What did you do with the last 11 months? Learn a new language? Pick up a musical instrument? Get in the best shape of your life? Write that long-awaited novel? Internalize an endless desperate scream while your stir-crazy children whack each other over the head instead of going to online school, sit on a six-hour work Zoom call and stress-eat seven helpings of dessert?
Whatever it was, the COVID-19 pandemic’s well-documented upending of our daily lives presented both opportunity and obstacles in all sorts of ways, including how we eat. Restaurants in Northwest Montana spent at least some of the last year with their doors closed to indoor dining, and even when many did reopen with limited capacity the safest move was still to opt for a home-cooked meal, or at least one you could heat up in a microwave.
So for this year’s food issue, we called up three of the best cooks we know in Northwest Montana and asked them to help you (and us) bring a little restaurant magic to your home kitchen, bearing in mind that those stir-crazy kids aren’t about to let you spend a couple hours chopping away.
Lisa Cloutier | Chef/Owner, The Raven and Montana Bonfire
For starters, Cloutier recommends a shopping trip to the Mabuhay Oriental Market, which you can coincidentally read more about here. There, you can find these versatile ingredients to easily upgrade your next Asian-inspired meal. And once you’re at home, Cloutier says, don’t be a slave to recipes, “just keep tasting until it tastes good to you.”
Miso paste: This one ingredient is, unsurprisingly, the key to a simple but delicious miso soup when mixed with chicken or vegetable broth, green onions, and tofu or thin-sliced chicken. And if something a little heartier is your style, pack your favorite steak with miso paste, soy sauce, brown sugar, fresh garlic, ginger and black pepper for an overnight marinade.
Sambal: The key to delicious ramen soup is this flavorful Indonesian chili sauce. To make the ramen, bring beef or chicken stock to a boil and add the noodles, soy sauce, ginger, miso, sesame oil (optional) along with your pick of meat and vegetables. Top it with sambal and a soft-boiled egg. And sambal’s not just for ramen, either — mix it with vinegar, sugar and lime juice for a tasty dipping sauce.
Red curry paste and coconut milk: Start with a meat or vegetable of your choice and sear it in oil, adding garlic and ginger. When the meat is partially cooked, stir in some red curry paste, sugar or honey, and a can of coconut milk. Squeeze some lime on top before serving and that’s it. And for a side dish, Cloutier recommends Seeds of Change rice packs that heat up in the microwave in just 90 seconds.
Manda Hudak | Program Director and Savory Chef Instructor, Culinary Institute of Montana
The woman teaching the next generation of cooks at Flathead Valley Community College says the key to upping your acumen is keeping the vinaigrette out of your shopping cart on your next trip to the store. It’s not complicated, it can be made to a variety of flavors, and best of all you can make a big batch to use over and over again during the week for a quick sauce that improves whatever you pour it over.
And if you don’t even have time to make the vinaigrette, Hudak has one other must-have for your kitchen: finishing salt. Her favorite is Maldon and these crunchy crystals add texture and a ton of flavor to everything from salad to grilled steak.
Regardless of what you’re cooking, Hudak is a big believer in the home-cooked meal, especially if it means cutting out processed foods as much as possible. It’s healthier and tastier, too. “I think food just tastes better at home,” she says.
Tomato vinaigrette: Start with the traditional vinaigrette mix of one part vinegar and three parts oil, but if the ingredients you’re going to add later have a bit of acid tone down the oil a touch. For this variation, start by pureeing your tomato and add it to the vinegar with a bit of mustard (ideally Dijon), salt and pepper. You’ll then emulsify the blend by slowly adding the oil and whisking constantly, dropping in a bit of shallot at the end for texture. Just before your meat is ready to serve — or even potatoes or rice — very gently warm the vinaigrette, stir in some fresh herbs and dish it out it as a sauce. “It’s just so easy and so freaking delicious,” Hudak says.
Seth Black | Chef/Owner, The Black Board Bistro
The man putting together the menu at his eponymous Libby restaurant says the quickest way to get restaurant-quality results in your kitchen is to throw caution to the wind and experiment, especially if you get caught needing to scrounge together a meal out of what’s in the pantry. The inspiration for some of his best dishes, he says, come from “stuff that you just have laying around,” including many of the ingredients in his Tuscan steak rub below.
And Black says to leave the computer out of the kitchen. A recipe can be a crutch, and if you do need a recipe Black says to stick to printed cookbooks and stay away from the myriad photo-filled blogs that offer “family” recipes for every dish under the sun.
But most of all, don’t be afraid to try something new, he says.
“A lot of times people just refer to a cookbook and that’s OK, nothing wrong with that, but sometimes it’s OK to look at what you have and try things. It’s one of the fun parts of cooking,” Black says. “Sometimes you try something that doesn’t work but you end up developing your own wheelhouse of flavors and things you like and go from there.”
Tuscan steak rub: Mix together 2 tablespoons of minced olives, 1 crushed garlic clove, 1 teaspoon of anchovy paste (or a minced anchovy filet), 4 tablespoons olive oil, 2 tablespoons sherry vinegar, 1/4 teaspoon honey, 1 teaspoon finely chopped thyme, 1 tablespoon flat-leafed parsley, salt and pepper. Let it sit for at least 30 minutes, rub half of it on the uncut steak and flavor individual pieces with the rest.
Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.
Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.