Deconstructing one-pot cooking
Taking it apart to put it back together again
One-pot cooking is a universal (well, at least worldwide) cooking method. It creates something nutritious and satisfying by using a simple technique with minimal technology. As such, it has a deep tradition and is embedded in our culinary history (and probably our DNA), evoking homely and comforting memories. Nothing wrong with that. Although, some one-pot dishes are strictly codified and fiercely defended (e.g. Bouillabaisse), and so miss the point of one-pot cooking.
But the classic approach is only a method to produce a result; it is the result that matters (tender meat and vegetables in a flavoursome sauce). So, a modernist approach is to think about how to achieve a result and perhaps improve on it, without being confined by a method. This is no different to any other form of human progress — we just have to decide if progress is what we want. But we can have progress and tradition too. Increasingly, we are seeing remarkable innovations by chefs who keep their cultural and culinary heritage as a reference point. As the Italian master-chef Massimo Bottura puts it — even a Ferrari has a rear-view mirror.
The approach is to separate the processes of cooking the proteins and making the sauce, optimising both and recombining them to serve.
This approach also works for those other one-pot wonders, soups. Start with basic stocks made in bulk and frozen in portions. It is good to at least have a beef stock and a chicken stock portioned in bags in the freeze. Focus here on the base flavour — they will be more versatile if they are kept simple.
Then, as an example, take the classic cure-all: chicken noodle soup. Apart from the stock, there are 4 components — chicken, vegetables, noodles and aromatics. The first three get cooked separately by whatever method you chose and to whatever tenderness you desire. I recommend chicken thighs cooked sous vide (62C; 90m); noodles boiled al dente and strained; steamed vegetables (carrots, mushrooms, onions — keep it simple, its not vegetable soup). The aromatics (e.g. pepper, thyme, bay, star anise) are meanwhile selected and reserved. Up to this stage everything could be pre-prepared and held until needed (for days even).
Now, make a cup of tea, in your mind at least. You would not boil tea for an extended time to better extract tea flavour, nor prepare it ahead of time and reheat it. So, the soup aromatics need to be treated the same way.
To serve: Warm and portion the chicken, noodles and vegetables into hot bowls; heat the stock and add the aromatics; steep for ~2–3m; strain into the bowls; garnish as desired.
Most people would already take some or most of these steps, I’m using this example to highlight the deconstructionist idea. If you scrutinise the components of the dish, get each one just right and with attention to their balance (e.g. the chicken juicy-tender, the noodles and vegetables al dente, the aromatics steeped to their prime), then even chicken noodle soup can be taken to another level.
For a bit more finesse, the hot stock and aromatics could be combined in a plunger coffee-maker and poured into the bowls at the table. This draws attention to the connection between flavouring water to make a beverage (tea or coffee) and flavouring stock to make a soup. Plus, it adds a little theatre (or pretence, depending on your perspective).
For soup recipes that have the word ‘and‘ in their title, think about the two components. Pea and ham soup is traditionally made with dried peas and is delicious. The use of dried peas is because the one-pot version requires a long cook to extract flavour from the ham bones and the peas have to be able to stand up to that. By making the ham stock separately it is possible to think differently about the peas — Heston B. defrosts frozen green peas, adds them to the pre-constructed ham stock, and gives it a quick puree. It is still pea and ham soup, but taken in a new direction.
Many slow-cooked one-pot dishes benefit from deconstruction. Try making a curry using the same principle — tender cooked meat and separately composed sauce combined at the last minute. Divide-and-conquer.
The process of breaking up a recipe into components also applies to breaking them up in time.
To cook dried beans, consider separating the overnight soaking phase from the next day cooking phase by soaking in bulk and freezing the soaked beans in convenient servings. It is the same as having frozen stocks to call on. Anytime (mid-week for example) that you feel like a hearty baked bean dish, it is only 25 minutes away with frozen beans and a pressure cooker.
Another example; par-cooked risotto (gasp). Another peasant dish that has become codified and rareified.
The basis for a risotto is cooking rice by slowly adding stock and constantly stirring. The rice cooks from the outside in. By adding stock a little at a time and stirring, the grains rub against each other and release surface starch that thickens the stock and forms a sauce (if stock was added all at once, the grains would just float around — rice soup). Evaporation concentrates the stock. The process is stopped while the centres of the rice grains are still chewy. Specialised, large-grain rice varieties better control this outside-starchy, inside-firm, cooking technique. The risotto is finished with butter and parmesan, and in total it should have a creamy-chewy texture. On analysis, it’s a method for cooking rice and making a sauce, nothing mysterious there. The downside is the time and tedium involved. So, what about reducing this with a par-cook?
Par-cooked risotto was pioneered by an Italian no less — the Milanese chef Gualtiero Marchesi (the first chef in Italy to receive three Michelin stars and considered the father of modern Italian cuisine). The idea is to cook then refrigerate the grains. Refrigeration firms the starch granules because they take on a more solid crystalline structure, a process of retrogradation that regular readers would have seen me discuss before. It is retrogradation that firms bread and causes staling. Here we use it to advantage to firm-up the rice to yield a bite (al dente). Par-cooking can use any method, but it can be completed in about 3m in a pressure cooker (estimate about twice as much stock as rice; include some oil and vermouth); cool and place in a layer on a pre-chilled tray in the fridge to cool and firm until required. The final step is then to finish on the stovetop with reduced stock as needed (~3m); allow to rest briefly; stir in other prepared ingredients and flavourings. Ecco! A creamy-chewy risotto can be on the table in minutes (full recipe here).
It can be fun (and insightful) to look at recipes with a new and fresh objectivity — to understand tradition but not be overwhelmed by its mystique.