Chuck read the recipe over my shoulder. "Oh, I remember Mar i Muntanya," he said. "Some kid made it next to me in class," he said. "It tasted like dirty dishwater."
I frowned. We were most of the way through culinary school, and I really didn't want to waste one of my last days making lame food.
"Oh, don't worry," he said. "It's a great recipe; it's all there. That kid just couldn't cook for shit — he can't get flavor out of anything."
Professional cooks have a particular way with the word "flavor." They often use it not in terms of type, but in terms of quantity; it's not "What flavor is it?" but "How do I get more flavor in it?" And usually what they're talking about isn't even what ingredients go into a dish, but what they're getting out of them — it's about techniques that our instructors and chefs pound into us to bring out and build the flavors of our ingredients.
The Culinary Institute of America's recipe below for Mar i Muntanya, Catalan for "Sea and Mountain," has a lot going for it: braised chicken and shrimp, thick with ground almonds, floral with Pernod, it hits you with waves of garlic and an undercurrent of chocolate. Even when not made perfectly, it's a memorable dish. (Don't mind Chuck; he's a superhuman cook with standards to match.)
But what's really notable about it are the methods with which the dish teaches you to build flavor in all your food: You cook things slowly, patiently, to extract and concentrate flavors, and then you structure and layer them on top of one another. Think of the process in phases.
It starts with a sofregit, a Catalan base of slow-cooked onions and tomatoes, although the technique is common to lots of cuisines. Cooking vegetables slowly breaks down their cells, releasing juices that are then concentrated by reduction. It allows sugars to caramelize evenly, rather than blackening and burning in spots. And it marries flavors together, rounding them out and making them hard to pin down individually. All these processes give the dish an underlying sweetness and complexity, a foundation. Often you won't detect these flavors right up front, but they're the ones that flesh out the background.
The middle phase is the braise, where a sear on the chicken gives you rich, browned flavor, and the bird and shrimp simmer and release their juices to the wine and stock.
And the finish gives you accents and high notes. Often the last thing you add to the pan is the first thing you taste — the relative rawness of your finishing touch keeps its flavors fresh and brash, while fats or oils in the finish give the whole sauce a glossy veil. In this recipe, you finish the sauce with a picada, another Catalan base of ground nuts, which gives it a toasty, garlicky, beguiling sexiness.
When you combine a strong finish with a rich, slow start, you end up with a progression of flavors that spark the palate at first bite and change while you eat, each chew revealing different characteristics that you've layered into each phase. This is what cooks talk about when they talk about getting more flavor.
Catalan braised chicken and shrimp (Mar i Muntanya)
Modified from an original recipe by the Culinary Institute of America
1 medium-size sweet onion (about 6 ounces) cut into ¼" dice
4 plum tomatoes (canned or fresh in season), finely chopped
¾ pound shrimp, preferably 16-20 per pound size
1 3-pound chicken, cut into 8 pieces
4 ounces white wine
2 cups chicken stock (it's OK if you have less; see optional step below)
Extra-virgin olive oil, as needed
Pernod, to taste
Salt and pepper
Picada (see below), to taste
- Heat a tablespoon or so of olive oil in the heaviest sauté pan you have over medium heat. When the oil appears wavy when you tilt the pan, add the onion, stir to coat, and turn the heat down to low. Nothing will really happen for a while, so go ahead and start working on step 3 below. Just be sure to give the onion a stir every few minutes to start, so that it cooks evenly and doesn't start browning without your knowing.
- After the onion has turned translucent, season with a pinch of salt and pepper and stir more frequently. It will start to disintegrate a bit and, if you've been stirring regularly, evenly turn golden, maybe after 15 or 20 minutes. Add the tomatoes, raise the heat until they come to a boil, then turn it back down to low. Season with a pinch of salt and pepper. Again, stir every couple of minutes for the first while, and continue working on the steps below. When the mixture begins to look like it's drying out, stir more frequently until it all becomes a brick-red jam and the oil starts to ooze back out, probably another 20 minutes. That's your sofregit. Give it a taste. Isn't it incredibly sweet and mellow? That's flavor extraction, baby. Turn off the heat and reserve.
