Fads come and fads go. But in the 1990s, one thing happened that perhaps changed the way we cook and eat in America forever.
Other things of importance happened in that decade: The World Wide Web came into being. More than 500,000 Rwandans were slaughtered in a three-month genocide. Timothy McVeigh bombed a federal building in Oklahoma City.
And in the world of food, the Food Network — at the time called the TV Food Network — signed onto the air on April 19, 1993.
Within a couple of years, everything was different. Ordinary people suddenly knew how to make a chiffonade. Home cooks were adding crispy fried leaves of basil or sage to their soups. And everyone was chopping onions the professional way.
For a year or two, some people said “Bam!” every time they added garlic to a dish.
Garlic was key. A large part of the country was wary of the pungent bulb until they saw Emeril Lagasse adding it to pretty much everything he cooked. Lagasse’s persistence made garlic an acceptable ingredient for the culinarily timid, and soon they began trying other spices as well.
A whole world of cooking and eating opened up to a large portion of the population.
With Americans becoming more savvy about the ways of professionals, restaurants sought new ideas. One restaurant trend that came (and fortunately left) in the ’90s was the idea of presenting food in a stack. The fancier places, and those that aspired to be fancier, took to creating a single tower of food on a plate.
It looked impressive, until you tried to eat it. With the first forkful, the whole thing inevitably tumbled over like a game of Jenga — a game that, perhaps not coincidentally, became a huge hit in the ’90s.
Less aspirational restaurants brought out the salads of the decade, chicken Caesar salad and Asian chicken salad with mandarin orange segments. Other food trends included sun-dried tomatoes and pesto, which sometimes appeared in the same dish. Many a panini — also a big trend of the era — was served with chicken, pesto and sun-dried tomatoes.
For me, two dishes most represent the food of the Nineties, and both of them are desserts: crème brulée and molten chocolate cake.
Before chefs began breaking out and making crèmes brulée in every flavor they could imagine (lavender, red wine, chocolate-chipotle), crème brulée was simple and elegant. A silken vanilla-cream custard lay just under a thin, delicate crust of burnt sugar — its faint bitterness providing a counterpoint to the rich custard.
A great crème brulée hinges on two factors. The first is cooking the custard gently, placing it in a water bath as it bakes to keep it from getting too hot. The second is going easy on the sugar before caramelizing it; you want the crust on top to be delicately brittle.
Molten Chocolate Cake was invented by Jean-Georges Vongerichten when he accidentally took a chocolate sponge cake out of the oven too soon. When he cut into it, the unbaked and delicious center flowed out. The impressive dessert was practically unavoidable in the ’90s under a host of names (Vongerichten himself calls it Warm, Soft Chocolate Cake), and it is every bit as stunning now as it was 20 years ago.
It is surprisingly easy to make. It only requires a handful of ingredients. Each individual mini-cake is one serving, and you only have to cook it for 12 minutes, which is how it was created in the first place. And the taste is instantly satisfying.
For a 1990s appetizer, I stayed with Vongerichten and his recipe for garlic soup. Garlic soup is pretty much a perfect example of ’90s cooking: The taste is clean and simple; the recipe unfussy. Yet it is an elegant dish, as befits a post-Food Network world, and it makes unusual use of a common ingredient.
The ingredient in this case is garlic. Simply heating the garlic slowly in olive oil removes its distinctive bite. What is left is a warm and mild flavor that gently permeates the soup without becoming assertive. An addition of egg at the end, like egg drop soup, turns the soup creamy and gives it a luxuriant texture.
For an entree, I turned to one of my favorite recipes from the first chefs I ever saw on the Food Network. Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken, collectively (and a little too cutely) called the Too Hot Tamales, were my introduction to a cable channel with nothing but cooking shows.
I was instantly entranced, partly because the food they cooked looked so stunning.
I made their Marinated Skirt Steak because it is so fabulous and also because skirt steak kind of came into its own in the ’90s when fajitas became an accepted part of American cuisine. Actually, the store was out of skirt steak, so I bought flank steak instead — it’s a different cut of meat, but it cooks the same way and has essentially the same flavor. I have also had excellent results with top round marinated for just two hours.
It’s the marinade that makes this dish so outstanding. Olive oil, red wine vinegar, soy sauce, garlic, dry mustard, Worcestershire sauce and Tabasco turn into an unbeatable combination with beef. I spread the horseradish mustard, which is also part of the recipe, on bread to make a succulent, full-bodied sandwich.
It’s enough to make you want to put on a flannel shirt and listen to grunge music.
Yield: 4 servings
1 pint heavy cream
1 vanilla bean
3 ounces granulated sugar (1/4 cup plus 3 tablespoons)
4 egg yolks
Pinch of salt
2 ounces raw (turbinado) sugar (3 1/2 tablespoons)
1. Preheat oven to 500 degrees. Bring a pot of water to a boil.
2. Place cream in a heavy saucepan. Split the vanilla bean in half lengthwise with a sharp knife and use the edge of the knife to scrape out all the tiny seeds inside. Place the seeds in the cream along with the vanilla bean halves, bring to a boil, and add the sugar. While it heats, whisk the eggs in a heatproof bowl and add the salt.
