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One cook's best dish

Eclectic by nature, seasoned by design

M. Charles Beach uses a spice rub including cumin, coriander, cinnamon, and cloves to coat the chicken, which he pan fries. M. Charles Beach uses a spice rub including cumin, coriander, cinnamon, and cloves to coat the chicken, which he pan fries. (Michele Mcdonald for The Boston Globe)
By Jane Dornbusch
Globe Correspondent / June 9, 2010

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FRAMINGHAM — M. Charles Beach is one cook who’s definitely bought into that old adage about eating with your eyes. In his house here, even a casual meal is plated on colorful square dishes, the visual elements all in balance, and the table is graced with fresh flowers and pitchers of water and lemonade. Beach, an interior designer, likes to reflect his taste in everything he does, including (or perhaps especially) in the kitchen.

“I love cooking from around the world,’’ he says. “Caribbean, Italian, Southern, Asian.’’ As owner of (M)+Charles Beach Interiors, his approach is similarly eclectic, though he’s quick to identify what’s not his style: “I’d never do anything, like, Louis XIV,’’ he says. That froufrou look is pretty much the opposite of the kind of work he does for residential clients. He leans toward “contemporary, Asian, minimalist — but not cold.’’

Many of his clients, he says, are “younger, on their way up,’’ and sometimes, to seal the deal, he’ll take the negotiations out of the office and into the kitchen. He also enjoys cooking for family and friends, and one of his signature dishes is his North African chicken.

As he prepares the dish recently, he talks about how he came to create the seasoning rub that forms its basis, and about how he evolved as a cook. The M stands for Michael, but he says, “I prefer to go by M. Charles.’’ Growing up in Jamestown, N.Y., Beach, 53, spent a lot of time on his grandparents’ farm. “My mother is an awesome cook, and my grandmother was an awesome cook,’’ he recalls. “My grandmother could make something out of nothing.’’ But she was rarely called upon to do so, as the farm yielded vegetables, chickens, eggs, beef, and most of the other raw materials for the Sunday suppers he enjoyed there. Beach and his siblings learned to cook from her.

When Beach arrived in Boston, he did a lot of dining out — branching out from the “typically American’’ fare of his youth — and he quickly began to assimilate those flavors into his kitchen. “I’d try a dish and say, ‘I’d better figure that one out.’ ’’ That was the genesis of his North African chicken. He tried a similar dish at a restaurant and set out to re-create it at home. The rub for the chicken is key. “It took me forever to come up with the perfect combination of spices — lots of trial and error.’’ Today, in his kitchen, as he mixes cumin and coriander and cinnamon, he shows a practiced hand, barely needing to measure the ingredients he’s worked out with such care.

The kitchen is modest and old-fashioned compared to those he designs for clients. Renovating it is next on his to-do list, he says, and though he won’t change its small footprint, he’d like to update it with black Silestone counters and oak cabinets.

Beach doesn’t go out of his way to get exotic spices for the dish, but he does take some care with them. He grinds the cloves in a mortar with a pestle, to give it a bit of texture and a fresh flavor, and he uses whole fennel seeds for texture as well. The mixture is flavorful but not hot; he tends to use pepper with a judicious hand. “Pepper is like the color blue — a little goes a long way,’’ says the designer, who apparently favors warmth both in decor and in cooking.

He’s the family chef, preparing dinner most nights for his wife, Julie, 46, and their 11-year-old daughter, Sabrina. This arrangement, says Beach, “works out perfectly, since Julie “can’t cook to save her life.’’

He slathers on the rub, coating the chicken well. He cooks it on top of the stove in a heavy skillet, making sure it’s still tender and juicy inside when it’s done (using a thinner piece of chicken helps, as it tends to cook more evenly).

With it goes a mayonnaise-based sauce spiked with Meyer lemon juice, which provides a citrusy contrast. Beach plates it, simply but attractively, with a side of curry-flavored couscous. It’s a quick, easy dish that’s fancy enough for company — or prospective clients.

The lessons he learned at his grandmother’s Sunday suppers, where it wasn’t uncommon to find 30 or so guests, still apply. “Food is a thing that brings people together, that binds people,’’ he says. “Whenever we have a dinner party, people end up in the kitchen.’’

Jane Dornbusch can be reached at jdornbusch@verizon.net.

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