- Peel and devein the shrimp, keeping the shells. Fill a large bowl halfway with cold water and enough salt to make it taste nearly as salty as seawater. Brine the shrimp in this water for 20 minutes, then drain and reserve. The brining of shrimp not only seasons it thoroughly, but also gives it a snappy texture.
- Optional: I highly recommend fortifying your stock with shrimp shells; you'll get a much richer flavor for just a few more minutes of effort. Or, if you don't have enough chicken stock, do this to help stretch what you do have. Get a heavy pot ripping hot over high heat. Add about a teaspoon of oil. When it smokes, add the shrimp shells and let them sear. When it's fragrant, stir them to turn the shells pink, and continue stirring and cooking until they start to take on a little color; the smell should be fantastic. Add your stock and more water if necessary to just cover the shells. Bring to a boil, turn down to a simmer, and cook 20 minutes. Strain the stock and keep it hot. Give the stock a taste. Stock is not supposed to be so delicious you want to drink it straight, but you should be thinking, "Well, it's a little watery, but I do like what's in there." If you find yourself loving your stock right off the bat, hey, be happy.
- Now here's more flavor-building: browning the chicken. Pat the chicken pieces dry with a paper towel, and season all over with salt and pepper. In a Dutch oven, heat enough olive oil to cover the bottom of the pan over medium-high heat until the oil starts getting wavy again. Add the chicken skin side down in one layer, leaving a little room between pieces. You will probably have to do this in batches. After a couple of minutes, take a peek. If the chicken pieces are golden brown, flip them and color the other side. Remove the browned chicken and look at the bottom of your pot. Are there lots of brown bits stuck there? If not, continue browning the remaining chicken. If yes, pour out the excess fat, tip in half the white wine to deglaze the pan, stir to pick up all the bits, pour it out and save it with the chicken. Now wipe the pot out with paper towel and brown the next batch of chicken. Either way, after all the chicken is done, deglaze with the wine, pick up the brown bits, add the sofregit and return all the chicken to the pot, arranging the pieces as snugly and space-efficiently as possible. Pour in any accumulated juices.
- Add enough stock to come between a third and a half of the way up the chicken. If you don't have enough stock, go ahead and add water until you get the right amount of liquid, but don't use much more than 2½ cups total. Bring to a boil over high heat, then turn down to a gentle simmer. Simmer covered for 20 minutes, shifting and flipping the chicken partway through so that all the parts, particularly the dark meat, get time in the drink.
- Add a few splashes of Pernod to taste; I like it best when I can just tell that the anise flavor is in there, but it isn't super forward. Simmer, partially covered, for another 10 minutes.
- Take out a few pieces of chicken and test them for doneness. Most crudely, you can poke into them near the bone with a knife and see if the juices run out clear and bloodless. Remove the finished chicken from the pot and cover loosely.
- Stir half the picada into the liquid and let it cook for 2 minutes. The chocolate, nuts, bread and oil will thicken the sauce; it should be able to coat the chicken, something you could imagine eating either with a spoon or by sopping it up with bread. If it's too runny, or if you just love the flavor of the picada, add more and let it cook another couple of minutes. When it's the right consistency, taste it and adjust with salt and pepper. Add the shrimp and let it cook through, about 3 minutes, then return the chicken to the sauce to warm up again and serve.
Serve with: bread and sautéed Swiss chard topped with raisins and toasted pine nuts
6 fat cloves of garlic, roughly chopped
4 sprigs flat-leaf parsley, roughly chopped
1-ounce slice stale bread
2 ounces Mexican chocolate
1 ounce blanched almonds (about 30 of them)
Salt and pepper, to taste
Extra-virgin olive oil, as needed
- Sprinkle a little olive oil on the bread and toast until dried through and crisp; toast the almonds until they've turned a shade darker and are fragrant.
- In a food processor, with a mortar and pestle, or with your knife, crush or grind all ingredients except oil with a pinch of salt together until very fine, almost smooth.
- Stir in enough oil to form a thick paste. Season with salt and pepper to taste.