How To Make Our Favorite
Restaurant Dishes at Home
The biggest cause of failure in the restaurant business is the proficient operators who make it look easy. People see that and assume the business is easy. Of course these same operators are also generally successful in the industry. Focusing on the food production side of the business, there are some important things to take away that translate really well into cooking at home. Using an effective streamlined recipe is a big deal. It also needs to be duplicatable again and again. When you are making food for family and friends, a good recipe that you can make the same each time is great to have. So let’s take a shallow dive into industrial cooking, see how they do what they do, and what can go home with you. Get ready to apply these restaurant cooking hacks to your everday home cooking.
1. Country Gravy
It has been said that breakfast is the most important meal of the day, and why not when it has such enjoyable food options. Many of those options include a rich country gravy, which is basically water or milk thickened with flour and flavored with sausage and spices. The easy gravy way is to make a ‘slurry’ of cold milk whisked smooth and slowly added to the warm gravy base to thicken it. A restaurant will use roux to thicken, which is flour mixed with hot oil of some kind. Bacon fat and sausage fat make great roux, and like all fats they carry great flavors. Roux works like a WYSWYG if you remember that computer term; what you see is what you get, in this case as it is thickening up the gravy. Brown up bacon and sausage bits, take out the meat with a slotted spoon and add 1/2 cup flour to the fat. Keep stirring until well mixed and pasty and now you have enough roux to thicken two cups of fluid. This helps integrate the flavors and gives you a much sturdier heat resistant gravy as a result.
2. Chicken Fried Steak
There’s nothing that dresses up better with country gravy than a chicken fried steak, which is not chicken or arguably even a steak. It is beef, usually a cubed steak, and it is prepared in a similar fashion to fried chicken. Surprisingly, this is not an especially hard dish to make. First off, do not deep fry it, which can be problematic at home anyway. There’s nothing wrong with deep fried food, but the flavor and texture are superior when you pan fry a chicken fried steak. Getting a good breading on the meat is what makes this great, usually done through a flour dredge, egg wash and bread crumb layer. But it works even better if you start adding flavor right away. Before dredging in flour make a light wash of Worcestershire and mustard, then dredge in a seasoned flour. Layering on the taste makes for a great end result.
You have to serve a good potato dish as your side to these breakfasts. Streamlined, when used in the industry, also means easy. Starting with similarly sized baby reds, or even better Yukon gold potatoes, just boil them whole until tender. Chill and cut them to the size you like. Toss them in a skillet with oil or margarine (butter scorches easily unless it has been clarified), when they are starting to brown up toss in a handful of julienne onions. The beauty of these taters is that they hold and stay warm well, so you can finish the meal while they patiently wait.
4. Grilled Chicken
Moving on to some fun lunch items, one aspect of professional food production is prep work; making certain you have your ingredients ready to go. A simple item to prep is a grilled chicken breast, done on a nice flame broiler and then chilled to be used however you choose, such as cubed and tossed in a salad or pasta. In place of a deli style meat, a little handy knife work cutting at a steep angle across the breast will yield great meat for a sandwich. Keep the knife handy for some thin sliced cucumbers. Stir a little pesto into your mayonnaise and you are on the way to serving a wonderful chilled grilled chicken sandwich that is easy to make for a group, or just for you.
5. Secret Sauced Sandwiches
The next two items need a little sauciness. It is amazing that you can spend a lot of money on a basic burger or fry sauce. Almost always they are based on mixing mayo and ketchup. Think about the flavors you like to add such as mustard, sweet hot if you want a little pop or a brown mustard for tang and richness. These are fun to play with adding vinegars or herbs, or herbed vinegar, or other adjuncts that appeal to your taste.
People love a great Reuben sandwich. Traditionally made with corned beef, pastrami will actually deliver a little more flavor, a sturdier meat component to the sandwich, it is more widely available, slices thinner and is usually less expensive. One of the tricks on a good Reuben is warming the meat, warming the sauerkraut and building the sandwich with the swiss cheese between the two to hold it together. Add your sauce to the grilled rye bread and you have a memorable sandwich.
Ubiquitous in restaurants is the hamburger, some are downright tasty. Jazzing up a burger is fun and relatively simple. First off, buy a decent patty, preferably 80/20 and 1/3 of a pound or better. Always season first, even just salt, then cook it how you choose, flame or metal grilled. Warm up the bun. Nowadays almost all toasters have a bagel setting which is a perfect way to warm the bun, toasting the inside without ruining the crust. Remember our sauce? Use it. If you prepped some thinly sliced onion and you are frying your burger, throw the onions right in next to it, to brown them up. Play with your cheese choices; Muenster, provolone, jack and gouda all have a great melt. This topic could fill a book itself, but it is time to talk dinner.
6. Surf & Turf
Everyone loves a good steak, and getting there is relatively easy. Obviously the meat you start with will dictate the results to a large extent. The latest trend is using a sous vide cooking process which can make any steak significantly more tender. This is a great option, but does require specific equipment. For steaks, thicker is generally better. Always try and bring your steak up to room temperature before cooking. Your doctor would not want to see how heavily seasoned steaks are in a restaurant, kosher salt and black pepper are the best choice. Cook it over as high a heat as you can safely obtain, typically 450-500 degrees, then let it it sit again for 5 minutes before serving.
Prawns are a natural accompaniment to a good steak. Pricing for prawns is generally based on size, bigger is more expensive. Commercial grading is by the number per pound. 14-16 is a common size, 10-12 another workable size. Getting lower numbers increases the cook time, but you also need to serve less of them to have a decent portion. Ideally a "tail on" "ready to cook" designation is the easiest to work with. Simply sautéing with garlic, butter. white wine and lemon is very simple and very fast. Emphasis on fast because prawns are really easy to overcook. as a matter of fact they can be fully cooked during the time your steak has been resting before serving.
A regular staple of dining out and at home is pasta. The biggest home difference is to ladle the sauce over the top of the noodles. Arguably, this is a better presentation. However, the pro tip is to simmer the pasta in the sauce for a few minutes. Take an al dente pasta, drop it into your sauce, whether it is red or Alfredo base, and allow it cook a while longer in the sauce. This integrates the flavors with the sauce permeating the pasta itself and creating a dish more like you will experience in a classic Italian restaurant.
And lastly, the purely American dish of meatloaf. Your ingredients are the foundation and the best results come from using multiple meats. Ground pork, turkey, or chicken are readily available, as is ground lamb for the adventurous. Pick three and mix them up with just diced onions and some bread cubes to produce a more meaty experience. Some egg as binder, a touch of red wine, dark beer, soy sauce, Worcestershire, mustard and seasonings fills out the flavor profile. Top it with a broad stripe of ketchup and bake until finished.
It is not just bringing home the bacon, it’s understanding how to do what the pros do, and why. Start with an explanation of the ‘why’, add a little bit of technique, a little bit of practice and you are on the way to the big leagues. That’s how they do it, and you can too.