It’s always nice to know that, as a mom, you have certain dishes that are a hit with your child. There are so many things that I like to eat and cook that she’s not at all interested in, but my daughter is an evangelist for the teriyaki chicken dish. I can’t even bring myself to call it my teriyaki chicken because it was my husband Chris’ recipe and broiling chicken and topping it with a sweet and savory sauce is about as basic as it gets.
As it happens, the last time I made teriyaki sauce I was surprised by the consensus around the table that the sauce had turned out the best it ever had. At first I wasn’t sure what I had done differently, but I knew that there was, mysteriously, more of it. Then I realized that in some state of distraction I had poured in a whole cup of sugar instead of a ½ cup the recipe called for. Accidentally doubling the sugar isn’t always a charm, but in this case it was.
One of my mom’s signature dishes was also a simple chicken dish that people clamored for – southern fried chicken. I only say ‘was’ because she stopped making it many years ago and I was shy to ask for it because I knew it was rather unhealthy for us all, but then Chris kept hearing about it and its legendary status and lately said, “hey, when do I get to try some of this spectacular chicken?”
Mom’s chicken was famous in our home town in Westchester County in NY. Our parents hosted a party for each of us kids when we graduated from high school, and all the faculty of our small public high school were invited. Mom taught at another high school in a neighboring town. “Is your mom making her fried chicken again?” “Oh yes.” The faculty would definitely turn out. A few days ahead of the event, she would set up a deep-frying station in the basement and start making the chicken. It seemed like she was making an impossibly large amount but there were never any leftovers.
Fried chicken, that’s a fairly simple dish, right? It’s not like anyone can patent dredging chicken in seasoned flour and frying it in oil but my mother certainly has an aplomb for doing it though I do not. I did try a few times and don’t mind admitting that I find frying chicken intimidating so gave it up a while ago. We all have our strengths and sometimes – as in my case – having the secret won’t even do a person any particular good. [I can share this privileged information, by the way , as my mom is not very proprietary about it: you must start with fresh Crisco shortening for frying the chicken and not re-use it, as some people do. She also doesn’t put more than salt and pepper in the breading. Too many spices narrows its appeal. Also, she does not dip the chicken in egg first before breading it.]
Perhaps when we talk about a cook’s secrets, secret isn’t really the right word. Perhaps it’s a simpler term for expressing the je ne sais quoi, that thing, that method you’ve developed that makes your dish reliably perfect even though you can’t even articulate what that thing is when asked. Practice has told you when the pudding has thickened enough or the dough has absorbed just the right amount of flour. Perhaps it’s enough cases of this inability to really transfer your personal métier de success to somebody else that gave rise to that concept that the chef was purposefully keeping a secret from you.
I loved the revelation of the secret ingredient of Po’s dad’s ‘Secret Ingredient Soup’ in the charming animated movie Kung Fu Panda [spoiler alert! don’t read on if you don’t want to know]:
Po (the panda of the film’s title) is surprised when his father confides the secret – that there is no secret ingredient. “To make something special, you just have to believe it’s special!” And from that concept flows the hero’s understanding the enigma of the blank dragon scroll, the key to accepting his destiny to become Dragon Warrior – faith in yourself. (I just love cleverly written family films that use food to philosophize about faith and wisdom!)
So I’m not really a fan of keeping cooking secrets close to my vest. If I were, I probably wouldn’t be posting my old stand-by recipes in a blog. I like having the chronicle of domestic science endeavors collected here.
How many times have we found ourselves serving something with the announcement, “Well I hope it’s good, but I’m not sure what I did. So if we do like it I’m not sure we can it just this way again”? In the service of keeping track of just how I hit upon a pretty reliable method for making carnitas – a Mexican style pork dish I happen to love that can be used to fill burritos or tacos – I am including the recipe below. (I believe the recipe could also be easily adapted to equivalent cuts of beef.) My recipe is still evolving, but the last two times I served it, it got very positive reviews that made me feel very pleased. While I am conscious that I sound a little un-humble here, I have to say that when you see the recipe and how very simple and lacking in even the opportunity for secret ingredients it is, you will understand that I am not trying to take credit with the dishes’ greatness by sharing the recipe. The meat itself should get all the credit, when you prepare it like this you just accept to role of distributor and perhaps cheerleader – making sure that it doesn’t reach people’s plates until it is good and ready.
By the way, my mom did answer the call to make fried chicken for us recently. It was a joyous revival. She said it wasn’t up to her usual standard, and while it’s possible that she may have been a little out of practice, it was pretty darn amazing. It was one of those meals where we couldn’t really stop ourselves from eating far more than we should have. She also said that she wouldn’t make us wait another 10 years before making it again since we’d liked it so much. Though it may be a dangerous addition to our kitchen, we are starting to shop around for a deep fryer. We are thinking about this being okay if we keep ‘fry night’ to no more than once a month, but more rules and regulations might need to be set forth before we take such a step (talk about a slippery slope!). Stay tuned!
If any ‘secrets of your success’ come to mind that you are willing to share here, please do. And if you try making the carnitas and like it, please let me know.
– 3-3.5 pounds of pork shoulder. (boneless country ribs cut works great)
– 1 medium onion, coarsely chopped
– 2 tbsp. vegetable oil
– 6-8 cloves of garlic, peeled and quartered
– 1 quart chicken stock (you may only need 2 cups, but it’s good to have extra on hand)
– Flour for dredging pork strips (optional)
In a flat dish, dredge the pork strips in flour.
In a Dutch oven or heavy bottomed pot, heat the olive oil and then add the chopped onions. Sautee until translucent, about 5 minutes.
Add the pork to pot with onions and brown, turning ribs over after 4-5 minutes per side until all surfaces of the meat are browned.
Add the garlic and enough chicken stock so that the liquid comes up no more than halfway up the sides of the meat sitting at the bottom of the pot. (You don’t want it to boil in the stock, you want to braise it.)
Lower heat, cover the pot and cook meat for 3 hours or so, checking on it now and then to turn the meat or add stock if liquid is getting too low.
Turn off heat. Allow meat to cool, at least 30 minutes, then put in a container where it will stay in the refrigerator for a day (or two or three) until you are ready to cook it again before serving.
Skim off the cream colored fat that has collected on the surface.
Preheat oven to 400.
Put the pork and congealed broth in a pot and reheat and bring to simmer. Let it heat for about 20 minutes, though it can go longer if you need it to. You can also add more chicken broth at this stage.
Transfer the meat and liquid to an oblong pyrex pan and spread in a single layer. If you want to shred the meat, you can do so at this stage. Add salt and pepper according to your taste.
Roast the meat in the oven for 30-45 minutes. If stock evaporates too quickly, add some more, but most of the liquid will be evaporated by the time you serve, and some of the meat should be looking extra browned and a little crispy on the edges.
Serve with tortillas, rice, tomatillo salsa and a side dish of lettuce leaves and chopped tomatoes for those putting together a taco or burrito.