- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 4, 2006

In the kitchen, you need to be able to fix a problem fast. If the gravy is pallid, a dash of fruity red wine or a tablespoon of tomato paste can work wonders. If vinaigrette tastes acidic, it probably needs a pinch of salt.

Tasteless fruit can be brightened by a sprinkling of sugar and a squeeze of lemon or orange juice. A few drops of vinegar, particularly balsamic, can transform a bland sauce. When you’ve an audience in the kitchen, remember to flambe — the drama is bound to carry the day.

Turning to good looks, when meat has not browned the way it should or the roast chicken has scorched when you weren’t looking, a shower of chopped parsley or other fresh herb is the universal remedy.

If you have a few minutes, heat the deep fryer. Pluck the sprigs from a big bunch of parsley and drop them into the fat when it is hot — about 360 degrees. The parsley will sputter, turn bright green and in 30 seconds will be crisp. Transfer it with a slotted spoon to drain on paper towels. It will keep for half an hour and cloak almost any food in a tempting, crispy blanket.

When dressing an individual plate, assemble a little bunch of bay leaf, parsley and thyme (it even has a name: bouquet garni) and impale the stems so the herb leaves branch gracefully over what you want to hide. Alternatively, distract the eye of your guests with lemon twists or tomato roses. Yes, I know they are old-fashioned, but grandma knew what she was doing.

Chicken. Let’s look at chicken breasts, inherently white and flabby. A brisk rub before frying or baking in the oven will not only flavor the breasts, but color them, too. This favorite mix of mine is a version of Indian garam masala.

Spicy chicken rub. In an electric coffee grinder, combine a cinnamon stick, broken in pieces, 1 bay leaf, 1 tablespoon cumin seeds, 1 tablespoon coriander seeds, 2 teaspoons black peppercorns, 3 whole cloves, the seeds from 6 cardamom pods and 1 teaspoon ground nutmeg. Grind everything to a fine powder. This makes about 1/4 cup spice mix, enough for 8 chicken breasts.

If the chicken breasts are already cooked and look depressing, thinly slice them on the diagonal and arrange the slices overlapping in a curve on the plate. No matter if the chicken is hot or cold, it will be terrific with this cheerful little sauce from Mauritius and some rice or couscous on the side.

Rougaille: Stir 1 chopped onion into the pan and fry until golden. Add 2 chopped garlic cloves, 1 teaspoon ground cumin, plus salt and pepper to taste, and fry over low heat, stirring for 1 minute. Add 2 seeded and chopped tomatoes and fry 2 to 3 minutes longer. Stir in 2 to 3 tablespoons chopped cilantro, taste and adjust the seasoning. Spoon rougaille over the chicken and serve to 4.

Steak. For the very best steak, in my opinion, there are two ways to go. One is a recent discovery of mine, a fast version of the classic bordelaise treatment involving a red wine jus and a shower of finely chopped raw shallots, as in the steak bordelaise that follows. The second fix is the classic cracked pepper treatment, with a sauce made by dissolving the pan juices in cream. For both recipes, the steak is pan-fried to obtain vital caramelized juices.

Pepper steak: Spread 2 boneless steaks, cut about 3/4-inch thick, with 3 tablespoons cracked peppercorns, pressing the pepper on each side. Leave at least 30 minutes and up to 6 hours. Heat 1 tablespoon vegetable oil in a heavy frying pan. If you like your steak peppery, leave the crushed pepper on the steaks when frying them. For milder flavor, scrape it off before frying. Sprinkle them with salt. Fry them over high heat until browned, 1 to 2 minutes.

Turn and brown the other side, allowing 2 to 3 minutes longer for rare steak, or 3 to 4 minutes for medium. Add 2 to 3 tablespoons cognac to the pan and flambe it. Remove and keep the steaks warm. Whisk 3/4 cup heavy whipping cream into the pan and bring it to a boil, stirring to dissolve the pan juices. Simmer until the sauce thickens slightly, 1 to 2 minutes. Taste, adjust seasoning, and spoon it over the steaks. Makes 2 servings.

With Easter coming up, leftover sliced ham is bound to linger. Thanks to the two recipes that follow, you’ll be off the hook.

Paprikash of ham. For a hot dish, warm the sliced ham in an onion and paprika sauce. To make it, saute a thinly sliced onion in 1 tablespoon vegetable oil until soft. Stir in 1 tablespoon paprika and cook gently 1 minute. Stir in 1 cup heavy whipping cream and bring the sauce to a boil. Add 4 to 6 slices of ham and heat them gently until hot, basting well. Taste, adjust seasoning. Makes 4 to 6 servings.

Cold ham Dijonnaise. If you prefer ham cold, serve it with this honey mustard sauce. Whisk together 3 tablespoons chopped fresh dill, 2 tablespoons whole grain mustard, 2 tablespoons Dijon mustard, 2 tablespoons honey and 1 tablespoon sugar. Makes 1/3 cup sauce, or 4 servings.

