Over the years, I have picked up and adhere to some worthwhile cooking tips. I’ve already admonished those who refrigerate tomatoes, which strips them of flavor and makes the texture mealy, so …
Over the years, I have picked up and adhere to some worthwhile cooking tips. I’ve already admonished those who refrigerate tomatoes, which strips them of flavor and makes the texture mealy, so we’ll take it from there. The following is a smattering of tips, hints and truths you’ll want to consider.
When cooking with wine (for dishes like lamb stew, chicken cacciatore or beef bourguignon), use only one that you would drink. A wine of superior quality will be reflected in the finished product. Supermarket cooking wine is sold in the vinegar section. That should give you an idea of its quality. The wine added while cooking should be allowed to cook off, leaving behind the essence and flavor. You shouldn’t get a buzz from the finished dish.
Never wash mushrooms. They are as porous as sponges. Clean them with a damp paper towel or a soft brush made for the purpose, to remove grit and bits of earth. When sauteing mushrooms, cook over medium-high heat. At some point they will exude their liquid. Keep cooking them until that liquid has evaporated and the mushrooms have turned golden brown.
Always have fresh ginger on hand by peeling a knob of it and cutting it into small chunks. Put the pieces in a jar and completely cover them with Japanese rice vinegar. The ginger will keep, refrigerated, for months. An added attraction is that the vinegar becomes gingery in flavor and can be used in marinades and salad dressings.
A good habit is to clean up as you cook. Return canisters, jars and boxes of ingredients to the cabinets immediately after you have spooned out the amount you need. Take the time to do as much preparation as you can before cooking. Professional chefs call this mise en place, meaning “everything in its place.” Look over the recipe and fill custard cups, ramekins or tiny bowls with the specified amount of chopped garlic, minced herbs, grated ginger or dried spices called for. This practice helps decrease the actual cooking time and frees you up from running around searching for and measuring ingredients at the last minute.
Cook pasta in a generous amount of boiling water, to which you have added a good amount of kosher salt to flavor the pasta. Never add oil to the water. It will make the pasta slick and the sauce won’t adhere properly. Don’t rinse pasta after cooking. This removes the starch, which is important in allowing the sauce to cling to the pasta. Don’t over-sauce. It is meant to be a condiment and simply coat the pasta, which is the star of the dish.
Use good knives and have them professionally sharpened once or twice a year. Invest in a sharpening steel and use it each and every time you are about to use your knives. Honing with a steel rod removes miniscule nicks and helps maintain the sharpness of the blade. Dull blades are dangerous, as you have to press harder to get through what you are slicing and have a better chance of cutting yourself in the process.
Never serve cheese straight from the fridge. Let it sit out at room temperature for a minimum of an hour, to bring out the flavor and assure the proper consistency. When buying Brie, make sure it’s ripe and oozing a bit from its rind. Otherwise, it will be tasteless. Brie, especially, needs to sit out for a good long time so that when served, it’s ultra-creamy, soft and at its most flavorful.
Replace dried spices every six to eight months. That oregano, thyme and rosemary you bought three years ago has lost all of its essential oils and thus its flavor. The pale washed-out yellowish color of old herbs is a good indication that they should be thrown out. Dried spices last a bit longer than dried herbs, but taste them every so often and note their strength. Garlic and onion powder are to be avoided. Mincing fresh garlic and onion takes a moment to accomplish and adds unadulterated flavor.
The easiest way to peel a tomato is to cut a tiny X on the bottom with a sharp knife, then immerse the fruit in a pot of boiling water for about 30 seconds. Remove it with a slotted spoon and let it cool a minute or two. The skin will slip off easily.
A quick way to chop nuts is to place them in a recloseable bag and give the nuts a few whacks with the flat end of a meat tenderizer, or roll back and forth over them a few times with a wine bottle or rolling pin. Make sure not to overdo it, or you’ll have a nut paste instead of the small pieces that are ideal for muffins, or perfect to toast in a dry nonstick skillet. Use the toasted nuts to top or add to salads or granola, or sprinkle over pan-fried fish fillets.
In summer, when you have an abundance of fragrant fresh basil, make a big batch of pesto, minus the grated cheese. Spoon a dollop into each compartment of a plastic ice cube tray and freeze it overnight. Plop out the frozen cubes and place them in a container to be kept in the freezer. When the mood for pesto strikes you, thaw three or four cubes for about an hour, add the cheese, then toss your favorite cooked pasta with the pesto and a bit of heavy cream.
Finally, I urge you to play with a recipe. Cooking, as opposed to baking, is not an exact science and often benefits from creative urges, as long as one doesn’t muddy the basic recipe by adding too many ingredients. Below is a perfect example of a recipe that can be altered, while still maintaining the integrity of the original. It is from a Vietnamese cabbage slaw found in a cookbook titled “The Best of Vietnamese and Thai Cooking” by Mai Pham, published by Crown in 1995.
The recipe is titled “Mom’s Cabbage Slaw.”
Look for the book to see the original recipe; I altered it to suit my tastes. Feel free to do the same. Or something different. Play with your food!
Jude’s cabbage slaw
For the dressing:
For the slaw:
Combine the dressing ingredients in a small mixing bowl and blend well. Toss the vegetables together in a big bowl and add the dressing a little at a time, tossing gently with tongs.
Refrigerate for a half an hour. Remove and taste for seasoning. Serve.
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