Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Things To Know

Okay, its finally time for the second part of my series on things every cook should have and things every cook should know. After doing some thinking I have decided to break the "things to know" segment into two parts as well. This section will focus on technique while the other section will focus on execution of those techniques.

These items are basic bits of knowledge I think every serious home cook should be able to execute. Obviously, this is just my humble opinion but I really believe they are essential bits of knowledge that can take you from a basic "housewife" kind of cook to the woman (or man) the neighbors are always asking for recipes, tips, etc. Who doesn't want to be the envy of the neighborhood? And, in this economy I think its important to run to your kitchen even more often than running to your favorite local restaurant.

In digging through my mind for this article I was taken back to my first day of culinary school so that is where I'll begin. So, sit back, read up, and expand your culinary repitore.

After reading these tidbits if you're intrigued to learn more I reccomend The French Culinary Institute's book "Fundamental Techniques of Classic Cusine" for further reference. The book is very comprehensive and approachable and the photography is quite beautiful. As I recall it was quite pricey but you may be able to find a good used copy from some culinary school kid who flunked out.

1. Know basic knife cuts and skills. When encountering a recipe you should be aware of the difference between dicing, mincing, and julienne. Although the cut of a vegetable may not seem incredibly important, if you do not cut to the specifications of the recipe cooking time and even texture/mouth feel of the recipe can be affected. Its also incredibly important to learn how to use your knife properly so you can execute these cuts without removing a finger. Good knife skills come with practice and for me, precision is always more important than speed. ESPECIALLY at home. Money isn't being lost if you're a slow home cook, so take your time and practice for perfection. Maybe your husband/wife/children/neighbors/grandkids won't care that you've got perfectly diced potatoes and onions in your vegetable soup but you'll have a sense of pride in knowing that it not only looks great, but also tastes great because everything cooked evenly because it was cut evenly. If you want to learn more on the internet this is a good photo gallery of basic cuts. Or, if you want to see a video of proper cutting techniques I reccomend this video.

2. Know Basic Methods of Cooking. After you've beautifully cut the food you're about to prepare it is important to know what cooking method to employ to get the best flavor and texture out of your food. There are several methods of cooking and you've probably heard of most of them - but do you really know what they mean? Braise, roast, stew, saute,fry, blanch, poach. There are subtle differences between each but the differences do matter. I'll provide a few definitions but then its up to you to go here

Braise - defined by Larousse Gastronomique as "a method of cooking food in a closed vessel with very little liquid at a low temperature for a very long time" The word braise comes from a French word meaning ember. Anyone who has cooked over and open fire is familar with placing a dutch oven (a braiser) in a bed of embers and covering the lid with more embers so heat comes from all directions. During the 17th and 18th centuries in France much cooking was done in this method. Today, it seems many home cooks are turned off by braising as it takes a long time. However, braising is a perfect way to utilize the not so sexy cuts of meat like brisket and shank and turn them into something tasty. As I mentioned before, in this economy saving money is key and if cheaper cuts of meat are your only option maybe you should dig out that dutch oven. The theory behind braising is for the meat to release flavorful juices into your already flavorful cooking liquid (usually a stock) so both can be utilized. Harold McGee (the God of Food Science) explains the science behind why meat becomes more tender when braised as opposed to other cooking methods here.

Ragout (this is to stew in French) stewing differs from braising in that you generally use smaller pieces of meat and more liquid. Stews are generally prepared on the stovetop while braising is most often done in the oven (but can be done on stovetop).

Roast - This is a method of cooking that employs direct radiant heat in a dry oven. Roasting can be used on all types of poultry as well as red meat cuts like ribs, loins, sirloins etc. Roasting is a relatively simple cooking method and if done properly results in juicy flavorful meats. Smaller pieces of meat should be roasted at higher temperatures for shorter amounts of time and larger pieces should be roasted at lower temps for longer time. After a roasted meat is removed from the oven it MUST MUST MUST be allowed to rest. During the intense heat of roasting the juices of the meat are forced to the center of the item. When the meat is allowed to rest for 10 to 15 minutes this allows for the juices to redistribute throughout the cut and makes for a moist meat that is easier to carve. So remember, shhh the meat is resting!

Saute - literally saute means "to jump" I think this is a cooking method most people don't quite understand. Sauteing should use relatively little fat and the item to be sauteed should be relatively dry. If the food is moist, or the pan is coated in tons of fat the item will fry or steam rather than saute. The point of sauteing is to quickly sear a food over a high heat prior to finishing the cooking process over a lower heat. Sauteing should be used for uniformly sized thinly cut foods. Sauteing shouldn't be used for thick cuts as the exterior will always burn before the interior is cooked. Some basic rules for sauteing are as follows.

