I picked up my copy of Betty Fussell’s Eating In off of the “free” rack at a bookstore on the Oregon coast, sometime in the summer of 2005. It’s a cookbook that I’ve spent more time reading over the years than cooking from; I appreciate it more for its philosophical approach than the recipes themselves. Eating In‘s mission statement is given as follows:
This book is designed for the person who enjoys good food and good wine but who is more used to eating out than eating in. We all know the need for a lift at the end of a long, hard day, but shopping and cooking sound like work… With this book in hand… [y]ou can shop for food and wine on the way home from work and know that you will have a meal on the table, the candles lit, the stereo humming, within the hour.
But this isn’t your typical Easy Weeknight Meal cookbook. Ms. Fussell suggests that for the money you spend on a simple restaurant meal you can make a much more extravagant meal at home with minimal effort. She’s not recommending abandoning restaurant dining altogether, but her math checks out. In my neighborhood, I can buy a high quality 10 oz steak for about the same price as an entree at the Chinese takeout place.
I’ve taken this philosophy to heart in my approach to feeding my family. We still enjoy dining out, but our menu is also filled with special occasion meals with high-end ingredients that replace a restaurant meal often at less than half the cost. For example, earlier this week I picked up some locally sourced hanger steaks, which I’ll serve with roasted potatoes and greens. Even with meat at an extravagant sixteen dollars a pound, this meal will cost less than a trip to Five Guys.
What I also appreciate about Eating In is Ms. Fussell’s laissez-faire approach to cooking. The recipes she draws up are more like outlines or suggestions, and each one includes at least one variant in the event you have other ingredients on hand. Eating In is all about being creative and flexible. Buy what’s fresh. Adapt the recipe to suit what’s in season or what’s in your pantry. Be prepared to change your plans if you can’t get the ingredient you want.
Ms. Fussell’s recipes are exceptional, but few of them ever found their way into my rotation. Most of the recipes are designed for one to two people, and I’ve been cooking for an army for over a decade. Some recipes scale better than others, but I’m not quite to the stage of life where I’m only responsible for feeding myself and my spouse. That said, I’ve cooked through much of this cookbook in the last fifteen years with marvelous results.
One of the more adventuresome recipes is Skillet-Smoked Tuna, an innovative way of achieving a high-quality smoked fish at home without much in the way of special equipment. The tuna is smoked in a mixture of brown rice, spices, and black tea leaves, giving it a delicate, aromatic smokiness; the “smoker” is simply a wok and a trivet. The rice and spice mixture is brought to a smoking point in a dry wok, with seared tuna placed above it on the trivet. The wok is covered and the tuna is left to smoke for 10-20 minutes, then dressed with citrus, butter, cilantro and ginger. I don’t want to be responsible for anyone burning down their kitchen, so I won’t give you my version of the recipe, but let me assure you that, for me, it was worth the excitement.
One of the more approachable recipes from Eating In is Peanut Chicken Thighs – a simple recipe built mostly from pantry staples that can be on the table in around 45 minutes. The original recipe calls for the full chicken leg – drumstick with thigh attached – but this is a hard cut to find in my little corner of paradise. I’ve opted instead for bone-in skin-on chicken thighs, which are both easier to come by and easier to eat.
The mechanics of the recipe are straightforward: chicken thighs are lightly seasoned and browned in oil. Wine, soy sauce, and the Asian mirepoix of ginger and garlic are added to the pan juices and the chicken is simmered for around 30 minutes. Remove the chicken, stir some crunchy peanut butter into the pan juices, and drizzle over top. This is a perfect job for cast iron – you can sear, simmer, and serve in the same skillet.
Now for my money a peanut-sauced chicken dish deserves a side of rice noodles and a green vegetable, with hoisin sauce and sriracha on the side. That’s exactly how I served it to my family and it was fantastic, but the sauce is more versatile than the ingredient list lets on. No need to pigeonhole it as an Asian dish – Peanut Chicken Thighs also pair well with a standard American rice pilaf and asparagus or string beans. The author recommends serving the chicken chilled with a cold Jerusalem artichoke salad.
- 8 chicken thighs
- neutral oil
- salt and pepper
- 1 inch gingerroot thumb (peeled and finely chopped)
- 1 tsp garlic (peeled and finely chopped)
- 4 tbsp red wine vinegar
- 2 tbsp soy sauce
- ½ cup dry white wine (or chicken stock)
- crushed red pepper flakes
- ¼ cup crunchy peanut butter
- 2 tbsp salted peanuts (finely chopped)
- Trim extra fat from chicken thighs. Lightly season with salt and pepper.
- Heat oil in a large cast iron skillet over medium high heat. Brown chicken thighs for 2-3 minutes per side, Remove from skillet and reduce heat.
- Add garlic and ginger to pan juices and swirl a couple of times, then stir in vinegar, soy sauce, and white wine.
- Return chicken to the pan, spoon the sauce over top of the chicken, and sprinkle with red pepper flakes. Cover and simmer 25-30 minutes until chicken thighs are cooked through (165º F internal temperature).
- Remove chicken from the pan and set aside. Whisk peanut butter into the pan juices. We're not making the thick and sticky Thai-style peanut sauce - this sauce should be opaque and runny. Thin with additional wine if needed.
- Serve chicken as desired and drizzle the peanut sauce over top. The sauce is very salty so go easy. Garnish with chopped peanuts and additional red pepper flakes.