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Tuesday, March 6, 2012

What’s that smell?

               While doing a cooking demo at the local high school last week, I reminded myself and the students of a very important step to all good cooking; smell your food.   

                Wafting those airborne molecules towards your schnoz helps your brain and your taste buds to put the first strokes on the canvas that is your hard earned meal.  As items in your pan simmer away, they change chemically and emit different odors at each stage.  I smell just about everything before it goes into the mixing bowl or pan.  I look for off odors (especially in dairy and protein) and prime my taste buds for the coming tasks.  I think that inhaling deeply over a simmering pot gives you a status report on what’s going on inside and what to expect down the road from your ingredients.  Are your caramelized onions smelling sweet?  Does your carrot and ginger vinaigrette smell exotic and are the two flavors coming together as one spicy condiment? 

                Like a soup that tastes bland towards the end of the bowl, religiously smelling your food can have a deadening effect on what you taste in the end.  Whenever I’m cooking particularly odiferous foodstuffs like curry or heavily spiced dishes, I always step away when I think there is enough.  I have someone else give it a taste because I realize that I can no longer smell the curry spices that I am adding to it.  My nose is worn out on the smells before me and is looking for something new to experience. 

                Smell everything all the time.  The more you do, the more educated your palate will be in the end. 

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

GBD (golden brown and delicious)

Many of our favorite foods have a characteristic color.  Golden brown.  Be it fried, roasted, seared, or sautéed, the color alone tells us it’s going to be delicious.  This color shows controlled technique and finesse on the part of the cook.

The delicious amber color is a side effect of one of two things happening to your food.  In high sugar items, caramelization is occurring at temperatures over 310 degrees and taking the sugars present in the food (both natural and added) through over one hundred chemical changes.  The resulting color carries with it a depth of flavor and richness that can’t be attained through steaming or boiling. The temperature range for this to happen can be attained through most dry-heat cooking methods.  The same cooking techniques will yield similar GBD results when cooking low sugar items like proteins and breads, in a very different way though.

The Maillard reaction is what causes the desirable browning of things like coffee, chocolate, and roasted meats.  Exposure to high temperatures causes great changes to locked up carbohydrates and amino acids inherent to proteins.  Imagine bread that never developed that golden crusty goodness.  Or fried chicken that came out of the pan bright white on the outside and tasting of nothing but flour.

Look for this color taking shape when cooking.  Coax it along with attention to the temperature of your pan, oven, or grill.  The addition of fat in the form of oils and butter help to coat the item being cooked and conduct heat evenly.  Brown good, bland bad.   


Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Sweet and Sour

               When it comes to sweet and acidic flavors, we’re hooked.  From candies to pickles and “ethnic” cuisines, some of our favorite foods have that wonderful sugary feeling or a pleasantly sharp bite.  What’s the appeal and how can we bring those same tastes into what we cook at home?

                Much like salt, acid and sugar have the ability to not only balance flavors, but accentuate and draw out tastes that might otherwise go unnoticed.  Acids like vinegar and lemon juice help to cut the flavor and sensation of fat by evening out the flabby feeling that it can have on our tongue and allow other flavors to come through.  Imagine eating a salad with just oil on it. 

Sugar makes just about everything better if used in restrained amounts.  Its inherent ability to cover up bitterness and leave a pleasing aftertaste can be used to your advantage in a myriad of ways.  Sprinkling a few white grains on wilted spinach reduces the bitterness and allows that pure green flavor to come through.  Evening out the heat of spicy dishes with sugar is a foundation of Barbecue and Asian cooking and is a great addition to a hot Arrabbiata sauce. 

The coup de grace of course is the combination of the two.  Sweet vinaigrettes, lemonade, and bread and butter pickles are great examples of these.  Finishing a dish with a sprinkle of sugar or a dash of vinegar will help you elevate your food to the next level when you’re asking yourself “what is this missing?” .       

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

The Patience of Bread

               Bread teaches us many things.  Through the mixing and kneading, the proofing, slashing, and baking;  we learn patience and realize that there are so very many different variables that go into a good loaf. 

                Baking requires loads of repetition and persistence.  Getting your hands covered in flour and working the dough to develop gluten gets you involved in the task at hand.  A baker needs (kneads?) to cultivate an intimate relationship when baking bread.  Getting used to how each different dough feels at all of the stages creates an internal bread barometer.  Your fingers will learn when the dough is too wet or too dry, and whether or not it feels like the right weight for its size as it is expanding on your counter.

                I’ve started baking sourdough again recently and find that my average level of frustration throughout the day is rising more consistently then my naturally leavened loaves.  I’ve gotten so involved with my sourdough that I even named my starter.  It’s Stevie Nicks, don’t ask why.  I’ve found a basic and simple recipe that I’ve been making over and over again.  I only change one variable at a time (depth of slash marks, baking stone vs. pan, adding ice cubes to the oven to create steam for better crust) and park my chair in front of my oven window in order to watch the magic happen inside.  

                My suggestion to anyone beginning baking is to be patient and diligent.  Find a simple recipe using good quality (not from the bottom shelf) flour and try to make it twice a week.  You’ll see your loaves consistently get better as you gradually develop a feel for them. 

