Smoke Point

By Keith Dixon

Essay

My wife and I are talking about making the ultimate financial gamble: that of buying an apartment in New York City during a recession. Over and above the fears I harbor about committing more money than I can fathom to a place I’ve spent maybe fifteen or twenty minutes in, I’m also having some genuine anxieties about giving up something I’ve deeply cherished about our current apartment: the window in our kitchen.

Most apartments we can afford to buy haven’t got one—and I am, I should state from the outset, a notorious kitchen-smoker-upper. It’s not that I set things alight—in fact, I haven’t properly incinerated anything in years. No, the reason is that many years behind the stove have instead formed in me a clear understanding that caramelization equals flavor, which means that unless I’m doing something as mundane as sweating some chopped onion to start a sauce, I’m browning, and therefore working over highest heat in a pan of smoking oil—preferably olive oil, though many olive oils smoke at around 375 degrees, whereas refined peanut oil holds out until as much as 450, so if I’m after some real browning, I’ll probably go with that.

Being a notorious kitchen-smoker-upper means you get to know your neighbors intimately, and quickly, because you’re often saddled with the unpleasant task of de-smoking your apartment at the expense of the hallway air, and nothing invites neighbors to their doors as quickly as the presence of smoke in the hall. I hadn’t been in our current apartment for more than a day or two before the fire alarm erupted for the first time—I believe the culprit this time was a half-chicken broiled in lemon sauce—and, soon, there I was holding the hallway door open so that the breeze moving in through our kitchen window would clear out the apartment air.

Standing there sending waves of smoke out into the hall (picture a Lita Ford video from the 1980’s and you’re close to the amount of smoke we’re talking about, here), I quickly noticed the strangest thing—there were entirely more delightful aromas of roasting food emanating from my neighbor’s apartment. And without any smoke. I leaped to the door and began sniffing, terrier-like, to try and guess what was being thrown together inside—something southern, I guessed, judging by its earthy, sweet aroma (ribs? fried green tomatoes?).

Within days, the battle of aromas had devolved into a sort of culinary Hatfield-McCoy have-at-it, I emerging from my apartment every night around seven-thirty to make irritated comparisons of his versus mine, my neighbor always remaining behind a locked door, smug in his success. Reader, I even began planning my meals for maximum aromatic impact. Pasta with Bolognese? Not tonight, darling. Let’s go, instead, with chana masala, and I’ll be toasting my own spices for homemade garam masala.

One afternoon, though, a chance invitation yielded a moment of clarity—my neighbor, quite innocently, invited me inside and asked me to teach him to turn on the stove. Turned out he’d been paying someone to show up each afternoon and cook dinner for him, and had fired his cook that very day.

The first thing I noticed? His kitchen had no window.

How did the cook generate no smoke? I asked.

Oh, he answered, he’d always make stuff that cooked all day long in the oven, never really got things smoking on the stovetop.

Maybe his cook was onto something, there—sure, you brown when you braise, though I find that browning’s less important for a braise than when you, say, sear a steak. What’s more, when you brown for a braise you can use the broiler, and so long as you’re not rendering chicken fat, broiling tends to produce very little smoke.

The indignities of being shown up by my neighbor’s cook aside, maybe I took something valuable away from the feud. Even though the new kitchen will likely have no window, I’ve discovered how to stop being a smoker-upper—and stop being the problem neighbor in the process.

I’m going to become a braiser.

Broiled Half Chicken with Lemon-Parsley-Cayenne Sauce

½ chicken for broiling, about 1 ½ pounds

Juice of ½ lemon

¼ cup olive oil

1 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley

1 teaspoon white wine vinegar

¼ teaspoon ground cayenne pepper

1. Place a rack about 3-4 inches from the broiler and preheat the broiler on the highest setting for 15 minutes.

2. Season the chicken on all sides with salt and pepper and lay, skin side up, in a baking dish large enough to hold all of it. Broil 15 minutes, flip and broil 10 minutes, then flip again and broil 5 minutes more.

3. While chicken is broiling, place remaining ingredients in a jar or Tupperware container with a lid, season well with salt and pepper, cover container, and shake vigorously to emulsify.

4. When chicken is finished broiling, move to a cutting board and cut into 4 pieces. Put pieces back into baking dish, skin side up, and pour lemon sauce over.

5. Slide back into broiler for 5 minutes more, basting the pieces halfway through the final broil with the lemon sauce. Serve immediately, with rice to soak up the lemony, spicy sauce.

Yield: serves 2

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KEITH DIXON is the author of two novels, Ghostfires and The Art of Losing. In May 2011, Crown will publish his memoir-cookbook Cooking for Gracie, based on food-writing first published in The New York Times. He lives in New York City with his wife, Jessica, and his daughters Grace and Margot, and spends much of his free time wishing he had more free time.

You can learn more about Keith's books, and read excerpts of his writing, at readkeithdixon.com.

10 responses to “Smoke Point”

  1. Erika Rae says:

    Wait. I am a kitchen smoker-upper, too – but largely because I’m a broiler. Hmmm. I want to believe! Tell your neighbor’s cook to come back. We at TNB have QUESTIONS.

    Nice post, by the way. ( :

    • Keith Dixon says:

      erika, it may be that our only entirely smokeless option is to become raw-foodies. and that’s just not in the cards for me. sounds like my neighbors are just going to have to suffer.

  2. Gloria says:

    Thanks for the awesome recipe. But nowhere on there does it say “it’s time to take the chicken out when the fire department is called.”

    This was fun – a neat glimpse into life in L.A. – -which I can’t even fathom. It seems so exotic and urban and city-ish.

    Fun post.

    Good luck!

  3. imaonc says:

    No smoke tonite! [of course my kitchen has 3 windows and a sliding glass door so it’s not an issue]. I followed the recipe exactly, except our oven is a bit bigger than the average NYC kitchen so I lowered the rack some. Served with Japanese “stickey” rice and stir fried beans and waterchestnuts with sesame oil.
    It was perfect. Thanks we will have this regularly.

  4. MMeeker says:

    LOVE love love that you added mentioned recipe. I’m a smoke detector setter offer myself. That’s how my family is summoned to dinner. Tall one removes the battery, short one waves a dish towel to dissipate smoke.

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