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Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Grind and Grain

Salt and the use of it can sometimes be very intimidating to cooks.  Too much and your family or the reviewer from The Times will see a weakness in your abilities.  Too little and the dish that you so carefully concocted and coaxed to mouth-watering deliciousness will never reach its full potential.  How do we strike that perfect chord of sodium fortified bliss?  Practice.

                Salt is a magical thing that turns the satisfactory into the sublime.  Each crystal comes with the power to pull flavor out, accentuate it, and when used in the right amounts in the right way, will increase retained moisture and depth of flavor (brining, salt & sugar rubs, marinades, etc.).  Making sure to season during the cooking process and not just after is one of the most basic ways to take advantage of this valuable kitchen tool.  If we wait until the very end of our simmering to season, we will not have allowed the sodium to drag the flavors and odiferous compounds out of our carefully prepped ingredients.  These compounds need to have time to marry together to bring out their full potential and salt acts as a catalyst for this. 

                I have no idea what the results will be when I season with iodized salt out of a salt shaker.  Even when using finely ground salt out of hand, it is still terribly hard to both see and feel  the granules of salt before they rain down upon a chicken breast.  That’s why I suggest Kosher salt.  It makes no difference whether its Morton’s or Diamond Crystal (the red and white box), they both feel the same and that’s what is important.  Kosher salt crystals are much larger and thus more easily perceived by your senses of touch and sight.  Keep and dish of it next to your stove so that your fingers can get used to it and eventually become your measuring device. 

Monday, December 12, 2011


     Everything in a kitchen is either blisteringly hot or wicked sharp and is worth being scared of.  That’s what I tell every dishwasher on their first day – sometimes even before I introduce myself to the puppy eyed newbie.  I don’t have the time to drive them to the hospital because they grabbed a red-hot pan handle with a damp rag (everybody does this once in their career) or they decided to thrust their hand into a silverware bin that a distracted server accidentally tossed a steak knife into.  If I remember anything from earning my swimmer’s merit badge, it’s “check the water first”.  There’s hazards everywhere in a professional kitchen and plenty to contend with In the home environment as well.

     My goal isn’t to have you cringe and tiptoe by your kitchen each day in fear of a disgruntled vegetable peeler.  Nor should you be walking on eggshells because you’re afraid of cutting or burning yourself on any one of a myriad of surfaces.  The best way to avoid getting injured is to have confidence and a little bit of foresight.  Teaching your fingers to curl themselves when holding something that you are slicing is the best way to avoid cutting off the tip of a digit when you are surprised by a ringing phone.  The confidence part will come from the fact that you know your knife is razor sharp and thus requiring less pressure to julienne that red onion.  Turn your pot handles away from the edge of your stove so that you don’t bump them.  Just don’t position them over an open flame ( everyone does that once too – never twice).  Keep a towel or pot holder on you at all times and assume that if it’s metal, it’s hot.  Try to get into the habit of looking the direction that you are going to turn your body before you make a move.  This will keep you from accidentally stabbing or burning an unsuspecting kitchen helper.

      Another benefit to creating these new habits is improved efficiency.  And, you’ll look like a pro. 

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Cooking without worry

                After a particularly rough day in the kitchen, a colleague of mine saw that I was fretting and said to me “It’s only food dude.  We’re not doing brain surgery here.”  That’s sage advice.  I think that all too often with food network soaked ideas and famous chefs constantly speaking of perfection on their newest Bravo Channel show, we forget that it’s only fuel that our body needs in order to run well and our goal is to just make it taste good.  On a non-professional level, dinner is not something that should be stressed over.  Every single self-perceived mistake can instead be looked at as a learning experience and can be used as another brick in each of own our cooking foundations.

                We all know home cooks that seem to be especially gifted in the kitchen.  These imposing figures can somehow seem to be effortless at any given culinary endeavor.  Be it a grandmother or maybe a mother-in-law, they all started somewhere and probably made the same mistakes that you have.  A burnt roast, scorched soup, or under cooked chic ken thigh are all things that commonly happen in the strictest of professional kitchens and during the inattention of the most skilled cooks.  Cooking is not brain surgery, and it should be a fun activity that brings pleasure and countless rewards to those who can maintain a analytical and positive perspective on their culinary adventures.  The most humbling and trust-building thing that a person can do is cook a person a meal.  Try and do it without worry and the experience will be substantially rewarding. 

A glass of wine during the process doesn’t hurt. 

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The same. Every time.

Consistency is a corner stone of a good kitchen, and one of the hardest to come by.  Knifework and other prep tasks in the kitchen can sometimes seem monotonous and daunting especially if you’re restricted by time limits and other duties of the domicile.  Setting a rhythm and sticking to it can be an efficient way to knock out a couple of prep projects with the quickness.  Set a tempo for yourself in the kitchen.  Whether it’s the rate at which you scale and measure ingredients, or the back and forth motion of your well honed chef knife, setting a beat to what you are doing will make you more accurate and efficient with your movements.  A lot of line cooks tend to hum as they work  and the busier the night gets the more focused on keeping pace they become.  Playing music in the kitchen is a no-brainer.  Something not too slow and not too fast.  And definitely not Kenny G. 

You don’t necessarily have to pick a favorite song or put a metronome on your spice rack, but if you  try to keep a certain pace and tempo to your movements in the kitchen you’ll see marked results.

A Firm Grip

      A  common issue that I come across with cooks of all skill levels is the dainty handling of razor sharp chef’s knives.  In a kitchen, this is your main and most trusted weapon.  It whittles carrots down to juliennes and dices onions into appropriately sized bits for cooking so this should be a tool that is held with attitude and gumption instead of fear and discomfort.   
     The handle of your knife should be firmly pressed into the palm of your hand with your index finger curled and gripping the side of the knife.  This should give you a good choked up feel on the knife which will make it much easier to control throughout your various prep tasks.  I always know when I haven’t been doing as much knife work because the pea sized callous on the base of my index finger begins to get soft.  Use every knife in a long and fluid slicing motion.  This is why all knives have a curve or angle to them so that they slide along the cutting board without coming off of it.  Whenever you wield any knife out of your cutlery block, always make sure it is with a firm grip.  It’ll help to keep your dices square and you out of the emergency room.

Monday, November 7, 2011

The foreign language of recipes

     I often hear that recipes and their listed techniques can be daunting to the uninitiated.  Poorly written ones can be vague and very confusing while overwhelming and unfamiliar techniques can cause a passionate cook to stop dead in their tracks with no where to go right before dinner.  Remember, aside from baking and pastry, recipes should just be a framework for you to build around.  You're the boss in your kitchen and you should adjust things to fit your palate.  Otherwise, they're easily written off as "bad" recipes.  Here's some tips to help you out in the future:
  1. Be careful what you google when looking for a dish.  There are no editors or recipe testers for this information so you are better off with cookbooks and magazines.
  2. Look at the season of the year that the recipe is intended for.  Summer?  Focus on sweet and salty flavors with an acidic backbone.  Winter?  Smooth and silky is the way to go with luxurious textures and flavors.
  3.  Get yourself a go-to handbook that you'll always have by your side during your kitchen battles.  I recommend "The Food Lover's Companion" and "The New Professional Chef".  Both can be found on amazon for cheap.
Lastly, take the time to envision yourself doing each step in the recipe.  This will help you to find unforseen problems and forgotten tools or ingredients before you get into the thick of it. 

Good luck and good cooking!