An impromptu stop on our recent road trip got me thinking about my journey to learning to cook. It was the final day of our trip. The day before, we had driven more than 550 miles, and now we were rocketing across Iowa on I-80, on the last 480-mile leg of our journey. Suddenly, Marion announced that we were not far from the “future birthplace of Captain James T. Kirk.” Of course, we were going to stop.
"Star Trek" creator Gene Roddenberry never specifically named Riverside as Kirk’s future hometown; he just said a small town in Iowa. With about 1,000 inhabitants, Riverside fits the description. In 1985, city councilman Steve Miller, long a Trekkie, proposed that the town declare itself Kirk’s birthplace. They did, and things took off from there. Riverside got officially woven into some Star Trek novels and at least one film. This summer, the town hosted Trek Fest XXXII. And in 2004, no less than William Shatner showed up to help prank the town on a reality TV show.
When we passed through, things were considerably quieter. The monument you see above is tucked in a backyard park behind the hair salon on First Street. There is a bench for quiet contemplation, a mural painted on a stockade fence and a metal container on a post with a polite request for contributions to support their efforts. (We made one.)
To be totally honest, I didn’t think about my learning to cook when we stopped in Riverside. But later, as I prepared this week’s recipe, our quirky little detour came back to me. I grew up in a meat and potatoes household, where the most used utensil in the kitchen was the can opener. I started cooking when I was out on my own, out of necessity at first. Then I found I enjoyed it. Still, like many guys who cooked before cooking became a thing, I mastered maybe a half dozen dishes and coasted on them. And I cooked like I played the guitar, “by ear.” No sheet music or cookbooks for me.
Then I met Marion. She was a wonderful, adventurous cook even back then. Tried out new recipes when we had company, which both impressed and scared the bejesus out of me. And she used cookbooks! Not just cooked from them, but pored over them, read them like novels.
So I started looking at cookbook recipes, which led to an important cooking aha! moment for me. I think it was a recipe for an oven-finished shrimp scampi. Reading it, I thought (a) I can do this, and (b) I think I know how this will taste. I was right on both counts. Suddenly, cookbooks – and cooking magazines – were my friend.
Another aha! moment came when I looked at a recipe and thought, “I bet if I swap that ingredient for this one, this will be even better.” So the recipe tweaking phase of learning to cook kicked in for me, substituting ingredients, changing amounts or cooking techniques and times, making it my own. When we get an idea to cook something for the blog, I may read a dozen or more recipes, some wildly off topic, before creating my own approach to the dish.
The next level of aha! for me is one I’m still working on. I am in awe of chefs who shop in the morning and base their menus on their finds. No recipes. Just some well-chosen ingredients and knowing and trusting your cooking technique. I long to boldly go where these chefs go, into uncharted territory. Oh, I do this on some level, often out of necessity. We have ingredients on hand that aren’t getting any fresher and need cooking now, or I go to the store looking for one thing, but something else catches my eye. We all do this, I know.
Most times, the results are a decent weeknight dinner, not something to share here. But sometimes, like this chicken dish, they are really, really good. In this case, a savory autumn meal, brightened by lemon juice and briny capers.
Chicken Thighs with Potatoes, Lemon and Capers
4 to 5 medium Yukon gold potatoes (1-1/2 – 2 pounds)
salt and freshly ground black pepper
4 bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs, about 1/2 pound each
flour, for dredging chicken
1 large shallot, chopped (or 2 medium)
2 tablespoons capers, drained but not rinsed
2 large cloves garlic, minced
2 tablespoons coarsely chopped fresh rosemary
2/3 cup chicken stock or reduced-sodium chicken broth
2/3 cup water
zest and juice of 1 lemon (see Kitchen Notes)
1. Cut unpeeled potatoes into wedges (or large chunks, if potatoes are large) and toss in a bowl with some olive oil, to coat. Season with salt and pepper and set aside. Trim excess fat from chicken thighs. Season chicken generously with salt and pepper, then dredge with flour, shaking off excess.
2. Heat 2 tablespoons of oil in a large, lidded skillet over medium-high flame. Add chicken to pan, skin side down and cook until golden brown, 4 to 6 minutes. Turn chicken and brown an additional 2 minutes. Transfer chicken to plate.
3. Add potatoes to pan, drizzling in more oil, if needed (it’s more likely that the chicken will have produced more fat than the floured skin absorbed). Cook potatoes until nicely browned, turning occasionally, 8 or so minutes. Reduce heat to medium and add shallot and capers to the pan, tossing to combine with potatoes. Cook, stirring occasionally, for about 3 minutes. Take care that the shallots do not burn, reducing heat, if necessary. Add garlic and rosemary to the pan and cook, stirring, until fragrant, about 45 seconds.
4. Add stock and water to pan, scraping up any browned bits. Stir in lemon zest and return chicken thighs to pan, along with any accumulated juices. Cover pan and simmer until chicken and potatoes are cooked through, about 10 minutes. (An instant read thermometer should register at least 165ºF when inserted into the thickest part of the thigh.) About halfway through, add lemon juice to pan, stirring to combine (try to not pour lemon juice directly on chicken, so that it flavors everything).
5. To serve, transfer thighs to individual plates and spoon potato/shallot mixture alongside.
Too lemony? If you sample just the sauce, as we did, you will get a major pucker. Fear not. When it combines with the chicken and potato/shallot mixture, it will calm down, offering a delicious brightness without overpowering everything. If you have any leftovers, they will be even better, more nuanced.