North Fork Chef: Fast food without the drive-through

On the twelfth day of Christmas
My drive-through gave to me: twelve bags of Pepto,
Eleven pounds of blubber,
Ten baked potatoes,
Nine Polish hot dogs,
Eight bowls of chili,
Seven pints of coleslaw,
Six chocolate milk shakes,
Five onion rings,
Four Egg McMuffins,
Three Biggie Fries,
Two Happy Meals,
And a Big Bacon Classic with Cheese.
excerpt from “The Twelve Days of Fast Food,” author anonymous

When I was a young boy in the 1950s we saw the growth of the drive-in restaurant with its gaudy sign, big parking area and carhops. We also saw motels popping up along the highway. Both of these phenomena reflected America’s love of the automobile and its resurgence after World War II. By the late ’50s these mostly mom-and-pop operations were being replaced by chains.
Ray Kroc purchased McDonald’s and created a sparkling clean store with a friendly atmosphere aimed at families in the growing suburbs of America. Kemmons Wilson did the same with Holiday Inn, making it a clean, family-oriented place to stay along the new interstate highway system. By the 1960s, growth of restaurant chains and others was taking place at exponential rates. The term “fast food” was coined to reflect the rapid service at these establishments. The use of frozen food and deep fryers for cooking it were also integral parts of the formula. By 1970 the word “convenience” dominated our vocabulary and the convenience store was born.

All of these developments seemed pretty good, and they matched our increasingly fast-paced lifestyle. We were always on the run and we were willing to sacrifice a few things in the name of convenience. The ultimate expression of convenience was the drive-through window, which was a standard feature by the 1980s for fast food restaurants (and banks). Along the way we didn’t notice what this lifestyle was doing to our health — and the health of our children. We also failed to notice that the old-fashioned family meal was becoming an endangered species.

Americans are now increasingly concerned about how to undo some of the bad habits that we have formed over the years. In 1986, an Italian, Carlo Petrini, organized Slow Food International as a reaction to a McDonald’s that was opened in Rome. This movement has spread throughout the world. Our local chapter is called Slow Food East End; it’s headed by Kate Plumb. This movement strives to preserve traditional and regional cuisine, promoting local farms and businesses and encouraging healthier food in our schools.

Here are some recipes that are fast to prepare, but slow to ruin your health:

Horseradish Crusted Cod with Cannellini Beans & Collard Greens

Cut 2 pounds of fresh cod into 4 portions. Shred 1 cup fresh horseradish with a box grater, using the medium holes. Place this in a bowl with 2 tablespoons soft butter, 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard and 1/2 cup panko crumbs. Stir this mixture with a spoon until it forms a paste. Spread this on the cod portions and set aside.

Cut 4 ounces of pancetta into strips and place in a large sauté pan. Cook until pancetta begins to brown and add 1 cup chopped onion, 1/2 cup diced carrot and 1/2 cup diced celery. When these vegetables are soft, add 1 tablespoon minced garlic. Rinse 2 small cans of white cannellini beans and add to the pan along with 1 sprig of fresh rosemary, 2 tablespoons lemon juice and the zest of one lemon. Add 1/2 cup chicken broth and 1 bunch of fresh collard greens with the stems removed and the leaves cut into bite-sized pieces. Cover and cook at low heat until the greens are tender and the flavors are combined, about 20 minutes. Season with 1 teaspoon coarse salt and 1/2 teaspoon pepper.

While this mixture is simmering, put the crusted cod on a sheet pan and place in a 425-degree oven for 15 minutes. Spoon the bean/collard green mixture onto 4 plates and place the crusted cod on top.
Serves 4.

Grilled Chicken Breasts with Lentils and Thyme
Slice 4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts in half lengthwise to make cutlets. Combine 1/4 cup lemon juice, 2 tablespoons olive oil, 1 tablespoon minced fresh thyme, 1 teaspoon coarse salt and 1/2 teaspoon pepper. Pour this over the chicken and marinate for 1 hour. Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a saucepan and add 1 cup chopped onion and 1 cup diced carrot. Sauté until soft and add 1 tablespoon minced garlic. Continue cooking and add 1 cup rinsed lentils, 3 cups chicken broth, and 2 sprigs of thyme. Simmer about 25 minutes, or until the lentils are soft.

Remove the chicken breasts from the marinade and dry with paper towels. Grill them with a grill pan or pan-sear them in a sauté pan until they are just cooked, about 5 minutes. Serve them on top of the lentil mixture along with steamed fresh kale.
Serves 4.

Braised Lamb Shanks with Cipollini Onions
Season 4 lamb shanks with coarse salt and pepper. Add 2 tablespoons olive oil to a Dutch oven and heat until the fat shimmers. Brown the lamb on all sides and remove. Pour off excess fat and add 1 cup chopped onion, 1 cup diced celery, 1 cup diced carrot and 1 cup diced leek. Cook at low heat until vegetables are soft and add 1 tablespoon minced garlic, 1 sprig of rosemary, 1 sprig of thyme and 1 bay leaf. Add 1 cup red wine and cook until reduced by half. Add 2 cups beef broth and the lamb shanks. Cover and place in a 300-degree oven. Cook until lamb is very tender, about 3 hours, turning the shanks every hour to ensure even cooking.
While the lamb is cooking, plunge 2 dozen cipollini onions in boiling water for 2 minutes. Drain and peel. Heat a large sauté pan and add 2 tablespoons butter and 1 tablespoon olive oil. Add the onions and 1 tablespoon sugar. Cook until lightly browned and add 1 cup port wine. Boil to reduce and add 1/2 cup chicken broth. Continue to cook until onions are tender, about 15 minutes. Season with coarse salt and pepper.

When lamb is cooked, remove the meat and strain sauce into a saucepan. Bring to a boil, check for seasoning and stir in 1 tablespoon cornstarch that has been dissolved in 1/4 cup cold water. Bring back to a boil, spoon the sauce over the lamb and serve with the onions.
Serves 4.

John Ross, a chef and author, has been an active part of the North Fork food and wine community for more than 35 years. E-mail: [email protected].