3. As soon as the cream begins to boil, remove it from the heat and add about 1/3 of it, little by little, to the yolks. After each addition, whisk thoroughly to combine. Once you have added about 1/3 of the cream to the yolks, pour the egg/cream mixture back into the pan. Return pan to medium heat, and cook, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon, until the mixture is slightly thickened and will coat the back of the spoon, about 2 minutes. Strain the mixture through a sieve and portion out into 4 (5-ounce) shallow molds or ramekins.
4. Set the molds or ramekins in a baking or roasting pan and place in oven. Fill the pan with boiling water up to the level of the custard, taking care not to splash the water into the ramekins. Immediately lower the heat to 225 degrees and cook for 45 minutes, checking often to assure they do not color on top.
5. Remove and cool completely, at least 2 hours in the refrigerator. Sprinkle just enough raw sugar on top of each one to coat it, and caramelize either by placing under a broiler or with a blowtorch.
Per serving: 605 calories; 48 g fat; 29 g saturated fat; 320 mg cholesterol; 6 g protein; 40 g carbohydrate; 39 g sugar; no fiber; 80 mg sodium; 103 mg calcium.
Recipe from “The Frog and the Redneck Cookbook” by Jimmy Sneed
MOLTEN CHOCOLATE CAKE
Yield: 4 servings
1 stick (1/2 cup) butter, plus some for buttering the molds
6 ounces bittersweet chocolate, preferably highest quality
2 egg yolks
1/4 cup granulated sugar
Pinch of salt
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting
Note: The batter can be refrigerated for several hours; bring to room temperature before baking.
1. Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Butter and lightly flour 4 (6-ounce) ramekins. Tap out the excess flour. Set the ramekins on a baking sheet.
2. In a double boiler over simmering water, melt the butter with the chocolate. In a medium bowl, beat the eggs with the egg yolks, sugar and salt at high speed until thickened and pale.
3. Whisk the chocolate until smooth. Quickly fold it into the egg mixture along with the flour. Spoon the batter into the prepared ramekins and bake for 12 minutes, or until the sides of the cakes are firm but the centers are soft. Let the cakes cool in the ramekins for 1 minute, then cover each with an inverted dessert plate. Carefully turn each one over, let stand for 10 seconds and then unmold. Serve immediately.
Per serving: 542 calories; 46 g fat; 27 g saturated fat; 246 mg cholesterol; 10 g protein; 36 g carbohydrate; 25 g sugar; 5 g fiber; 82 mg sodium; 33 mg calcium.
Recipe from Food & Wine
Yield: 4 servings
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
4 whole garlic bulbs, separated into cloves, peeled and thinly sliced
2 teaspoons fresh thyme leaves
6 cups chicken stock
Salt and pepper
1 tablespoon white or Champagne vinegar
1. Place the olive oil in a saucepan and turn the heat to medium; immediately add the garlic and thyme. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the garlic has a translucent appearance and begins to soften, about 10 minutes.
2. Add the chicken stock and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat to medium — you want the soup to be bubbling, but not furiously — and cook, stirring occasionally, until the liquid is reduced by about half and the garlic is very tender, about 15 minutes. (You may prepare the recipe in advance up to this point; refrigerate in a covered container for up to 2 days).
3. Season the soup to taste with salt and pepper and reduce the heat as low as possible. Beat the eggs with the vinegar and gently whisk into the soup; the eggs will cook in shreds and thicken the soup. Taste and add more salt, pepper or vinegar if you like; the vinegar should make its presence felt, but not too boldly. Serve.
Per serving: 306 calories; 17 g fat; 3 g saturated fat; 104 mg cholesterol; 14 g protein; 23 g carbohydrate; 6 g sugar; 1 g fiber; 555 mg sodium; 81 mg calcium.
Recipe from “Jean-Georges,” by Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Mark Bittman
MARINATED SKIRT STEAK WITH HORSERADISH MUSTARD
Yield: 6 servings
3 pounds skirt steak or flank steak
1 cup olive oil
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1/2 cup soy sauce
2 teaspoons minced garlic
2 teaspoons dry mustard
2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce
1 teaspoon Tabasco sauce
1 teaspoon cracked black pepper
2 tablespoons vegetable oil, if sauteeing
1/2 cup stone-ground mustard
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons prepared horseradish
1. Trim steak of any outer pieces of fat or silver skin, leaving marbling within the beef. In a large bowl, combine the oil, vinegar, soy sauce, garlic, dry mustard, Worcestershire sauce, Tabasco sauce and black pepper. Add steak and make sure it is completely covered (you may need to lay it flat in a roasting pan). Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 8 hours or as long as 2 days.
2. If grilling, grill 2 to 3 minutes per side over a very hot fire. If sautéing, add 2 tablespoons vegetable oil to a large pan over high heat, heat until very hot, and cook 2 to 3 minutes per side.
3. Allow meat to rest off the heat while combining the stone-ground mustard and horseradish. Slice the meat thinly, at an angle, across the grain. Serve with the horseradish mustard sauce.
Per serving: 463 calories; 29 g fat; 8 g saturated fat; 130mg cholesterol; 46 g protein; 3 g carbohydrate; 2 g sugar; 1 g fiber; 1,036 mg sodium; 35 mg calcium.
Adapted from “City Cuisine,” by Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken