to an accurate cooking time. (Note– I timed a test piece of fairly thick farmed Atlantic salmon and it was perfect after exactly 15 minutes.) If you’re keeping score with an instant-read thermometer, shoot for 120º-125º, definitely not higher. Because you didn’t oil the skin, it will conveniently adhere to the foil as you lift the cooked salmon with a spatula.
Prepared like this, good salmon is delicious all by itself and doesn’t necessarily need a sauce. And besides, we’re striving to keep our “Five Easy Pieces” simple, right? But if you must– the simplest sauce for this would be a squeeze of lemon; next up is a quarter cup or so of extra virgin olive oil enhanced with a dab of Dijon mustard and a pinch of chopped fresh dill. After that– as seen in the photo– would be a simple salsa of diced cucumber, red onion, and chopped fresh dill with lemon juice and olive oil. Replacing some (or all) of the diced cuke with genuine half-sour deli pickles is a snazzy touch. As the temperatures drop and our appetites sharpen– and you gain confidence in the kitchen– perhaps you’ll eventually want to hone your saucier chops and master Sauce Beurre Blanc and Hollandaise, each of which can be enlivened with the aforementioned and salmon-friendly mustard and dill. Here are the ingredients for the salsa in the photo above–
½ Cup Extra Virgin Olive Oil
2 TSP Dijon Mustard
1 TSP Lemon Juice
1 TSP White Wine Vinegar
5-6 Quarter Spears of FRESH Dill Pickles, Finely Diced
1 Cup Finely Diced Fresh Cucumber
1 Large Pinch of Chopped Fresh Dill
A Twist or Two of Fresh Ground Pepper
If, as I did, you choose to use pickles, please opt for REAL pickles from the deli case, not the alien-green ones sold in room-temperature jars. And if you are having wine, I’ve stated many times in other essays how salmon and Sauvignon Blanc seem made for each other. If you’d prefer a red, I would consider a lighter (e.g. Oregon) version of Pinot Noir, or perhaps a Beaujolais. But read the labels and check the alcoholic content– thanks to increasing global temperatures, traditional “lighter” reds are getting bigger and stronger every vintage.
This dish has a four-part genealogy. In 1950, Dr. Robert Baker, a Professor Emeritus of the Department of Animal Sciences at the New York State College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Cornell University, published his recipe for “Cornell Chicken.” Fast-forward three decades. When balsamic vinegar (genuine or otherwise) became a trendy new “thing” in American cookery in the early 1980’s, it wasn’t long before recipes for “balsamic chicken” sprouted like weeds. Back when I was an over-the-road trucker, I used to enjoy visiting the Amish food stands in Pennsylvania… and one of the normally reticent Amish lads showed me how they marinate chicken before grilling it to delicious perfection. And finally, the practice of brining poultry has gained considerable popularity in the past two decades. By incorporating principles from these four different root sources, we arrive at an excellent method for making delicious and juicy chicken.
I chose to make this dish with boneless but not skinless breasts; to obtain these, I had to bone them myself… and you can, too, even though it’s a pain in the ass. If you’re good with a knife, you’ll leave the tenderloin well attached to the breast… and if you’re really good, you’ll do so even when you remove the tenderloin’s tough white tendon. (A butcher should be willing to bone the breasts for you at no charge.) Whether you use breasts, legs or both… whether you grill or roast them… and whether you use boneless and/or skinless pieces, the key to this recipe lies in the marinade–
⅔ Cup Good-Quality Balsamic Vinegar
½ Cup Pure (NOT Extra Virgin) Olive Oil
1 Large Garlic Clove
1 TBSP Kosher Salt
1 TBSP Brown Sugar
1 TSP Bell’s Seasoning
1 TSP Lemon Juice
1 Pinch of Lemon Zest
½ Raw Egg (whisk with a fork in a small bowl first)
Combine all ingredients in a small blender or food processor. Marinate chicken (in a plastic bag or a dish) for a minimum of two hours. Alternatively, you can just use bottled balsamic vinaigrette for the marinade and doctor it as you see fit. Whichever you use, this dish seems like an obvious candidate for the grill, as Professor Baker originally proposed. In lieu of outdoor grilling, a commercial convection oven would likely be the best indoor method. I don’t have such fancy restaurant equipment at home, and I wanted to eliminate the variables associated with grilling (Direct or indirect heat? Smoky or not?) so here’s how I improvised a roasting apparatus for all-around air circulation in a 500º home oven–
By brushing the skin with a little oil, I achieved a nice browning. By using my instant-read thermometer, I was able to pull it out right at 150º and then let it “coast” up to 160º, the proper cooking temperature for poultry. And by adding water to the pan before placing it in the oven, I was able to capture the delicious “au jus” drippings and use them for a sauce–
The result was as juicy and delicious as it looks. I’m looking forward to trying the grilled version.
