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‘Cook with love’: ‘Top Chef’ star reveals lessons and recipes learned from her mother

In a photo illustration, chef Adrienne Cheatham, standing in front of flowers, holds a hot cooking pot.

Chef Adrienne Cheatham celebrates her mother by cooking a “lifelong favorite” meal inspired by her. (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Kelly Marshall, Getty Images)

Harlem-based chef, cookbook author and TV personality Adrienne Cheatham says that some of the most impactful life — and cooking — lessons she’s learned were passed on by her mother and her late great-aunt. Many of those lessons took place in Chicago restaurants where her mother built a career managing dining rooms.

“I was pretty much raised in the no-smoking section of a restaurant — busing tables, washing dishes,” Cheatham says with a laugh. “I felt more comfortable in restaurants than in the real world. I wanted to go to culinary school after high school and my parents were like, no,” she says, explaining that her mother didn’t think being a chef was a viable career back then.

Turns out that couldn’t be further from the truth for Cheatham, who would go on to be educated at the Institute of Culinary Education and work in some of the country’s most celebrated restaurants — from chef Eric Ripert’s three-star Michelin restaurant in New York City, Le Bernardin, to celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson’s Red Rooster in Harlem. She has won second place on the Food Network’s hit show Top Chef (Season 15) and has written a cookbook called Sunday Best, which aims to celebrate everyday moments with those you love, through food. She says she enjoys cooking this time of year because it reminds her of her family and of her mother cooking for them.

“She loved to make a leg of lamb in the springtime — if not for Easter, then for Mother’s Day — and she passed that on to me and my sister.”

She speaks excitedly of the lamb dish, remembering her mother’s preparation of it. “Spring lamb is such a classic! She’d crush the garlic and make a paste, combine it with pounded onion, herbs and black pepper, then she’d use a long, thin boning knife to poke holes into the leg of lamb and infuse it with the garlic paste,” Cheatham says. “She’d also rub it with soy sauce and let it sit overnight before cooking it the next day. It was so tender, so flavorful, so delicious — her leg of lamb was one of my favorite things!”

A plate of roasted lamb and a bowl of salad on a table.

One of Cheatham’s favorite spring dishes is her mom’s roasted leg of lamb, a recipe she features in her cookbook, Sunday Best. (Penguin Random House)

One of the key lessons imparted to Cheatham by her mother was how to use time wisely in the kitchen. She called her mom the “queen of time management.”

“If my mom was going to roast a chicken, she’d put it in a Ziploc with seasoning in the morning and then throw it on a tray with some vegetables later on. [She’d say,] ‘You don’t have to do everything at once.’ It’s like mise en place at restaurants: My mom would do that at home so that she didn’t have to do so much at dinnertime.”

Her great-aunt also left an imprint on Cheatham when it comes to cooking. “One of the best things that my great-aunt in Mississippi (and my mom) passed on to me was how to freeze stuff. Like, when you have time to cook, bulk up and freeze the extra food so you have something to pull out of the freezer on a weeknight.”

When it comes to food, you have to cook with love. You can’t be angry when you’re cooking someone’s food — it’s like singing without passion.”Chef Adrienne Cheatham

Cheatham often turned to her mother and great-aunt for advice when she felt like she was drowning in schoolwork and responsibilities. She said it was her mother who taught her the art of batching out tasks (and cooking duties) — and how to better manage her workload, tips she uses to this day.

“My aunt always gave me advice and put things in perspective,” Cheatham says of her hectic younger years. “She’d remind me not to let my college problems weigh me down. And when I got into fine dining, everything was stressful, high-pressure; I thought it was the end of the world when I got yelled at. But I’d remember what she said: ‘It’s just a moment.’ And I do believe when it comes to food, you have to cook with love. You can’t be angry when you’re cooking someone’s food — it’s like singing without passion.”

Black Garlic Roasted Leg of Lamb

(From chef Adrienne Cheatham’s cookbook, Sunday Best)

Serves 6-8 (or 2 with plenty of leftovers)

Ingredients

1 large onion, peeled, root end trimmed

1 bone-in leg of lamb roast, about 6 lbs.

4 large cloves of garlic

1/4 cup (tightly packed) black garlic cloves, or 1/4 cup garlic paste

1.5 tsp. cracked black peppercorns

3 tbs. anchovy paste or 3 tbs. packed chopped anchovies

1 tbs. chopped thyme

1 tbs. (heaping) chopped rosemary leaves, plus 4-5 whole sprigs

6 sprigs oregano

2 tbs. Dijon mustard

1/4 cup olive oil

1 lemon, zested and cut in half

2 cups dry white wine

2 lbs. small red potatoes, rinsed

Directions

1. Heat your oven to 450F. Slice the onion crosswise into rounds, about ½” thick, it’s okay if the rings separate and you have hollow rounds. Line the bottom of a roasting pan with the onion slices/rings, spaced out a bit (the onion slices will serve as a rack to hold the lamb during roasting). Blot lamb dry and place, fat side up, on top of the onions in the roasting pan. Use a paring knife to make a series of cuts straight down into the lamb in a consistent pattern, every 2.5”. You should have about 12 deep incisions. Set pan aside.

2. In a small food processor (or in a mortar and pestle), combine the garlic, black garlic, black pepper, anchovy paste, chopped thyme, and chopped rosemary leaves. Process or mash for about a minute, or until you have a chunky paste with the ingredients well combined. Divide paste in half, placing one half in a separate mixing bowl for later.

3. You’re going to have to get hands-on for this part: use your fingers to smush seasoning paste into each incision. The idea is to really get it in there, as much as you can, down to the bone. Scatter the remaining herb sprigs around the bottom of the pan.

4. Take the bowl with the remaining seasoning paste and whisk in the Dijon, olive oil, lemon zest, and juice from ½ of the lemon. Smear this all over the outside of the lamb and fat cap. Feel free to throw the lemon halves into the roasting pan as well, the aroma of them roasting with the lamb is nice.

5. Pour the wine into the pan along with about 1c water. Toss the potatoes with a little oil, salt, and pepper, and scatter around the pan.

6. Place the pan on a middle rack, and roast the lamb at 450 for 12 minutes, then turn the temperature down to 350 and continue cooking for about an hour (can take longer depending on the oven), or until you reach 130F on a thermometer inserted into a thicker part near the bone. Baste the lamb every 20 minutes or so, also adding a little water as needed to keep the onions and pan from scorching.

7. Remove the pan from the oven and let the lamb rest for 20 minutes before slicing and serving.

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