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Advice from Chef Dean Fearing

By Pamela Slover Percival

The reason many people get frustrated with cooking and entertaining at home is that they don't plan well and try to do too many things in too little time.

That's one of the tips that Dean Fearing, executive chef of the Mansion on Turtle Creek in Dallas, gave to attendees at a cooking class he taught recently in San Angelo as part of that city's annual Texas Wine and Food Festival.

Fearing, who just received his sixth five-star restaurant award from the Mobil Travel Guide, is renowned for his Southwestern cuisine with a Texas twist, and was the 1994 winner of the James Beard Foundation Restaurant Award for "Best Chef in the Southwest."

During the cooking session in San Angelo, Fearing shared suggestions for cooking and entertaining at home. For example, he questioned his students about the way they entertain at home.

"When planning a dinner party for Saturday night, do you wake up Saturday morning and go to the store and buy everything, then to home and clean the house, then start cooking?" Fearing asked the group assembled. "Then by the time your guests arrive, you're a total wreck, right? No, that is not what I call entertaining at home. You need to organize your party in a logical manner."

Instead of wearing themselves out the day of the dinner party, home cooks should plan and prepare ahead, Fearing advised. Even though he's a professional chef, Fearing said he has to plan around his work and family schedule to entertain at home, just as other people must. He plans his menu a week ahead, making sure to select tried and true recipes to avoid the chance of failure.

Next, he writes a "prep" list with all the items he needs to buy at the store, from food to fresh flowers. Then on Tuesday night before a Saturday party, he would buy almost all the ingredients on his prep list to ensure he has the best ingredients available. "For example, unless it's in the summer, I'll bet there's not one ripe tomato in town. So this gives me time to let the produce ripen ahead," Fearing expounded.

On Friday, he'd buy the meat or fish he needs, to be sure it's fresh. He'd also do as much food preparation work as possible, from chopping all the vegetables and setting the table to completely preparing and storing in the refrigerator some of the dishes. He instructed one student who was planning to serve scalloped potatoes at a dinner party to make the dish a day in advance, then warm it up just before dinner.

"You don't have an army to help you in the kitchen at home, like we do in our restaurant, so you have to work ahead," Fearing stressed. "This is what makes cooking at home fun."

Fearing added that it's not necessary to use exotic ingredients to cook wonderful food. It shouldn't matter whether the local grocery store carries every gourmet ingredient that might be found in a big city. "Truffles and porcini mushrooms are not what makes the world go 'round," Fearing said. " Just use more imagination with basic food. Cooking is cooking. I could go to your store here today and plan for a weekend dinner party."

Other tips Fearing offered for cooking and entertaining at home include:

  • Do salt the meat before cooking. Somehow a rumor got started that salting the meat before cooking would leach the liquid out of the meat and make it dry. That's just not true, he said. "You can never get a seasoned product, something that tastes really good, unless you season it before it's cooked," Fearing added. "And the bigger the piece of meat, the more seasoning you have to put on the meat."
  • On the other hand, putting raw meat into a pan that's not properly heated can cause the meat to lose liquid. Cooking with a hot pan sears and seals the outside of the meat to capture moisture inside.
  • To easily peel the skin off a fresh tomato, first dip it in boiling water for 13 seconds, then plunge the tomato into ice-cold water.
  • Use canola oil, which has a neutral flavor, for most cooking needs, except for pasta, which works well with olive oil.
  • Some foods just can't be cooked in a hurry, like roasts and artichokes, which both must be cooked until they are very soft. "A fresh artichoke is boiled in water for about an hour and a half, until you can take one of the leaves off and scrape it to find that it's really soft," Fearing advised.
  • Before serving a green salad, toss it with dressing in a bowl that has been seasoned lightly with salt. "Lettuce is very bland and needs to be seasoned," Fearing said.
The Mansion on Turtle Creek Red Jalapeño Caesar Salad Chef Dean Fearing, The Mansion on Turtle Creek, Dallas
  • 1 large head romaine lettuce, outer leaves removed, cleaned, dry and cut into 1-inch dice
  • 6 oz. The Mansion on Turtle Creek Red Jalapeño Caesar Dressing*
  • ¼ cup crumbled Cojita or Mexican Farmer's cheese (may substitute Parmesan)
  • ¼ cup Pomegranate seeds
  • ¼ cup green, Mexican pumpkin seeds (pepitas) toasted light brown and ground in food processor until fine
  • 2 warm flour tortillas cut in half and rolled into cone shapes
  • 4 Tbsp. pico de gallo (recipe below)
Toss romaine with Caesar dressing. Place on plate and sprinkle with cheese and pomegranate seeds on salad. Dust plate with powdered pumpkin seeds. Garnish with tortilla cone and 1 Tbsp. pico de gallo per plate. Serves 4.

