After wrapping up my last lesson and personal evaluation in my America’s Test Kitchen Cooking School course course on Secrets to Sautéing, I was left feeling a little bittersweet. While I was ecstatic over all of my successes during the course, I also started to worry if I would be able to translate everything I learned through the school into my own kitchen — without the video tutorials, foolproof recipe tutorials, virtual Bridget’s comforting tone, and the in-depth feedback and evaluation from my personal test kitchen instructor, David. So I clicked back through some of my messages from David for encouragement and decided that the best way to see what I really learned –and show off just a bit — was to turn off the computer, grab my shiny new copy of The Cook’s Illustrated Cookbook, and pick out a skillet-based dinner that could impress even some of my pickiest friends.
Many pans, new plan
In my imagination, I’m convinced I have a degree in party-planning (and throwing). However, the reality is that while every gathering that I’ve hosted has ended on a shining note, there never seems to be a shortage of potential pitfalls along the way. But this time just had to be different, so I kept thinking about Bridget’s promise of succeeding with just “a pan and a plan” and got to work. And oh, was there work to do, beginning with the menu. Since my course focused on the three key techniques for skillet-based cooking — sautéing, pan-searing, and pan-roasting — I wanted to make sure each new skill made its way to my dinner menu. However, I also knew there would be at least eight mouths to feed, I needed to either double recipes or add more dishes to the menu so that no one would go hungry. And then came the requests. Because my friends had been hearing about my two-time steak success, I needed to find a way to include some sort of steak dish on the menu. Then there were two courses — a salad and a dessert — that had me wondering if it was even possible to find a recipe that used a skillet at all in the preparation. By this point, I had admittedly planned myself right into a frenzy. If left to my own devices and imagination, there would have been at least 20 dishes on the menu and I would still be standing at my stove, cooking away. So I turned to our photographer extraordinaire, Steve Klise, for some help and together we narrowed the menu down to just seven dishes:
- Pan-Roasted Pear Salad with Radicchio, Blue Cheese, and Walnuts
- Pan-Seared Chicken Breasts with Lemon and Chive Pan Sauce
- Pan-Seared Shrimp with Garlic-Lemon Butter
- Pan-Seared Inexpensive Steak with Mustard-Cream Sauce
- Pan-Roasted Broccoli with Lemon Browned Butter
- Sautéed Mushrooms with Shallots and Thyme
- Skillet Apple Crisp with Maple and Bacon
That’s so much better! Now I just needed to round up some extra pans, a table, enough seats for everyone, and figure out exactly how I was going to fit everything into my “one-butt kitchen” (thank you, Megan!).
Down to business
Once I had all the pesky planning details down, it was time to get to work. Between rearranging my furniture, cleaning my kitchen for what seemed like the millionth time in a week, getting all my groceries, forgetting the flowers for the centerpieces, and getting myself settled in the kitchen — I was terrified to look at the clock to see exactly how late I was running in my perfectly-planned schedule. Luckily, my doorbell rang before I was able to have a total meltdown and I was greeted by Steve’s friendly face, who assured me that everything was going to be okay — and if it wasn’t, there was always Domino’s. I had a laugh and got back to work.
I really should have known better than to worry. Between a guest list of eight (myself included), kitchen-minded folks, and a stash of aprons, everything started to come together perfectly. And before I knew it, the pears were perfectly pan-roasted, the Skillet Apple Crisp was in the oven, and I was putting the finishing touches on the salad.
While everyone started to dig in to the salad, I got to work on the chicken and broccoli. And as I should have anticipated, my friends started to make their way to the stove. I’m pretty sure it was the smell that had everyone gravitating my way, but once they started seeing how everything was coming together — they were there to stay. Once I got the chicken moved to the oven, my friends were able to witness the sheer glee as I worked on my pan sauce. As I began stirring, I noticed there was a bit of a hush behind me. And seven new “Fond is my friend” converts were born.
Once those dishes were on the table for my friends to enjoy, I went right back to the stove to get started on the mushrooms and shrimp. Between the squeak of the fresh mushrooms and that intoxicating smell of browning butter, it didn’t take long for my friends to join me once again in the kitchen. And considering I needed some skillets and cutting boards washed up, I wasn’t too quick to shoo them away. It was around this time that I felt like everything had started to fall into a groove — the food was getting to the table fresh off the stove, the conversation was fun and light, and there were helping hands all around.
And now it’s a party!
It’s never really a party at my house until I break something — and that night was no different. One wayward elbow and a wine glass hit the floor. Luckily for everyone standing close, it was empty and the broom and dustpan were just an arm’s length away. I also took this as a sign that it was time to get the steaks ready to go into the pan. After a quick, but thorough clean-up of the broken glass, I grabbed a clean skillet and that butcher-paper wrapped package that had been taunting my friends long enough. I patted the meat dry while I waited for the skillet to heat up and we were soon greeted with that sweet sound and smell of meat searing just right.
After we had all finished fighting over the last few bites of steak, it was time for me to pour a fresh round of wine, sit down, and join my friends in digging into the final course — the skillet apple crisp. With bacon. I repeat, skillet apple crisp with bacon. I’ve always been one to make some last minute omissions and substitutions in my dishes and since I had done my best to cook this whole meal, literally, by the book, there was only one last opportunity to add my own touch and that was the whipped cream. Steve, my designated sous chef, had started to reach for the vanilla but I quickly corrected him. A dish as cool as Skillet Apple Crisp with Maple and Bacon deserved something unique — and that was my special whiskey whipped cream. So I directed him to the not-really-so-secret stash and I was ready to serve the final dish.
For the first time ever in the history of me hosting dinner parties, there was not one single bite of food left over for me to send home with my friends. For a second, I was nervous that someone hadn’t gotten enough to eat, but my friends all quickly assured me they were as full as they could get. So I was perfectly content to keep the conversation going while I got the first load of dishes into the dishwasher, did a quick wipe-down of the counter, and just enjoyed the overall success of the evening. By this point, there was nothing left to do that couldn’t wait until the morning.
The next morning really was the perfect time to sit down with a cup of coffee and think back on the evening and make some notes of things I wanted to remember for the “next time” — before diving into the rest of the clean-up. I sent one last email to David, letting him know that — thanks to all of his help and the in-depth, foolproof lessons of the America’s Test Kitchen Cooking School — the dinner was a success. While I enjoyed my coffee, I realized that although I had prepared such a carefully crafted menu, I never actually gave any of the dishes a trial run to ease my nerves — I just went headfirst into every single course.
Thanks to the skills I learned from the cooking school, I survived this test — and personally think I passed with flying colors (though it may be a while before I think about hosting another dinner of similar scope). I think for now I will head back to the comfort of my oven for a little bit. Especially because I am pretty excited to see what the America’s Test Kitchen Cooking School has “baking up” for me to look forward to in the New Year.
And just like all of my earlier assignments, I didn’t have to wait long to hear back from David. Unlike earlier messages that included specific observations, tips, or notes for my consideration on future assignments, this message was one of simple encouragement: “Always push the envelope and take what you learn here and simply push it forward. The beauty of cooking is that it’s not stagnant. It has to always progress with the times.”
Excellent food for thought in all of my ongoing kitchen endeavors — and something to consider as I hope you all move forward in your cooking, whether you choose to be a part of the new America’s Test Kitchen Cooking School or decide to brave it on your own.
Last week we announced a new giveaway — a 1-year enrollment to America’s Test Kitchen Cooking School, starting in early 2012, to one lucky reader. Congratulations to our random winner, umommy! And thank you all again for your great comments!