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Matters of the Pot and Pan (Temperature)

              We first started cooking our food to make it more easily digested and to enable it to be more shelf stable (cave stable?). Once we graduated from spit roasting to cooking our dinners in a metal or clay pot, we were able to prepare foodstuffs that were more liquid rather than just chunks of meat skewered and suspended over the fire.  I’m sure the first chefs quickly learned that viscous solutions also have a tendency to stick to their container and caramelize unless their proximity to the fire was attended to regularly.  So much time and energy has been spent on enabling us better control of our heat source through inventions of things like stoves and thermostats, why not take advantage of them?  I always end up telling less experienced line cooks; “the burner doesn’t just go on and off, there’s a whole lot in the middle”.

                A pot on the stove needs constant adjustment.  Sometimes this can be accomplished by merely stirring it or setting it off center of the heat source.  I typically offset a stock or reduction so that the bubbles rising on one side help to push the impurities over to the other more stagnant side giving me the chance to skim them away.  Things change as they cook too.  As soups and stews simmer away on a stove, they get thicker, thicker solutions hold more heat and will require you to routinely lower the temperature of your burner in order to maintain that lazy bubble you’re looking for. 

                Aggressive cooking techniques need aggressive heat.  Grilling, roasting, sautéing, and other dry heat cooking methods are all about evaporating moisture and getting it out of the way to allow browning to take effect.  Hence the sloped sides and large surface area of a sauté pan; its design allows water to escape quickly bettering the likelihood of you achieving the result of GBD (golden brown and delicious).  An attentive cook will listen to the pan and turn it down when the sizzling and popping sounds go from aggressive and evenly paced to violent and turbocharged.  Avoid using too much oil when cooking with gusto.  It has a tendency to burn and spatter or even catch fire.  Experiment with temperature next time you brown chicken breasts in a pan by changing the heat level applied to the pan for each breast, hotter each time.  Take note of how they change in color and appearance as you progress in temperature.   

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Matters of the Pot and Pan (Surface Area)

               Much detriment can come from a poorly attended pot or pan in the form of dashed dinner dreams and limp vegetables intermingled with completely raw ones.  Paying attention to both the surface area of your food and that of your cooking vessel is paramount in a kitchen.

                Think about your favorite fast-paced cooking show (Chopped, Top Chef, Iron Chef), ever notice the cooks constantly giving their pots and pans a stir or a little shake?  This isn’t a nervous tick or showmanship, they are leveling everything off so that they have evenly cooked product while visually assessing what’s going on in the pan itself.  Vegetables in a pan can be quite fickle when it comes to being consistently tender and to counter act this we want to regularly rotate the layer of food that is in direct contact with the pan bottom.  By leveling out the ingredients in the pan with a shimmy, shake, or stir, we can avoid having that rogue undercooked carrot or potato that never made its way to the business portion of our pan.  None of this stirring and agitation will have the desired result if we have picked the wrong size pot to sweat our vegetables in. 

                Surface area comes into play when we look at our amount of foodstuffs versus the size of the pan that we are going to use.  If we are sautéing onions and desire a bit of color on them, then we will need med-high heat and a pan that is big enough to let the onions settle in a single layer or two.  As vegetables and proteins stack up in a pan, they suck heat from the metal and release water.  If the temperature of the pan drops too much due to being overloaded, we will be steaming our onions rather delivering them to the world of crispy brown perfection.  This is especially important whenever we are preparing vegetables and proteins with high water content (mushrooms, onions, potatoes, fish, etc.).


Friday, January 20, 2012

In Good Taste (part two)

                I wanted to elaborate a little on the previous post about our sense of taste.  Since I’ve never read somebody’s own methods of tasting and analysis, I will tell you the exact process that I go through each time I evaluate something I am cooking.

                First, I look at context.  I ask myself: “self, what’s the overall theme of this dish?”.  Is it a hot summer dish?  Or a late fall dinner that should be comforting and filling?  I give myself parameters to fit into so that I know what the end result should be.  Next, I always use my eyes.  Is this something appealing looking or is it unappetizing?  If I am preparing this component of a dish in accordance with a specific ethnicity or culture, does it look like something I’ve seen in this style before?  Next, I smell long and deep.  Anything off?   I do this because it helps to prime my taste buds by way of the retro nasal passage at the back of my mouth.  It should immediately make me want to take the next step to tasting.  If the texture of my creation is pleasing, I immediately look for balance among the four main tastes (sour, sweet, salty, bitter ) and if I am looking for one of these to stand out, is it achieving that goal.  Should there be heat (spiciness) in this particular part of the dish?  If so, is it at the tip of the tongue and very sharp, or is it at the back of the throat with a long finish?  I look for layers of flavors that develop on my tongue as I roll the mixture around in my mouth and if any overly bitter compounds or flavor holes develop in the structure of the sensation.  Finally, is this component going to perform on the plate the way I want it to with the other ingredients?  Will it compliment, contrast, or enhance the other parts to make a superlative whole? 

                Now is the time to make adjustments conservatively and judiciously—you can always add, but you can never take out.  I am very careful while adjusting so as not to dull my palate.  If I taste something twenty times my senses are waxed over and not as accurate as they were during my first impression of the item.  I then have someone else taste it and hope that I have not wasted my time. 
                This is how I do it all day, every day, and every time.