Pico de Gallo

  • 1 fresh tomato, ¼-inch dice
  • ½ white onion, ¼-inch dice
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 jalapeño, minced (with or without seeds)
  • 2 Tbsp. cilantro, chopped fine
  • 1 Tbsp. lime juice
  • 1 Tbsp. olive oil
  • Salt, to taste
Combine all ingredients and let marinate for about 30 minutes. See also the Pico de Gallo recipe in Grandma's Cookbook.

*One of Fearing's line of 12 sauces/dressings. Available from specialty shops across the state or online at http://www.dxmarket.com/deanfearingclassics.

Creamy Spinach Casserole Chef Dean Fearing, The Mansion on Turtle Creek, Dallas

  • 2 Tbsp. oil
  • 1 small leek, cut into julienne
  • 1 small zucchini, cut into ½-inch half-moons
  • 1 small yellow squash, cut into ½-inch half-moons
  • 1 red bell pepper, roasted, peeled, cut into julienne
  • 2 cups blanched spinach (fresh or frozen - be sure to squeeze out all excess water)
  • 2 cups Thick Cream Sauce (recipe below)
Heat oil in a large skillet or saut pan over medium high heat. Add leeks and saut 3 minutes, until soft. Do not brown. Add zucchini and squash, season with salt and saut 2 minutes. Add red bell pepper, spinach and Thick Cream Sauce; stir to combine. Bring to a boil and recheck seasoning. Remove from heat.

Note: This dish can be prepared a few hours before serving - up until the point of adding the spinach. Refrigerate, then reheat in saut pan and add spinach at the last minute before serving. Serve with fish, lamb, beefsteak or chicken.

Thick Cream Sauce

  • 1-½ cup heavy cream
  • 1-½ cup rich chicken stock
  • 1-½ Tbsp. cornstarch
  • 1 Tbsp. water
  • Salt, to taste
Heat a small saucepot over medium heat. Add cream and chicken stock. Bring to a boil; reduce heat to a simmer. In a small bowl, add cornstarch and water; stir to combine. In a thin stream, slowly pour mixture into pot, stirring constantly until mixture is thick and coats the back of a spoon. Reduce mixture to about 2 cups, cooking about 8 minutes. Season with salt; keep warm.

Note: Sauce may be prepared a day in advance.

Tomato-Ginger Chutney

  • 2 cups tomato juice
  • ½ cup malt vinegar
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 Tbsp. ginger, minced into a fine dice
  • 1 Tbsp. corn starch
  • 1 Tbsp. water
  • 1 cup concass tomatoes (blanch for 13 seconds, peel, seed and dice to ½-inch)
  • Salt, to taste
Heat a medium saucepot over medium heat. Add tomato juice, vinegar, sugar and ginger and reduce to a ketchup consistency, 10-12 minutes, stirring occasionally. In a small bowl, add cornstarch and water; stir to combine. In a think steam, slowly pour mixture into pot, stirring constantly, until thick like a smooth pudding. Add diced tomatoes to the mixture, bring to a boil, then remove from heat. Season lightly with salt and chill until ready to serve. Serve with fish or other dishes.

Note: May be stored in refrigerator for about a week.

Pamela Percival writes about food for the Abilene Reporter-News.

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