How to craft an easy menu with science

How do you ensure a knockout meal? You could rely on outdated recipes from faded cookbooks, or you could harness science to construct a flawless menu that also happens to be a breeze to make.

I undertook this mission after picking up “The Flavor Matrix” by James Briscione, who “collaborated” with IBM’s famous supercomputer Watson, the same creation that thoroughly embarrassed the human race on “Jeopardy!” back in 2011. Using flavor-pairing theory (something that apparently exists), the two cataloged the quantities and concentrations of certain aromatic compounds in a collection of popular ingredients and then developed suggestions on what would pair best with them.

I know this sounds horribly complex, and leaving menu planning to the robots does bring us one step closer to some dystopian nightmare, but it’s really quite easy. All you have to do is pick an ingredient and then use the book’s color-coded “flavor matrix” to find complementary pairings. It’ll surprise no one that butter pairs well with potatoes, but did you know avocados and sake also go well with the tubers?

Considering it’s spring, I started with asparagus. After consulting that ingredient’s flavor matrix, I found that pistachios, citrus and fennel were all scientifically proved to work together with the spring vegetable. For the protein element, I went with chicken, and much to my surprise, asparagus, citrus, pistachios and fennel all pair well with poultry too. Thanks, Watson!

While I could concoct some fussy way to combine all of these components, I intentionally chose the easiest cooking method I could think of: roasting on a baking sheet. This makes cleanup a cinch, and, if they are around, allows small kids to get in on hard labor.

I’d love to pretend that you simply place the ingredients on the pan, shove it in the oven and then wait for the perfect dinner. Sadly, it’s not quite that easy, though it is close. Asparagus cooks much faster than chicken, so you need to make sure to add it toward the end. While you could use whole bone-in chicken breasts, they overcook easily, so I don’t think this is the best method for them. Instead, I like to go with bone-in chicken thighs, which stay juicy, even if slightly overdone. (A meat thermometer helps with this process tremendously. You’ll want the thighs to register around 170 degrees in the center.)

I held back the pistachios for a dead-simple sauce, which legitimately requires nothing more than tossing a bunch of components into a blender and pulsing it a few times. Along with the nuts, I added bright lemon juice, briny capers, fragrant fresh parsley and rich olive oil — all ingredients Watson told me would go together well. The result is a creamy and punchy bright green sauce that feels like the very essence of spring.

As I blended up the sauce of my digitally constructed menu, I had the sneaking suspicion that I wasn’t being as state-of-the-art as I might have imagined. I was essentially just making a variation on pesto, one where pistachios and parsley take the place of pine nuts and basil. Of course, pesto has existed for hundreds of years in Italy, making my computer-assisted meal slightly less impressive, though no less delicious. Sometimes it takes a supercomputer to help you get back to the basics.

Fortunately, moms usually care less about the history of the recipe you’re serving and more about the fact that you’re in the kitchen preparing an impressive meal for them in the first place.



Prep: 20 minutes

Cook: 30 minutes

Makes: 4 servings

1 1/2 pounds bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs

3 fennel bulbs, quartered

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 teaspoon kosher salt

1/2 teaspoon black pepper

1 pound asparagus, tough ends removed, cut into 3-inch segments

For the sauce:

3/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

Zest and juice of 1 lemon

2 tablespoons capers

1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley

1/4 cup shelled pistachios

1/4 teaspoon kosher salt

1/4 teaspoon black pepper

1. Heat oven to 425 degrees. Adjust oven rack to bottom third position.

2. Place chicken thighs on one side of a lightly oiled rimmed baking sheet, and the fennel pieces on the other. Drizzle with the olive oil, and sprinkle with the salt and pepper. Toss chicken pieces and fennel quarters until evenly coated with oil, salt and pepper.

3. Set baking sheet in oven. Cook, 20 minutes. Using a pair of tongs, flip fennel pieces. Do not flip the chicken. Add asparagus to the sheet pan; use a pair of tongs to toss with the fat and juices already in the pan. Cook, another 10 minutes.

4. Remove pan from oven. Check chicken temperature with an instant-read meat thermometer; it should be 165 degrees. If not, place back in the oven for another 5 minutes.

5. Meanwhile, make the sauce: Combine all the sauce ingredients in a blender or food processor. Blend until pistachios are finely chopped, but sauce is not completely smooth. Transfer to a bowl.

6. Serve chicken with fennel and asparagus on the side. Drizzle with the pistachio sauce.

Nutrition information per serving: 677 calories, 58 g fat, 9 g saturated fat, 106 mg cholesterol, 19 g carbohydrates, 9 g sugar, 25 g protein, 881 mg sodium, 8 g fiber

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