Zingerman’s Celebrity Roast! Featuring Molly Stevens

Molly Stevens

One of the best things about working here is meeting all the folks who come through town for dinners, tastings, and other events. A couple weeks ago we had a room full of cheesemakers and sellers in my office (including Joe Schneider of Stichelton fame and Andy Hatch from Uplands, aka Pleasant Ridge) learning about Open Book Finance (of all things). This week’s guest of honor is Molly Stevens, James Beard award-winning cookbook author and teacher who is in town from Vermont to lead a special dinner with fellow Beard winner Alex Young at Zingerman’s Roadhouse on Wednesday evening (there are still a handful of tickets left but act fast before they’re gone). While she’s here, Molly is also leading a class at BAKE! (our hands-on teaching bakery. Sorry (but happy) to say that one sold out almost as soon as it was announced.

Getting back to why we’re so lucky to be here in this food hub of the midwest… Molly led a class today for Zingerman’s staff on the subject of her latest book: Roasting. Yes, as part of our jobs, anyone who wants to (from web designers to cheesemongers) can sit down and learn from some of the smartest people in the food world. So, that’s what we did.

All About Braising

Actually Molly led off with a bit of background from her first big book, All About Braising, which won the James Beard Award for best cookbook in 2004. She pointed out that all of her books (and all of her teaching) attempts to get across specific techniques. The happiest cooks are the ones who can cook instinctively. “You can cook instinctively when you understand the techniques and you’re not bound by the recipe your cooking from. You’re not glued to the page, reading, but you’re using all your senses as you cook.” She settled on braising, in part, “because I wanted the book to be accessible and braising is a pretty forgiving technique. It is, basically, gently cooking under cover in a little bit of liquid.” The word “braising” is derived from a French term that means nestling a pot of food into warm coals of a dying fire and letting it cook slowly.

4 tips for Better Braising

1. Gentle heat is key. The lower the heat, the longer it takes. If you’re in a hurry, don’t braise.
2. A good seal on the pot is also important. One tip is to put a piece of parchment paper over the pot before putting the lid on.
3. Deliberately pick your flavor profile. Obviously, you can add whatever flavors you want to the liquid to flavor whatever you’re braising. Just be thoughtful about how the flavors will mingle in the final dish.
4. The right pot is important (especially for a very long braise). A heavy, cast iron, enamel coated pot is best.

Of course, for more info, including 125 easy-to-follow recipes, check out “one of the top ten cookbooks of all time”(Village Voice), All About Braising.

All About Roasting

After a brief overview of braising, we got the real meat (pun intended!) of the discussion: Roasting. Like her first book, Molly’s latest book, All About Roasting, was also nominated for a James Beard award. But it differs from it’s precursor in a significant way. “I was looking for a new technique to highlight and when I settled on roasting everyone was happy with it. I was happy, my editor was happy, my publisher was happy.” But, she soon realized that while she could clearly define the technique of braising, roasting proved more elusive.

So, her first stop was the dictionary which offers this definition of roasting: to cook food, uncovered, by exposure to dry heat, especially in an oven. As she writes in the introduction, “When I think of roasting, my mind travels beyond the technicalities of the inadequate textbook definition to imagine the goodness of the results. The role of roasting is to elevate already delicious ingredients by giving them a savory crust and maintaining their own juices and tenderness.” She offers a nice history of roasting in the book (it started long before ovens and involved cooking food on a rotating spit in front of a flame). For us in the class, she made the point that roasting is “more a sensibility than a technique.” She noted that anything you’re roasting is like a sponge. It holds a certain amount of moisture and you use the heat to squeeze some of that moisture out. The key is to know when to stop. “Roasting is a conversation between you and the heat. It involves more than just a timer. You use all your senses. It’s very involved. That’s why I like it.”

The book is full of the kinds of recipes that make you want to rush home right away and start cooking (with a quick stop at the market on the way). No blog post can do it justice but here are a few important things I learned:

5 Quick Tips to Successful Roasting

1. By the best ingredients you can afford: Roasting concentrates the intrinsic flavors of whatever you’re cooking. The better the raw product, the better the final result
2. Avoid deep-sided roasting pans for all but the heftiest, tallest roasts: The goal is to allow the hot air to circulate freely around the food.
3. Heat the oven fully: Most ovens take 25-30 minutes to heat fully. The only real way to know is to use an oven thermometer.
4. Use and instant read meat thermometer for meats, poultry, and fish: The surest way to test for doneness is by internal temperature.
5. Let the food rest after roasting: This was, maybe, her most important point. During roasting, the juices are driven from the center of the roast. When you let it rest, the juices redistribute and thicken and you get a juicier roast. She also pointed out that a lot of people make the mistake of cutting into their roast too soon because they want to eat their food hot. “If you want hot food, have soup.”

There’s a lot more I could write about the book and the class, but I can’t do justice to Molly’s teaching here. All I can say is look for the book the next time you at a bookshop or the library. You likely won’t leave without it.