Burmese Chicken from a Christopher Kimball recipe. Kimball is on a national tour in support of his new company, Milk Street. (Connie Miller/CB Creatives/TNS)
Photo: Connie Miller
Photo: Connie Miller

Christopher Kimball dishes on ethnic food and the work ethic

A lot can happen in two years. Just ask Christopher Kimball, the droll showman of food.

You may remember him as the founder, publisher and host of America’s Test Kitchen, a role that went away in 2015.

Today he’s the founder, publisher and host of Milk Street, a new venture with the sole purpose of convincing us to head to the kitchen and cook.

This time around his message has a global resonance: Simplify and improve your cooking by looking to the world’s flavors and techniques.

We checked in with this native of Vermont with a passion for work and the kitchen, after taking a peek at his new cookbook and a PBS show of the same name.

Q: How do you entertain cooking fans in a theater?

A: After having done this a few years on stage, I know it’s really about the audience, and I like to get them involved as much as possible. We will have a live screen test, where someone has to cook with me on stage and we videotape it. After the (nationwide) tour, we will pick one of these people to be on the show. We do a cook-off with two groups of people forced to use a randomly chosen key ingredient to incorporate into a dish. We have the entire audience do a taste test to see if they are genetically disposed to pick up on a certain kind of flavor. And to demonstrate the power of smell, we have fermented fish from Sweden. There will be Twitter questions and surveys on how people cook at home, a culinary quiz with contestants on stage. And really awful substitutions that cooks have done.

Q: How has your view changed on what used to be called “ethnic” food?

A: I think that when I grew up and learned to cook in the ‘60s and ‘70s, ethnic cooking was considered to be like something out of National Geographic: what people did in other places. It was not often common everyday food, but something fancy. So if it was a Chinese or Indian dish, it was always really dressed up. And it had to be authentic. Everyone wanted to be authentic. But can you really be authentic with a Senegalese dish made in New York? Or a mole sauce made here? It’s not going to be authentic because the culture is different and the ingredients are different, and you can’t transport either effectively, anyway. This makes no sense. We are talking about everyday food.

My point is that everyone who cooks is putting dinner on the table. Some things should not ever leave the country of origin. But some of it can. So what are the things you can share with others?I can make a tagine here, but it won’t be the same as in Morocco. But you can learn some stuff about braising chicken. I’m open to the idea that you can go anywhere in the world and cook with someone and learn from them. We shouldn’t be worshiping recipes as some hallowed things that can’t be changed. After all these years of making North European food, I realize that there are people in the world who have solutions for putting dinner on the table, too. Sometimes these solutions are really great. They walk into a kitchen, or wherever they cook, with a totally different mind set on what is dinner and how to make it.

Q: Why Milk Street? Why now? You had a long, successful run with America’s Test Kitchen and Cook’s Illustrated, and now you’re tackling a new venture?

A: I’m constitutionally unable to not work. I love what I do. It’s the best job in the world. I get to do radio and TV, and magazines, books and events. I love it and the people I work with. I don’t want to retire. I don’t want to write a memoir. I want to keep doing what I’m doing. And I’m a true believer from the ‘60s. I do think there’s a different way to cook (the focus of Milk Street). It has transformed the way I cook.

I think people can go into the kitchen and turn out much better food by taking lessons from cooks around the world and not just sticking to the classic American repertoire. If people go from being a bad cook to a better cook, it’s a big deal for them. If you’re not in the food world, you may not understand. I’ve had people come up to me, almost in tears, and say how important this is to them. It’s a big deal to be good at something. And it’s enormously satisfying for me to hear from people.

I’m 66. A generation ago, that may have been thought of as a retirement age. Didn’t Carl Reiner recently say, at 95, that his last years have been the most productive? (Martin) Scorsese is still doing films. Jacques Pepin is still working. Julia (Child) was in her 80s and doing TV. What else am I going to do?

I could have taken the money (from America’s Test Kitchen) and retired to Vermont and gone rabbit hunting. But the appeal for that would have lasted about two days. In my small town in Vermont, there is a concept that you need to be useful, no matter how old you are. People there who are 90 are doing something. I have always found that appealing.

Burmese Chicken

Serves 4.

Note: For lemongrass, use only the white, slightly tender (but still firm) inner bulb, not the fibrous outer layers. Trim off the root and discard the last 5 inches of the stalk; peel off the first few layers to reach the part you want to use. If you buy lemongrass in a plastic container, it likely has been trimmed already. From “Milk Street,” by Christopher Kimball.

8 ounces plum tomatoes (2 large), quartered

4 tablespoons grapeseed or other neutral oil, divided

3 teaspoons kosher salt, divided

2 teaspoons ground turmeric

1/4 teaspoons red pepper flakes

2 stalks lemongrass, trimmed and 5 inches on end removed (see Note)

2 large shallots, quartered

2 ounces fresh ginger, thinly sliced (about 1/4 c.)

8 garlic cloves

1 1/2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken thighs, trimmed and cut into 1 1/2-in. pieces

1/2 cup chopped fresh cilantro

2 tablespoons lime juice, plus lime wedges, to serve

In a blender, combine tomatoes, 1 tablespoon oil, 1 teaspoon salt, the turmeric, pepper flakes, lemongrass, shallots, ginger and garlic. Blend until a thick paste forms, about 1 minute, scraping down the blender as needed.

In large Dutch oven over medium-high, add remaining 3 tablespoons oil, the chicken and remaining 2 teaspoons salt. Cook, stirring occasionally, until chicken is no longer pink, about 5 minutes. Add spice paste and cook, stirring occasionally, until fragrant and paste coats the chicken, 2 to 3 minutes.

Cover, reduce heat to medium-low and cook, stirring occasionally, for 10 minutes. Uncover, increase heat to medium-high and simmer until chicken is cooked through and sauce is thickened, 7 to 9 minutes. Off heat, stir in cilantro and lime juice. Serve with lime wedges.

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