I don’t consider myself a great cook. I have been trained so I understand technique and cooking methods, and am not afraid or intimidated by recipes, but like art school, or music conservatories, culinary school can teach you technique, but no one can teach you to be talented. That being said, I have made some really great meals that stand out in my mind as wonderful and delicious memories.
What makes a great meal? Years ago I was part of a supper club. We agreed on a budget, and each month we met at a different home. I was pretty excited and enthusiastic— this was going to be awesome! Everyone involved was really into food, knew the best restaurants, and was taking this whole thing seriously and in fact a bit competitively too. I had high hopes for the meals to come, and they were dashed from the start.
It takes more than good components to make a great meal. All the dishes need to be complementary; timing is critical, seasonality is important, and of course execution and presentation are key. For a meal to be great it doesn’t have to be complicated or elaborate, almost anyone will say that a good roast chicken with mashed potatoes and sautéed spinach is a great meal, and that’s a pretty simple endeavor.
Here are my best and most unforgettable meals. You can easily make any of them, and I will provide the sources and/or recipes.
1.For Christmas one year I made a Chouroute Garnie. The main thing this requires is a really large pot and a lot of time. It is a one-pot meal of pork and sausages and sauerkraut cooked in white wine until the flavors meld, the fat is rendered into the cooking liquid and the sauerkraut is like silk. I got the recipe from Bon Appetite magazine. Promise me you will only serve this from November through March
2.A southwestern style brisket– this is another time consuming, but easy dish. The recipe is from The Sheila Lukins (from the Silver Palate) USA Cookbook, and I served it with sweet potato pancakes and collard greens. I have made this meal a few times, always to rave reviews!
3.Roast chicken with goat cheese and wild rice stuffing. I served this dish years ago when I was a guest at a friend’s house on Fire Island. A salad was the only accompaniment. The cheese melted into the stuffing making it creamy, and a bit tangy. No cookbook, just me, a chicken and a small grocery store with not a lot of choices.
4.Veal Cutlets Marsala, with fettuccine was the first meal I cooked entirely on my own, for company. I think I was about fourteen, and this was many years before it became shameful to eat veal, feel free to substitute chicken breast if you care to make this. My grandmother was staying with our family and a friend of hers was there as well. Every time I saw my grandmother’s friend Mabel she talked about this meal.
My best advice for tackling an important meal, or impressing guests is don’t over- reach; use techniques you feel confident with. Plan ahead; when I am having company I make a timing schedule so I have a pretty good chance at everything being ready at the same time. If I am serving many dishes, like for Thanksgiving, I take out all my serving bowls and platters and put notes in each one for what food goes in which. Don’t make more than one labor- intensive item per meal, why make yourself crazy(er).
I’m a firm believer that anyone can cook. Most of success in cooking comes down to using good ingredients, good preparation, and accurately following directions. I once spoke to someone who worked at a cooking magazine, and she told me that most of the complaints she got were from people who didn’t follow the recipe and then were unhappy with the results, hmmm. If a recipe doesn’t make sense to you don’t use it, it was probably badly written. What was the best meal you ever made? Was it for a special occasion, or a family diner? Let me know or share it in the comments!