Restaurant tips for entertaining at home and Miso-sake steamed mussels from The Black Birch in Kittery, Maine
I consider myself a kind of professional home cook. I went to culinary school and practice some techniques used by professional chefs, but I make very simple, doable food.
Being a kind of hybird, I’m often thinking about what restaurants can learn from home cooks, and what home cooks can learn from the hospitality pros. I love the restaurant trend of serving really high-quality food in a comfy, laid back atmosphere.
A while back, I wrote a Food & Travel story about The Black Birch – a fantastic little gastro-pub in Kittery Maine, for The Boston Globe. The picture below is of the co-owners, Ben Lord and Gavin Beaudry who run the front of the house, and Jake smith co-owner/executive chef, as well as Skye Bonney the Sous Chef.
These four know what entertaining is all about: making your guests feel welcome and happy, and serving them delicious food and drinks. I was really drawn to their restaurant because it has this lively warmth that makes you feel like you’re dining at your friends house, or at some really great neighborhood block party.
Speaking of Block Parties, I just read that The Black Birch is one of the sponsors of The Kittery Block Party, happening next weekend, June, 16th. I will be headed to the Berkshires (my first time, so excited!) but it sounds like something fun to check out if you are in the area.
While restaurants are following the trend of a home-style dining experience, you can really punch up your own cooking by taking up some of the habits of professional chefs. I’m not talking molecular gastronomy or expensive sous-vide machines, just some very basic advice that’s changed the way I cook over the years.
1. Learn to season properly – I don’t detail this in my recipes, but all chefs do it automatically. Salt your cooking water generously, add a little salt to your onions right when they hit the pan to help them soften, if you have your meat ahead of time, season it the day before you cook it, or even a few hours before dinner, it really penetrates into the meat and will give you a juicer, more flavorful end result. And always, always, taste your food right before serving it, and add another sprinkle if necessary. I like to use kosher and sea salt – never iodized because it leaves an unpleasant metallic after-taste. I keep a small container of flaky Maldon Sea Salt on the table for the final sprinkling. It’s expensive but you only need a little and the sweet sea flavor and crunchy texture will elevate everything from a sliced tomato to a perfectly seared steak.
2. Turn up the heat – Don’t be afraid of a big flame or a hot oven - it’s the best way to get a nice sear on your scallops, crisp the skin on a roast chicken, and caramelize those peppers. I cook most everything over medium-high heat and roast meat at 400-425.
3. Keep it clean- This took me a long time to master, and truth be told I’m still working on it, but when I think back to when I first started cooking, I shudder. I would end up with this enormous mess that was so intimidating it wiped me out just looking at it. Thankfully, Artie will work for food, and is amazing about doing dishes. He is also very happy I have changed my ways. My 3 essential tips are this - Take time to clean up the kitchen and unload the dishwasher before you get started. You will have more room to work, and you can just rinse and stack the dishes right in the machine as you dirty them, instead of letting them pile up and swallow your sink and counter space. I also hand-wash big bowls and things as I go. I promise it will save you time and effort later. I only wish it didn’t take me 5 years to learn this. Use a garbage bowl, I think I picked this up watching Rachael Ray back in college. It will save you trips to the trash and keep your space tidy. Have plenty of kitchen rags, they are cheap and a great investment. I like to have a rag hooked through my apron string to wipe my hands (a tip from my editor at The Globe, Sheryl), another to wipe clean dishes, one to wipe down the counters as I cook, and a damp rag under my cutting board so it doesn’t slip all over the place (you can also use a damp paper towel for this). I still use more paper towels than I would like to admit, but using washable rags really cuts down on wasted paper and money. I also use one of those sponges you can sanitize in the dishwasher to clean the cabinets and counter space, but any old dish towel will do.
I hope these tips are helpful!
Finally, I want to share this recipe for Miso and sake steamed mussels from The Black Birch. After inhaling a bowl, I watched sous chef, Skye Bonney, whip these up. I jotted down an approximation of the recipe, and adapted it for home cooks. Plump, juicy little mussels in an addictive miso broth, with garlic, ginger, and green onions. I want some right now.
Mussels are a dish that many people leave to the restaurants.
They are delicious, inexpensive, and so quick to make! Just check the dates on the tag on the bag to make sure they are fresh, or go to a fish market you trust that sells them by the pound. Make them once and they will become a regular part of your repertoire.
Mussels in a green curry broth was one of the first recipes I ever wrote for The Boston Globe, give them a try too.
If you want to get really fancy, you can fry store-bought wonton chips for a minute or two in some canola oil and garnish the bowl like they do at the restaurant. I tend to leave that to the pros and just sop up the delicious broth with crusty bread from the bakery. Either way, your guests will be impressed.
Miso and sake steamed mussels
Serves 4 as an appetizer
2 pounds mussels
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 tablespoon chopped fresh ginger
3 green onions, chopped
3 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
1 1/2 cups dry sake
1 tablespoon white miso paste
1/3 cup kimchi
1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro
crusty bread for serving
1. Rinse mussels under cold running water and pull off any stringy beards. With your fingernail, tap any mussels that remain open after rinsing. If they do not close, discard them, along with any that have broken shells.
2. In a pot large enough to hold all the mussels, melt the butter over medium-high heat. Add the ginger, green onion, and garlic and cook for 1 minute until fragrant.
3. Add the mussels and sake, cover and steam for 7 minutes, shaking the pot a few times to ensure even cooking.
4. Turn off heat, and discard any mussels that did not open during cooking. Stir in miso paste and kimchi, and season to taste with salt and pepper. Sprinkle with cilantro and serve with crusty bread and a bowl for empty shells.
CATHERINE SMART, ADAPTED FROM THE BLACK BIRCH