Leave your linens, overpriced olive oils and al dente anxieties at the door. Get kitchen kudos from your guests with these easy tips from casual-cuisine chef Jonathan Waxman, author of Italian, My Way: More Than 150 Simple and Inspired Recipes That Breathe New Life into Italian Classics.
We grabbed a few minutes with Jonathan to discuss the focus on simple, flavorful dishes and how you can make the most of seasonal produce — and even recreate his most popular dishes at home.
You brought a very California style of fresh cooking and casual eating out to NYC, which as Tom Colicchio mentions in the foreword to your book, was very formal at the time (in the 1980s). What are the major differences between top California and New York restaurants today?
Jonathan: Everybody now is leaning toward informality. The day of tablecloths, fancy service, and the big wine list is, at least temporarily, disappearing. What people want is really good food and they don’t want to spend four hours eating dinner. The world has changed in that respect. At Barbuto people dine in an hour and a half, forty-five minutes. After, they’re going to a movie, going back to work, whatever — they’re busy! Back when I had Jams, dinner was entertainment. What you had planned for the night was dinner: You spent money, you had a great time.
That’s all changed. The food now is much more casual, everywhere.
What makes everyone so gaga for your gnocchi?
It’s really the dish itself. I didn’t like gnocchi in Italy; it was gummy and sticky and not delicious. I made it by accident at a dinner party by sautéing it — it was a happy accident, or rather, a forgotten step. Forgetfulness turned into what has become a great dish.
Make It at Home: Jonathan Waxman’s Gnocchi with Spring Vegetables
Learn how to make Jonathan’s legendary roasted chicken:
What are 5 things everyone should know how to cook properly?
There’s 20 things probably, but these are my 5.
–How to cook a hamburger properly (which no one does)
–Salad and salad dressing
I always seem to screw up risotto lately, even though I bought a good pan, good rice, and keep the heat low. What is the secret to making it turn out great?
When you sweat the onions, throw the rice in at the same time so that the rice gets cooked by the oil, for five minutes. Immediately add the wine and cook it down to nothing. If you don’t, you’re going to ruin the risotto. Don’t add the stock until all the wine is gone. The stock has to be hot, and you should add just enough to have a finished dish.
The soupiness never changes. Never let it go too dry or too hot. Now, you can relax: You can drink wine, you can watch TV, just don’t rush it. Don’t be impatient. That’s why it never turns out — impatience. Use a small wooden spoon, circle the rim and zigzag the middle. Don’t do it hard, just do it gently. You want the rice kernels to absorb. When they get hard, they’re not absorbing liquid.
Make It at Home: Jonathan Waxman’s Risotto with Spring Peas
Your wife shops at the Greenmarket frequently. What are your favorite spring veggies? What are some dishes you love to make this time of year?
I don’t have a favorite. Spring really has too many choices: Morels, peas, ramps, baby leeks, fava beans, baby spring beans, the first new potatoes. Yesterday I cooked Easter supper, and made a little wilted vegetable thing with spring onions, and took some other veggies and sautéed them pretty hard and added roasted baby cauliflower. I did celery root puree with cream and butter.
Lucky family! How do you pick great produce at the greenmarket or store?
I let the vegetables talk to me, not the other way around. They say “Pick me!”
Do I really need to buy overpriced olive oil, or does the everyday stuff do the trick?
The trick is three-fold. Buy different ones and look online, too. Read surveys. Don’t buy cans; they’re terrible unless you’re massaging it on your body. Don’t buy big bottles, buy small. I have five different olive oils in my house. Spanish ones are a little buttery, the Tuscans are green and peppery and fun for salads.
Ceramic knives: yay or nay?
I have a gorgeous one, but I don’t even know where it is right now. They’re really weird, I love them. They’re very fragile and sharp as hell. You can’t sharpen them at home — you have to send them to the manufacturer. But they do stay sharp for a long time.
I read in your book that your wife does all the shopping and you just make whatever you can from what she brings home. Do you think being a good cook is the key to a solid relationship?
Of course. You knew I was going to say that!
What if you both want to cook?
We just draw straws.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jonathan Waxman first stepped into the culinary scene in 1970 when he retired from his career as a professional trombonist to enroll in the La Varenne cooking school in Paris. After working at the prestigious Chez Panisse alongside Alice Waters, he brought New American cuisine to New York City by opening the restaurants Jams and Washington Park. Today, he is the chef-owner of the Big Apple’s Barbuto, an Italian brasserie.