-The pan must be very hot. As I learned in culinary school from a very old French man it should be "hell hot." If you feel heat rising when you hold your hand over the pan it is hot enough. Or, if the fat is shimmering you're ready to saute.
- The surface of the pan should have only a FILM OF FAT. Sauteing is not frying.
- Do not crowd your pan, if you must, cook in batches.
- Never cover the pan, this creates steam and then you're not sauteing.
-Do not shake the pan right away after adding the food. allow it to sear and it will detatch itself from the pan. Seriously, I mean it! This is especially important with meat.

Frying - Yes, it has its place. Who doesn't love fried foods occasionally? The same French chef who told me to get my pan "hell hot" also said deep fried foods are healthy. And hey, he's the expert here. As with sauteing a fried food needs to be very dry before being placed in the pan or fryer. Often a breading or a light coating of flour is added before frying to absorb excess moisture and to make sure the outer crust forms immediately and doesnt allow the meat or vegetable to absorb the hot fat.

Blanch - This is the process of plunging food in boiling salted water for a few seconds (or in some cases minutes) and then plunging into ice water to stop the cooking process and set the color. Blanching does not fully cook the vegetable so it should retain a crisp texture. Generally this is done to brigten the green color in foods like broccoli, brussels sprouts, and green beans. It also helps to speed the cooking process if you plan to continue cooking vegetables via roasting. You cannot forget to plunge your blanched veggies into an ice bath. If you don't the retained heat will finish cooking the veg and the color will quickly fade to brown.

Poach - This cooking method is most often employed with fish but can also be used with poultry. It is my least favorite method of cooking as I think it results in the most bland food. Poaching is a delicate cooking method perfect for delicate fish and fruits. The water should be held at a constant temperature between 160 and 180 degrees. This is not simmering or boiling. The liquid is usually a well flavored broth, stock, or court bouillion used to impart as much flavor as possible and must always fully submerge the item to be poached.

I am going to leave this entry with just these two items. Once you have a grasp of how to use your knife, how to make basic cuts and when/how to use cooking methods you can move on to the next segment which will be putting your techniques to use .

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Sweet And Savory

Combining sweet and savory flavors in one of my favorite ways to play with food. Last weekend I made a pound cake using the flavors of fresh lemon and lavender and the results were better than I expected. I am certainly no pastry chef but I enjoy baking for home use. So, since I was so pleased with this recipe I thought I'd share it with you all. Hopefully in the future I can post more recipes with sweet and savory combinations.

The cake is incredibly simple to make. The only difficult task may be coming up with a substantial amount of lavender for a reasonable price if you don't grow it yourself. I obtained the lavender through my work but you may be able to buy some at your local farmers market or order it online.

For the cake:
1 cup butter
2 cup sugar
5 eggs
2 1/4 cup flour
6 tablespoon corn starch
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 cup sour cream (or plain yogurt)
1 1/2 tablespoon lavender
Juice and zest of 2 lemons

Start by creaming the butter and sugar in a large mixing bowl. Beat in the eggs one at a time at a slow speed. In a separate bowl combine all dry ingredients except lavender flowers. Now, begin alternately adding dry ingredients and sour cream to the butter/sugar/egg mixture. Make sure you scape your bowl a lot, especially if you're using a stand mixer as the paddle will never completely get to the bottom of the bowl.

Finally, fold in the lemon zest/juice and the lavender flowers. You will see from my pictures that I used the lavender flowers whole. After making the cake for the first time I have decided the flavors are a bit overwhelming so I would reccomend that you grind the flowers using a food processor or electric chopper of some sort before adding them. Bake the cake in a VERY WELL GREASED bundt pan. My bundt is well seasoned and I've never had a cake stick but this cake did. Bake in a 325 degree oven for about 50-60 minutes or until a pick inserted comes out clean.

I also made a lavender simple syrup glaze for the cake to add moisture and a more intense lavender flavor. I made the syrup by steeping 2 tablespoons of lavender and half a lemon in 1 cup of boiling water and then straining the flowers out. I then brought the water back to a boil and dissolved one cup of white sugar into the water.

To serve, I poured a bit of the syrup on the bottom of the serving plate and sat the cake in it. I then drizzled a bit of the syrup over the cake. The results were an incredibly bright flavored and very moist cake. It was a huge hit at the Bed and Breakfast where I served it. Hope you enjoy.

Check It Out

Whoever makes two ears of corn, or two blades of grass to grow where only one grew before, deserves better of mankind, and does more essential service to his country than the whole race of politicians put together.
- Jonathan Swift

With that said, check out my dad's interview with Food Chain Radio from this morning. You can find it by going to FoodChainRadio website and clicking on Episode 659 The Seed Giants.