Seared Sea Scallops
Andrea and I absolutely love sea scallops. (Please see my earlier piece about Coquilles St. Jacques.) We don’t even mind paying $26 per pound, since we have smallish appetites and also save so much by eating great food and drinking great wine at home instead of in restaurants. Scallops are a wonderful choice for enjoying at home for two major reasons– they are easy to cook, and you know what you are eating. By purchasing your own scallops from a reputable seafood supplier, you can make sure that they are FRESH (never frozen); and DRY-PACKED (rather than shot through with sodium tripolyphosphate.) I am old enough to remember when authenticity itself was an issue, as some shady fish dealers used to sell cylindrically-cut pieces of shark meat or skate wing as sea scallops.
Cooking sea scallops is quite simple. Preheat your oven to 400º. Remove the foot (the tough little tab) from each scallop. Sear in a hot iron pan with plenty of grape seed oil. Scorch one side, then flip. Immediately remove pan from the burner and place in the oven. By the time the other side is scorched, they will be done. It is okay to eat sea scallops undercooked.
Now, since cooking them is so easy, I thought I’d synthesize a few sauce recipes into something fairly complicated.
Western and eastern denizens of North Carolina fight as fiercely over what constitutes proper barbecue sauce as they once did with Yankee troops over secession. The hill folk in the west like tomato-based versions, while those in the east intriguingly eschew all traces of tomato in favor of a concoction made from vinegar, mustard, and a little sugar. Because we love the flavors of lemon and sherry with our scallops (see Coquilles St. Jacques), it was only a minor leap to adapt an eastern Carolinian BBQ sauce for our purposes by using sherry vinegar. Browned (don’t say caramelized) onions provide thickness, while extra virgin olive oil nicely balances the acids.
½ Cup Sherry Vinegar
½ Cup Extra Virgin Olive Oil
1 TBSP Dijon Mustard
½ Cup Browned Onions
1 TSP Lemon Juice
½ TSP Lemon Zest
Dashes of Salt & Pepper
Dash of Granulated Garlic
Puree all ingredients together and serve sparingly with Pan-Seared Sea Scallops. This sauce also works with other seafoods as well as chicken. Of course you can opt for something much simpler for your scallops… a squeeze of lemon works just fine.
And about the B-word– bacon– please don’t do it. Scallops wrapped in bacon sounds like a great idea, but in my experience it isn’t. I have found it infuriatingly impossible to get both the bacon and the scallops to cook properly with the former wrapped around the latter. If you love bacon and love scallops and insist on enjoying them together, I recommend this–
Red Wine Pot Roast
There’s something about pot roast that smacks of a successful long-term marriage– it is soothing and comforting rather than edgy and exciting; its cooking technique is utterly reliable rather than riskily experimental. And therefore, of these Five Easy Pieces, this miniature pot roast is the dish most worthy of being dedicated to AndyT. (whom I cited back in Paragraph One as this essay’s inspiration) and Paula, his bride and companion of many decades– two humble Buffalo natives who’ve known each other from childhood and are now enjoying their hard-earned seasons of leisure with good health, youthful energy, and a quintet of young grandchildren.
