Hello, and welcome to Kitchen Catastrophes Quick Tips. Today we’re going to discuss a group of foods I call “Kitchen Test” foods. Not to be mistaken for “Test Kitchen” Foods, which are foods rigorously inspected and analyzed, “Kitchen Test” Foods are those you can use to judge a restaurant or other kitchen when you’re less than certain about their abilities, or simply new to them. (DAMMIT, I JUST REALIZED I MADE THE TITLE CARDS WRONG~Alan). They’re something of an edible litmus test: they give you an insight into how this cook or business makes their food. Though, technically, I guess actual litmus tests are edible, so there’s that.
It’s a concept I ended up solidifying after a recipe, perhaps confusingly, from America’s Test Kitchen. In their recipe for Chicken Piccata, the author explained that, following their mother’s advice, they’ve used the dish as a test for new Italian restaurants they visit. To which I said, aloud to myself while reading alone in my apartment because that’s the kind of broken my brain is, “Oh, Like I do with French Dips and Lemonade.”
I resent the implication that my mind is broken, sirrah. I am a man of noted sobriety and good conduct.
So I wanted to talk about my primaryKitchen Test Foods, which I’ll start abbreviating as KTCs. There’s some basic overlap: they’re all nominally simple dishes. Typically under 6 “real” ingredients, made in 1-2 pots or pans, and, kind of critically, little chance of undercooking. So let’s go one by one, and talk about what each of my Kitchen Test Foods is actually testing for, and what you can learn from them. (And I’ve already forgot my own abbreviation. Good Job, Jon.)
French Dips: A test of Generosity, Basic Sense.
In case you don’t know, a French Dip is a dish originating in California (because America LOVES being wrong about where things come from. (Actually, it’s named that because it originally used French rolls for the bread) Shut up, Caption Jon.), consisting of thinly sliced roast beef, bread, served with au jus. Now, two places claim to have invented it, and both serve it differently, but, in my opinion, here is the correct way to make a French dip: Toast the bread, thinly slice the beef, top with grilled/caramelized onions and a white cheese (Swiss or Provolone), cup of au jus or beef broth on the side.
These people added Pepperoncini, so you can ruin it at your own discretion.
Now, neither of the original places serve it with cheese by default, but both include a “for a small charge” option. That’s part of the test, for me. As long as the sandwich comes with the OPTION, and the price isn’t insane to get what I consider the ‘default’ toppings, then it’s doing fine. I’ve seen places where adding them upped the cost by $4. On a $12 sandwich. A place that gives me the whole shebang for around $9-$11 ? That’s a great sign.
The other thing it tests for is, as I note in the title, common goddamn sense. And you’ll see this repeated a few times: I’ve seen some awful versions of my KTCs. I’ve had a French dip served with brown gravy, instead of au jus. If you’re unaware, au jus is very thin. It’s basically deglazed beef drippings. Beef broth is an acceptable substitute, gravy is NOT. It would be like asking for a glass of milk and being handed a glass filled with yogurt.
I’ve also had Dips with slabs of roast beef almost ¼” thick. That’s far too thick. When I encounter one of these sandwiches, it tells me the restaurant is a “quantity has a quality all its own” sort of joint, (More restaurants should quote Joseph Stalin) that relies on large serving sizes for its appeal; which isn’t necessarily terrible. A little hole-in-the-wall sandwich shop in a small town? They’re going to want to prioritize serving sizes. Making people full is generally an admirable goal.
Lemonade: Tests Attention to Detail, general flavors
Lemonade is not a hard drink to make. This is not a controversial stance. There’s a reason we depict enterprising eight year-olds as selling Lemonade: even a child can do it passingly well. Sugar, lemon juice, water. Boom. However, you know what’s even easier? Using a soda fountain or a dry mix. And that’s one of the things I’m checking when I order a lemonade at a restaurant: is it going to be Powdered Mix X, or Minute Maid? Or is this the kind of place that makes its own? As with the serving-size French dip, using the easy versions isn’t a deal-breaker. But it warns me that things might be a little generic.
Homemade lemonade, on the other hand, tells me a lot of interesting things. Firstly, it’s a bonus, simple as that. I don’t judge a place poorly for not making its own, but I definitely judge it higher if it does. Second, it gives me a general idea of the flavor profiles. A super acidic, crisp lemonade tells me they prefer to let ingredients speak for themselves. Sparse seasoning, flavors standing on their own. A very sweet version tells me the opposite. And if it’s sparkling, or has lemon pulp, that tends to imply a more quirky or non-traditional place. One simple cup of lemonade can tell you so much, if you’re willing to broadly generalize.
For instance, most broad judgmental generalizations are made while drinking lemonade on one’s porch.
French Onion Soup: Time and Care
French Onion Soup is easily in my five favorite soups, and often in the top three. And ordering it at a restaurant is a…varied experience. The major test is the amount of time the restaurant invests. The fastest French Onion Soup recipe I’ve encountered took over an hour and some take as long as three. It’s actually fantastically disposed to restaurants that put in the time before opening, because of the structure of the soup: you caramelize onions, then simmer them in a broth for….ever. Then you quickly finish with bread and covering of cheese. Prep the onions and broth, let the pot simmer for the entire day, wrap it up with the bread and cheese when ordered.
“Wrap” is a very good word for what you do to the soup with the cheese.
On the other hand, I’ve encountered versions where the onions were barely cooked at all, sitting in a bowl of clearly unseasoned beef broth. And that’s a matter of care. It’s banking on the cheese and bread to cover up sloppy soup. And French onion is an easy soup to TASTE the level of effort and care. Half-assed French Onion soup is insipid. Properly done, it’s a warmth and depth that permeates your entire torso.
Chicken Piccata: Flourishes.
A lot of people may not be super aware of what Chicken Piccata is. Brief summary: lightly fried chicken breast in a lemon-caper sauce. It’s pretty hard to make in a way that isn’t edible. It’s salty, bright, and simple.
Picture provided by “noonch”, which is certainly a name I trust for food prep.
What you’re really seeing here are the underlying flourishes of the chef. Some people dredge the chicken in a lot of flour, basically making fried chicken tenders (the above picture is a fine example). Others throw a ton of herbs into the sauce, to make it more visually interesting. You can also get an idea from the sides. Risotto is a classic Italian comfort side, while steamed veggies says “health-conscious”. Also, it’s an easy dish to sound cool when ordering, since it’s just exotic enough to make it seem like you know Italian food. Pretention points!
So that’s my list of Kitchen Test Foods, and I’m sure, once I brought it up, you thought of the dish you judge a restaurant by. Feel free to share it below, and why you think it’s a good one. Until Monday, I’m Jon O’Guin.
NEXT TIME: JON IMMEDIATELY CONTRADICTS HIMSELF BY MAKING A FAST VERSION OF FRENCH ONION SOUP.