Accompaniments. I’m always on the lookout for accompaniments that go with just about anything, meat or poultry, fish or vegetable, hot or in a salad. When they are quick to make and call mainly for ingredients from the pantry, it’s all the better. How about cheese-stuffed chilies that require just chilies, cheese and a drizzle of olive oil? Terrific with barbecue, the only caution is to select the chilies, mild or hot, according to your audience.

Cheese-stuffed chilies. Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Slit 4 to 8 serrano or jalapeno chilies down one side and scoop out cores and seeds.

Cut strips from about 6 ounces Monterey jack or mild cheddar cheese and stuff them into the chilies. Oil a small baking dish with 2 tablespoons olive oil, add the chilies and turn them so they are well coated. Cover the dish with foil and bake in the oven until the chilies are tender, 25 to 30 minutes. Serve warm or cold; makes 4 servings.

Another of my all-purpose favorites, also requiring only two ingredients, is a salad of sliced red radishes marinated in lemon juice. A friend of mine serves it for cocktails on focaccia bread, preferably with stiff gin martinis. It also makes a crispy accompaniment for cold meats or fish.

The salad is ready within half an hour, or it can be kept for several days, when the bright red skin of the radishes gradually dyes the whole mix a beguiling, popsicle pink.

Red radish salad. Trim 1 pound of red radishes and slice them as thinly as possible, using a mandoline if you like. (Much depends on the size of the radishes. Small ones are easier to slice by hand.) Put them in a bowl with 1/2 teaspoon of salt and the juice of 1 lemon. Mix well and chill 1/2 hour. Stir to combine, taste and adjust the seasoning. Makes 4 to 6 servings as a condiment.

What about this quick-and-easy accompaniment that uses leftover risotto or cooked rice and turns it into arancini, Italian for rice cakes?

The cakes can be an easy appetizer or side dish — a perfect match with meat, poultry or fish. Mix 2 cups of leftover risotto or rice with 1 egg, 1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese and 2 teaspoons chopped parsley. Heat a saute pan with 1 tablespoon olive oil.

Shape the rice mixture into 6 equal cakes, about 3 inches in diameter, and fry them until golden brown, 2 to 3 minutes on each side. Makes about 6 servings.

My final suggestion is a quick little pan chutney made with whatever fruit you happen to have on hand.

Mango, melon or pear are particularly suitable, but an apple or a firm banana would do well, too. The chutney is particularly good served hot or cool, with chicken, pork and ham.

Fresh fruit pan chutney. Put 2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar in a small saucepan and boil it until reduced by half, about 1 minute. Add 1 cup chicken stock and continue boiling until reduced again by half, 3 to 5 minutes.

Meanwhile, cut the peel from a medium-ripe mango, half a medium melon or two pears. Cut out pits or cores and dice the flesh.

Add the diced fruit to the saucepan with 2 tablespoons chopped dried dates, apricots, cherries or cranberries. Cook the chutney gently, stirring often, 2 to 5 minutes, depending on the ripeness of the fruit. Taste and adjust seasoning. Makes about 11/2 cups.

Steak bordelaise

In southwestern France around Bordeaux, steak is simply pan fried at the last minute and served with a red wine reduction sauce and a shower of crunchy chopped raw shallot. Unbeatable.

For wine in the pan, I’d go for a Bordeaux blend containing plenty of fruity merlot. Here’s the place for your favorite steak accompaniment for me, a mound of skinny fries.

4 boneless steaks cut about 3/4-inch thick

Salt and pepper

1 tablespoon vegetable oil

½ cup cold butter, cut in cubes

1½ cups fruity red wine

4 shallots, finely chopped

Shortly before serving, season steaks with salt and pepper to taste. Heat oil and 1 tablespoon of the butter in a large heavy frying pan. Add steaks and fry over high heat until browned, 1 to 2 minutes.

Turn and brown the other side, 1 to 2 minutes longer for rare steak, 2 to 3 minutes for pink meat.

When pressed with your fingertip, steaks should be firm around the edge and still soft in the center. Set them aside, cover and keep warm.

For sauce, add wine to the pan and boil until reduced to about 2 tablespoons of glaze, stirring to dissolve pan juices, 2 to 3 minutes.

Whisk in the cold butter, a few pieces at a time, taking the pan on and off the heat so butter softens and thickens the sauce without melting to oil. Taste and adjust seasoning.

To finish, set steaks on 4 warm plates. Spoon sauce over and scatter chopped shallots thickly on top. Add your chosen accompaniment on the side and serve at once. Makes 4 servings.

Anne Willan’s latest book is “A Cook’s Book of Quick Fixes and Kitchen Tips” (Wiley).

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