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Pensacola native James Briscione left the South for a woman. While working at Frank Stitt’s legendary Birmingham restaurant, Highlands Bar and Grill, he recognized a young lady from the summer camp he’d attended when he was ten years old. (She didn’t remember him, but knew he was from the same hometown.) Briscione and Brooke Parkhurst hit it off, striking up a long-distance relationship; he moved to NYC to be with her. Since arriving, the chef has veered slightly off course — he became a television personality (he was the first-ever two-time Chopped champion), culinary director at the Institute of Culinary Education (ICE), and cookbook author. He just released his second volume. The Great Cook: Essential Techniques and Inspired Flavors to Make Every Dish Better offers cooking lessons from one of the city’s most experienced culinary educators.
His wife was a big part of the relocation, but Briscione says his move came with another great opportunity. While working as chef de cuisine at Highlands, Briscione frequently traveled with Stitt. They cooked dinner at the James Beard House and often came to NYC for other culinary events. Through the process, Briscione got to know Daniel Boulud. After a year of dating Parkhurst, he emailed Boulud asking for a job. “It was twofold,” says Briscione. “One was a good-looking blonde girl and the other was a job at Daniel.”
In 2007 — before fried chicken and Anson Mill grits became an obsession in NYC — Briscione was coming up on a year at Daniel. At a Beard event, he began talking to some random guy, who had something to do with a culinary school, about the sad state of Southern cuisine in the city. He saw barbecue and soul food, but nothing like the refined dishes he and his colleagues had been creating in Birmingham before he left. Briscione mentioned he wanted to teach Southern cooking classes. That guy just happened to be Rick Smilow, the ICE president and CEO. Soon after the conversation, Briscione was offered a full-time position. Tired of fourteen-hour days in a kitchen, Briscione jumped at the chance.
Briscione was high in the kitchen ranks when he left the industry, so he was already used to teaching. But the process was a bit different at ICE. ICE hosts professional chefs and novices. Although Briscione had vast experience instructing younger chefs, he had to make adjustments for the home cooks, who were looking to learn from scratch. He saw a lot of fears and misconceptions among his neophytes. Many didn’t know how to properly use a knife. High heat was another issue; so many students were afraid to let the pan smoke. And then there was seasoning: To professionals, it’s an active process, but his beginners had no idea how to do it.
The Great Cook draws from Briscione’s practical knowledge of teaching. Each chapter is broken down into lessons that outline specific techniques. It goes through all the basics, from the instructions and ingredients to variations and mise en place (setup). Briscione explores methods ranging from simmering and boiling to grilling, sautéing, and stir-frying, plus everything in between. “It’s kind of like having a private cooking lesson in the book,” says Briscione. “We focus on technique, what can go wrong. It’s about trying to build confidence throughout the process.”
The book covers how to make basic chicken stock, how to keep it clear, and how to remove fat. In the stew section, the book goes over how to cook stew meat, how to deglaze a pan, and how to make different kinds of stew, with recipes for Italian beef, Guinness lamb, and chicken verde with hominy. The roast chicken lesson describes how to truss a bird, how to roast a whole chicken, and how to quickly roast thighs and breasts, and includes a master recipe for classic roast chicken and variations including Italian-seasoned breasts and Asian-glazed thighs. Pictures of setups and instructions are spread throughout every single step. He notes, “Resting is essential in the roasting process. To keep juices from being lost to your cutting board, let the chicken sit for at least ten minutes before slicing; 25 to 30 minutes is ideal.” For whole snapper, he suggests, “Take time to season fish inside and out, especially along the slits you cut in the sides. These are the places salt will best penetrate and leave you with a tastier fish.”
Undoubtedly, the writing process and instructions were easier for Briscione than chefs without vast novice teaching experience, but he still consulted his wife and other relatives to ensure it all made sense. While writing, Briscione says, he was constantly turning to Parkhurst, asking, “Does this make sense to you? Let’s ask your sister if she gets it.”
His aim is to inspire readers to cook more often, with more confidence. The book features 110 recipes with 35 technique-driven lessons accompanied by more than 400 step-by-step pictures. “We really try to get into the mind of the home cook and anticipate questions that might be confusing,” he says.
Click to the next page for the Creamy Four-Cheese Macaroni recipe.
Excerpted from Cooking Light Great Cook. Copyright © 2015 Time Home Entertainment, Inc. Reprinted with permission from Time Home Entertainment, Inc., a division of Time Inc. New York, NY. All rights reserved.
Creamy Four-Cheese Macaroni
Drain your pasta well, but don’t rinse it! Draining keeps moisture to a minimum and allows for a creamier sauce that better coats the pasta. Skipping the rinse leaves a small amount of starch clinging to the noodles and helps marry them to the sauce.
12 ounces uncooked elbow macaroni (about 3 cups)
1 1/2 ounces all-purpose flour (about 1⁄3 cup)
2 2⁄3 cups 1% low-fat milk
2 ounces shredded fontina cheese (about 1⁄2 cup)
2 ounces grated Parmesan cheese (about 1⁄2 cup)
2 ounces shredded extra-sharp cheddar cheese (about 1⁄2 cup)
3 ounces light processed cheese (such as light Velveeta)
1⁄2 teaspoon salt
1⁄4 teaspoon ground black pepper
1⁄3 cup crushed melba toasts (about 12 pieces)
1 tablespoon canola oil
1 garlic clove, minced
Hands-on time: 30 min. Total time: 1 hr.
1. Preheat oven to 375°. Bring 6 quarts water to a boil in a large pot. Add pasta; cook 8 minutes or until al dente; drain.
2. Weigh or lightly spoon flour into dry measuring cup; level with a knife. Place flour in a large saucepan.
3. Gradually add milk, stirring with a whisk until blended. Cook over medium heat until thick (about 8 minutes), stirring constantly with a whisk.
4. Remove from heat; let stand 4 minutes or until sauce cools to 155°. Add cheeses, and stir until the cheeses melt.
5. Stir in cooked macaroni, salt, and black pepper.
6. Spoon mixture into a 2-quart glass or ceramic baking dish coated with cooking spray.
7. Combine crushed toasts, oil, and garlic in small bowl; stir until well blended. Sprinkle over macaroni mixture. Bake at 375° for 30 minutes or until bubbly. Yield: 8 servings (serving size: 1 cup)
CALORIES 347; FAT 11.5 (sat 5.9g, mono 3.4g, poly 1.4g); PROTEIN 17.4g; CARB 43.8g; FIBER 19g; CHOL 29mg; IRON 1.7mg; SODIUM 607mg; CALC 346mg
Why use processed cheese? A small amount is just enough to lend a velvety richness to the sauce without relying on heavy cream.