Ever stand in your kitchen when you think no one is looking and try to flip an omelet in the air or perhaps a real sauté (without the use of a spatula!)? “Look ma, no hands!” you think. “I’m just like the chefs on TV,” you think… until, of course, the omelet lands on the floor. In the real world of cooking, many factors separate you, the home cook, from the expert restaurant chef: a culinary education, hours and hours of commercial kitchen experience and a seasoned palate. Notwithstanding these differences, there are several lessons you can learn from a trained chef’s approach to cooking that can be utilized in the home kitchen.
When a plate reaches your table in a restaurant, part of the beauty of the experience (and the reason you’re willing to pay top dollar!) is that you didn’t have to prepare it yourself or even think of all the work it took to create such a dish. But if a patron ever caught a glimpse into the inner workings of a restaurant kitchen, one thing that would become evident is the large scale use of what I like to call “building block” recipes. Used to create scrumptious, memorable dishes, “building block” recipes are those things that aren’t eaten by themselves, but rather are the components used to prepare other dishes. Flavorful chicken stocks provide the basis for exceptional sauces; flavor-infused oils add a burst of spice. Homemade salsas, condiments and purees are used to build different dimensions of flavors in a dish, layer upon layer.
I don’t know about you, but last I checked, I didn’t have a staff in my home kitchen to prepare homemade BBQ sauce and the like just to have at my ready….the average home cook simply doesn’t have time to prepare a constant supply of these secondary recipes to the same degree as in a professional kitchen. Here and there though, building block recipes can be prepared on a smaller scale at home, many of which have a good shelf life or will last for quite a while in the refrigerator. Original spice mixes will last for months in the cupboard; stocks can be frozen in small portions and defrosted quickly for a special sauce. A homemade pesto will last for several weeks in the fridge and is a handy “secret weapon” to spruce up any sandwich or wrap, toss with pastas, or to flavor salad dressings (you can even freeze them in ice cube portions). With most building block recipes, a little goes a long way and will yield greater returns than just for one meal. Pick and choose which items are your own personal homemade favorites to have on hand, substituting others with store-bought versions. Consider that extra time spent a small, yet worthwhile investment toward raising the bar for the distinct quality of food that comes out of your very own kitchen.
This week’s recipe incorporates one of my favorite building block recipes to have on hand – a wickedly good roasted garlic dip, perfect for spreading on crusty bread or as a flavor booster like in the recipe below.
A wicked, roasted garlic spread smeared under the skin is the secret to creating this moist, flavorful entrée. The spread can be prepared ahead. Use any leftover spread independently as a terrific accoutrement on breads or toasts.
Yield: 4-6 servings
6 heads garlic
4 tbsp. olive oil, divided, plus more for drizzling
1 tsp. kosher salt, plus more to taste
1½ tsp. Zaatar spice, plus more for sprinkling
Freshly ground black pepper
8 chicken thighs
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Working with each garlic head, peel away the excess “paper,” being careful to keep the garlic heads intact. You should now have very lean looking garlic heads. Cut approximately 1/8”-1/4” off the top of each individual clove on the garlic head. Place the garlic heads on a large piece of tin foil or in a garlic roaster. Drizzle 1-2 tablespoons of olive oil liberally over top of the cut garlic heads. Sprinkle 1 teaspoon kosher salt over the heads. Wrap with foil to cover (or cover garlic roaster). Bake for 1 hour or until garlic is soft when pierced with the tip of a knife. Remove from oven and allow to cool.
Working over a bowl, carefully squeeze each garlic clove out of its peel into the bowl – gloves are a plus for this messy job! Transfer squeezed garlic to the bowl of a food processor fitted with an “S” blade. Add 2 tablespoons olive oil and Zaatar spice. Process until mixture is smooth, adding more oil to taste. Season to taste with salt and pepper, or more Zaatar if desired. Transfer to a small bowl and set aside.
Raise oven temperature to 425 degrees.
Rinse chicken and pat dry. Gently run your fingers underneath the skin, creating a pocket of space. Spoon 1-2 teaspoons garlic spread under the skin and distribute with a knife (alternatively, press skin down over spread and smooth out to distribute with fingers). Repeat with remaining chicken thighs and transfer them to a roasting pan.
Rub the outside of the skin of the chicken with a drizzle of olive oil. Generously sprinkle thighs with Zaatar spice, freshly ground black pepper, and a pinch of kosher salt. Roast uncovered for 1 hour, until skin is nicely browned and crisp.