Aside from its vague similarities to matrimonial bliss, pot roast is nothing special to look at, so behold ye instead the special pan I rush-ordered from Amazon just to make this dish for all of you–
My new 1.5 QT LODGE DUTCH OVEN, available HERE. For dimensional reference, my hand with fingers spread is wider than this pot, making it perfect for small batches of pot roast. I highly recommend buying something like this.
Pot Roast is a braise, which is the culinary equivalent of a rodeo cowboy riding a nasty old bull until it falls asleep. In other words, we take a cut of meat that is too tough to grill like a steak and instead give it a 3-4 hour simmer in a low temperature oven (325º) within a covered vessel like the Dutch oven above… a process that renders such meat spoon-tender. Cuts of beef that lend themselves to braising include chuck, neck, brisket, and short ribs. To me, the ideal cut for this dish is grass-fed chuck. Grass-fed beef is both healthier and tastier, and its bias toward toughness is not only completely negated by braising, but also translates into deeper and richer flavor.
Special ahead-of-time prep– thoroughly brown (don’t say caramelize) 4-6 onions. (You might want to read this and this before you start.) This is way more than you’ll need, but the remainder will keep in the fridge for quite a while and surely come in very handy at some point. Here’s the recipe itself–
1- 1.5 lbs. Braising Beef (I suggest purchasing a large piece of grass-fed chuck and then cutting off what you need and freezing the rest for next time.)
2 Sticks of Celery, ¼” Dice
2 Sticks of Carrot, ¼” Dice
½ Cup of Browned Onions (The pre-browning gave them a lot of great flavor.)
1 TSP Demi-Glace (See Pork Tenderloin Recipe)
A Good Stiff Glass of Pinot Noir
2-3 Bay Leaves
1 TSP Tomato Paste
Preheat oven to 325º. (This is the magic temperature for breaking down the collagen-rich connective tissue that makes braising cuts otherwise inedible. Any hotter and you toughen the actual meat.)
Brown the piece (or pieces) of beef in an iron skillet with grape seed oil. This will produce a considerable amount of smoke. (You can do this outdoors on a grill, but it will add another flavor component. I like to do this for a BBQ version of this dish, but not this one. Perhaps using your iron pan on your ourdoor grill is the ideal solution.) Remove the meat and deglaze the pan with one pint of water. Transfer this liquid to a saucepan for the time being. In the same pan in which you browned the beef, simmer the carrots in just enough grape seed oil until they soften, and then add celery and cook for another two minutes or so. Set aside off the heat.
Add the glass of Pinot Noir to the deglazing liquid and simmer on medium heat. Add tomato paste and demi-glace and continue to simmer until the demi-glace is thoroughly dissolved. You want to cook off as much alcohol as possible, so a long simmer is good. But then you’ll need to let this liquid cool for a while before adding to the braising pot.
For the "assembly," place the browned onions in the bottom of the braising pot. Add meat and then the carrots and celery. Add the cooled wine/deglazing liquid. If it doesn’t all fit, save the rest of the liquid and cook it down; you can add it to the pot later OR use it in the finished sauce. Add bay leaves and cover. Place in the oven atop a sheet pan in case it drips. Check after two hours and add more liquid if needed. Check after three hours for doneness– the meat should have retained its shape and yet yield to the gentle prod of a fork with little resistance.
Set the finished meat aside and taste the braising liquid that should have transformed into a luxuriously flavorful sauce. Add salt if necessary. If you want the sauce richer, add a dab more of the demi-glace. Better Than Bouillon® Beef Base is quite useful for such sauce adjustments, but beware its saltiness. Throw the bay leaves away.
Your finished sauce will be dark brown with visible carrots and celery cubes. Since you browned the onions prior to braising, they will have completely melted into the sauce. Serve over the mashed potatoes you made during the long braise. (Alternatively, I can more easily imagine this with egg noodles than rice.)
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Five dishes worth mastering… are they really easy? Having made them all in one day for this essay, I’ll just say that some were a lot easier than others, but they were all what I would call reproducibly doable. After you make one of these once, the next time will be more than twice as easy. And if you love to cook half as much as I do, you’ll enjoy yourself on the learning curve.