Pure elegance: Think dinner party cooking can't be quick and easy? Think again.
If you've ever hung out in a restaurant kitchen, or been seated close enough to one to witness the chefs in action, you've probably heard the head chef repeatedly calling out the word "Fire!" Rather than sounding any kind of alarm, the command actually means that the time has come for a particular dish to be cooked so that it will be ready to serve along with the rest of a particular table's order -- all part of the system that keeps a restaurant running efficiently.
Good restaurant cooking and service often do call for split-second timing, even though there may also be many dishes on a menu that are slowly cooked (braises, stews or roasts) or elements of recipes (sauces, dressings and fresh pastas) that require advance preparation. But it still can be really surprising how quickly many dishes do come together in a fine-dining establishment.
The same can be true when you entertain at home. While many people think that throwing a dinner party must call for hours of cooking, it is possible -- and, I would say, often preferable -- to entertain elegantly without spending very much time in the kitchen at all. The key to achieving this goal, however, relies largely on one key element: preparation.
My recipe for thyme-steamed stuffed chicken legs with watercress sauce, a classic from my pre-Spago days of cooking at Ma Maison restaurant in Los Angeles, is a perfect example of that principle. It's a delicious, surprisingly light main course, featuring chicken legs from which the thigh bones have been removed (you can ask the butcher to do it for you). They are filled with a port-seasoned mixture of chopped chicken breast, mushrooms, and onion, steamed over thyme-scented broth, then sliced and served with a quickly blended sauce based on fresh watercress and some of the flavorful steaming liquid.
Some people might think an elegant-sounding dish like this might take considerable time to prepare, or call for special cooking skill. But, in fact, the cooking time start to finish is under 30 minutes. The reason cooking happens so quickly is that, up to several hours in advance, you do another simple 30 minutes or so of prep work, quickly sauteing and cooling the filling, and then stuffing the boned legs and securing them with toothpicks.
That prep, and the fact that the final steaming takes place pretty much unattended and the sauce takes seconds to prepare, leaves you free to welcome and enjoy pre-dinner cocktails or a glass of wine with your guests. It all comes together so easily and seamlessly that you won't even feel the need to call out "Fire!" before serving time.
THYME-STEAMED STUFFED CHICKEN LEGS WITH WATERCRESS SAUCE
For the stuffed chicken legs:
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil