Friday, September 11, 2009

Culinary Adventures: Poulet à l’Orient

So, part of this whole "living on your own" experience is the challenge of cooking for yourself. Since going out is far too expensive to do more than occasionally, and prepackaged foods are usually unhealthy and always lacking in panache, the best way to feed yourself is to cook your own food. With that in mind, I've decided to share some of my experiments in the kitchen under the title "Culinary Adventures" - because, although I've been cooking for a while, I've always had a safety net (either my mother or the university food service). Now I'm on my own - let the adventure begin!

I didn't do a whole lot of innovative cooking in my first two weeks here because I was still settling in, but now that I've got things pretty much in order, it's time to start testing my culinary wings. You can see the results of my first endeavor at the right. Because I have a ridiculous and admittedly pretentious love of fancy French names for my culinary concoctions (even if I have to make them up, as I did this one), I've named this one Poulet à l’Orient (which translates, for those readers who don't speak French, as Oriental or Eastern Chicken). Here's what I did:


I took a quarter of a mid-sized Spanish onion and stuck it in my mini food processor, and once it was finely chopped, threw in two cloves of garlic and did the same. Then I put half a cup of rice on the stove (no not directly onto the stovetop, you cheeky bugger - in a little pot with some water) and defrosted a chicken breast in the microwave. I put the onions and garlic in a frying pan and sautéed them while I cut up the chicken. Then I threw in the chicken and, on impulse, added some frozen beans (French cut). I sauteed the whole thing, then spooned it onto a bed of rice and voila, a meal. But how good was it? (Please forgive the pretension below - I'm imitating Iron Chef.)


Presentation: 4 of 5
The physical presence is adequate, good symmetry, very solid, wholesome feel. But the onion look slightly burned, which is distasteful, and the colors are somewhat dull.
How to Improve: Don't chop the onion as finely, and the pieces won't burn; it doesn't need to be cooked as long either. Consider fresh beans instead of frozen and add them later (or cook them separately and add them right at the end) for a more vibrant color.

Taste: 7 of 10
The chicken was quite tender, which is good, but lacks independent flavor beyond that of chicken, which is quite mild. The same goes for the rice. The primary flavor element here is the garlic/onion sauté, which is a bit salty and dominates the rest of the dish. It's not dominant to the point of unpleasant, but it does blot out the other elements fairly effectively. I couldn't even taste the beans, for example.
How to Improve: Less onion may reduce the salty flavor, though fewer larger pieces, as noted above, will keep them from burning, which may reduce the salty taste as well. Season the chicken before or immediately after moving it to the frying pan with something appropriate - simple black pepper, or perhaps a more Asian spice, like curry. Put something in the rice, too - a little salt, maybe a little olive oil.

Health: 4 of 5
The vegetables are, without doubt, secondary as far as nutrition is concerned, and the rice is nothing but a carbohydrate. But the chicken was a healthy choice, and none of the ingredients were mixes, artificial powders, or pre-prepared.
How to Improve: A higher ratio of vegetables to meat and carbs will make this dish healthier; consider removing the chicken and going vegetarian altogether (in fact, if you remove the chicken but keep everything else the same, this dish is actually vegan).

Ingenuity, Creativity, and Thrift: 4 of 5
It's not revolutionary, but I seldom cook Asian inspired dishes, and while I didn't intend for this to be quasi-Asian, it turned out that way and I'm not unhappy about it (hooray for broadening horizons), so it's a step in the right experimental direction. Not hugely creative either, but the sudden inspiration to throw in some beans was a good one. Thrift? Not bad - a half-cup of rice can't be worth more than 25 cents, a quarter of an onion (54 cents/lb., one 1/2lb. onion for 26 cents, and 1/4 of that makes a mere 7 cents), two lobes of a clove of garlic for probably 20 cents, a handful of frozen beans (at 99 cents/package) no more than 10 cents - the only even remotely pricey thing was the chicken breast, which probably cost a dollar. So a full meal for under two dollars - now that's nothing to be ashamed of!
How to Improve: Removing the chicken makes this dish even cheaper, but that's not imperative. Try some more revolutionary combinations of ingredients (add water chestnuts for additional Asian points, or give it a Mediterranean feel with fresh basil, chopped cherry or grape tomatoes, and some oregano). Consider ginger, curry, and chilis.

Overall: 19 of 25 (B+)
Not bad for an experiment - it can be made better, but it's a solid start. My next task is to master the oven - as gas oven with no way of telling me when it's preheated. Still, I won't go for ten months without baking cookies, not when I've got my own kitchen. Will keep you posted - stay tuned for more Culinary Adventures!

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