At a time when the food world is agog about the six-volume, 40-pound “Modernist Cuisine,” which celebrates the current rage for highly technical, laboratory-inspired cooking, Dennis Rees’ approach is as appealing as it is contrarian. It is as basic as buy quality and cook respectfully.
Rees’ favorite cookbook is Tom Colicchio’s “Think Like a Chef.” He likes it not for recipes but for its approach. “The first chapters,” Rees says, “teach you technique. Next, how to select food. The whole idea is that if you know techniques and how to buy food, you can go to the grocery store, find something fresh and good and create a meal any night of the week.”
The meal Rees created for Diversions’ Edibles epitomizes his philosophy. It consists of an oven-roasted rack of veal, sautéed broccoli rabe and roasted potatoes. There is a total of only 10 ingredients in the three recipes. The veal tastes like veal. The broccoli rabe is cooked to sweetness and the potatoes are crisp on the outside and as soft as mashed potatoes within. There are no tricks, no illusions, no nothing except “food just cooked” beautifully.
Rees got interested in cooking when he lived in Chicago and served as a helper to his brother-in-law, Gene Servillo, of nearby Evanston, whom he describes as “a gourmet Italian chef.” He is completely self-taught and an enthusiast of flavored sea salts, which appear in these recipes. Rees says there is a big difference between table salt and sea salt, the latter being much less of a health risk: “Table salt is stripped of all its mineral content except sodium; sea salt has lots of minerals including potassium, which counteracts the negative effects of too much sodium.”
Rees’ primary source for sea salts is Whole Foods. He shops at Morton’s for meat and fish, and likes their tomatoes and Brussels sprouts. He buys those tomatoes a few days in advance and leaves in a plastic bag on the counter two to three days to get juicy. He goes to Publix for other stuff and particularly likes their Attitude brand greens mixes.
Rees’ approach to salad is consistent with his overall philosophy: simplicity reigns. He doesn’t make dressing and serves his mixes of greens and veggies with cruets of oil (grapeseed is his favorite) and vinegar. Appetizers are “Felice’s department,” he says, referring to his wife, Felice Schulaner. Dessert is a non-starter; he doesn’t eat it.
Rees’ kitchen is in a 1963 Tim Siebert-designed ranch home on Siesta Key. He and Schulaner bought it in 2003 and used it for long weekends and holidays, until she retired from her position as senior vice president, Human Resources, at Coach leather goods in 2006. Rees still works for RedVision, which provides real estate data to title companies and banks. He works from a home office only a few steps from his kitchen. Rees and Schulaner rehabbed the home, which took more than a year, and included a whole new kitchen. About all that was left of the original interior was some handsome mottled glass which now serves as sliding cabinet doors in the kitchen.
Rees says that what he likes best about cooking is “the entertaining part; eating with family and friends.” It must be a highly coveted invitation.
Rack of Veal Rees
Two veal racks of three chops each (approx. 5 pounds total)
¼ cup shelled pistachio nuts
1 tablespoon fresh thyme, chopped
1 tablespoon fresh rosemary, chopped
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
¼ teaspoon Artisan Trapani Sicilian Sea Salt
*Rees says “two pinches.” A pinch is typically considered 1/8 teaspoon.
Have butcher French the ends of the chop bones and wrap each bone in foil.
Preheat oven to 400°.
Combine nuts, herbs, salt and oil and grind into a paste in a mini-food processor.
Sear meat in a non-stick pan over medium/high heat for a minute or two, one rack at a time, to seal and brown all sides. Brush paste all over. Position in a roasting pan so bones are interlaced in center and roast for 35 minutes or until an instant meat thermometer reads 120°. Remove from oven, tent with foil and let rest 20 minutes for juices to recede before carving into individual chops to serve.
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