Of late, the mail box seems to be a clearinghouse for robots with Cordon Bleu tendencies. That is not a joke. In the flurry of Christmas catalogues--which arrive at my house before a first leaf yellows on the maple tree--I spotted at least half a dozen offerings for automated cook-valets this year. Robots that not only peel, chop, stir and serve dry martinis but in one notable instance even knead bread and churn out pasta; all at the flip of a remote-control switch.
To perform reasonably well at a stove, a kitchen practitioner must learn, early on, how to rely on instinct as much as technique. No matter how classic the recipe in hand, it is the fine-tuning that eventually makes it great on the plate. There are always variables, like the external temperature of the day and the degree of humidity, not to mention the disparities in ingredient size and state of freshness, that alter every dish one prepares.
Robots cannot compensate for culinary inconsistencies. Only humans with their workable tongues and expanding palates can.
Spare me from non-thinking, mechanical recipe-watching cooks, whether they're made of stainless steel or flesh and blood. The next spicy chicken dish needs an alert captain at the saute pan to make certain that all the seasonings are prime and pungent enough to make the dish great.
1 (3- to 3 1/2-pound) chicken, cut up
1 teaspoon ground ginger
5 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 1/2 pints plain yogurt
4 cups cooked rice
Rub chicken well with salt and pepper to taste and ginger.
Melt butter in large skillet over medium heat. Add chicken and saute about 5 minutes on each side. Remove chicken and whisk in yogurt.
Return chicken to skillet and cook over medium heat 20 minutes, basting often. Turn chicken. Cook 20 minutes longer.
Remove chicken to shallow heat-proof serving dish and season each piece to taste with chili powder. Keep warm in 275-degree oven.
Cook sauce over medium heat until very thick, about 5 minutes. Spoon sauce over chicken. Just before serving, place under broiler to lightly brown top, about 1 minute. Sprinkle with parsley and serve with rice. Makes 4 servings.
A pother means a fuss in old English. No soup could be less accurately dubbed, for this one takes no time or particular skill to produce. However, and here a robot will fail the test, it must be tasted often during the cooking time. A bit more or less of pepper or spice can make a vital difference to the finished soup.
EGGPLANT-SWEET RED PEPPER POTHER
1 (1 1/2-pound) eggplant, peeled and cubed
1 sweet red pepper
1 red or green chile
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 teaspoon olive oil
1 medium onion, coarsely chopped
2 large cloves garlic, chopped
1 medium potato, peeled and cubed
2 medium tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped
4 cups chicken broth
Place eggplant cubes in colander. Sprinkle with salt. Let stand 30 minutes. Brush eggplant with paper towels to remove salt. Pat dry.
Meanwhile, roast sweet red pepper and chile over burner until skins blacken and are crisp, or place under broiler. Carefully wrap peppers in paper towels, place in plastic bag and let cool 5 minutes. Rub skins off with paper towels. Seed and devein peppers. Coarsely chop pepper and chile.
Heat butter and olive oil in large heavy saucepan over medium-low heat. Add onion. Cook 1 minute. Add garlic. Cook 3 minutes longer. Add potato and eggplant, tossing well to coat with onion mixture. Stir in pepper, chile and tomatoes. Cook 10 minutes. Add chicken broth. Heat to boiling. Reduce heat. Simmer, uncovered, 30 minutes.
Cool soup about 15 minutes, then blend in blender or food processor in batches until smooth. (Be careful because hot liquid will expand.) Reheat over medium-low heat before serving. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve soup warm but not hot. Makes 6 to 8 servings.