Posted on 30 January 2009 by willcritchlow
So I have this theory. In most walks of life there are some people who are dramatically better than others – the genius, the pro sportsman, the taxidermist (wait, what?).
In the world of cooking, however, the pro chef is just like you and I, it’s just that he’s learnt a few tricks along the way and he’s spent time working out how to make food look good.
What? I didn’t say it’s a good theory.
If it’s true, though, then the average pro chef’s career hangs in the balance of a bit of deciding where to place the lettuce and a bunch of tricks. Think he’s gonna share those tricks? Not on your nelly.
But I am
Here are the best tricks I have found from years of reading cookery books and scavenging for the bits and pieces of inside information that the pros drop accidentally:
- Get into your garlic like a pro: courtesy of Jamie Oliver, the best way to peel a clove of garlic is to place it on your chopping board and give it a smack or two with the flat side of your big knife (give it a try to work out how hard to hit – you’re aiming for somewhere between ineffectual caress and obliterated mess – what the hell, garlic is cheap). You’ll find that you can just chop the end off and the skin will fall away from the clove. Amazing.
- Poached eggs can be par-poached in advance: par-poached. I think I may have just made up a word. Still, you get the idea – can’t remember where I got this one from – you slightly-under-poach the egg (telling when an egg is poached is a topic for another day) and then dunk it straight from the pan into some iced water. It’ll keep there in the fridge till you need it – assuming it’s, you know, sometime soon – when you simply stick it back in gently boiling water till warm
- Take the edge off something you made too spicy: if you added a bit too much ginger or chilli, add a squeeze of lemon juice to tone down the spiciness. Saved my arse at a dinner party once. The spicy tiger prawn soup woulda pretty much killed people without the last minute save.
- Seasoning, seasoning, seasoning: this one actually is shared quite a bit, but if you want your food to taste pro, season it properly. The biggest single difference (apart from presentation) between restaurant food and home-cooked food is the amount of salt, pepper, spices, herbs (yes, and butter!) that is added during cooking. For those special occasions particularly, break out the seasoning.
- Don’t be afraid of hot: pro kitchens are hot places – hot ovens, hot stoves. Especially when you are frying, you probably aren’t getting the pan hot enough.
- Wet your hands to make fat easy to clean off: if you are going to be getting fat / oil on your hands (e.g. when working with minced meat by hand) wet your hands first and you’ll find your hands loads easier to clean. This is technically a chemistry tip rather than a cooking tip – if you didn’t know that oil and water don’t mix, remember not to throw water on an oil / fat fire!
- Didn’t I already tell you to get a proper knife?: get one already
So that isn’t really enough to get either me or you cooking like a pro – I want to learn some more tricks so please do share in the comments…
For some more day-to-day cooking tricks, I quite liked some of the answers over in this Yahoo! Answers thread and the writing style in the intro to this post.
Posted on 25 January 2009 by willcritchlow
I managed to burn my toast this morning. That’s how good a cook I actually am.
I have now started this cooking blog and yet I still screw up things like toast. All I wanted to do was stick the toaster back on for 30 seconds or so to get it nice and “toasty” but of course I forgot about it and it was only the smell of burnt toast that got me running over to turn it off.
If you, like me, burn things when you’re cooking them, you might be interested in my list of foods it’s OK to burn. You’ll notice that I have interpreted the challenge in a number of ways in order to have an interesting list. Bite me. Can you think of any more?
- Creme Brulée. My first cheat is a food that has “burnt” in its name (albeit in a foreign language)
- Bones. When you’re making dark stock, one method is to start by throwing the bones into a pan over a reasonably high heat with no oil / butter etc. Shake ‘em around and get them to start caramelising before adding water, seasoning etc.
- Steak. We all know that there is only one true way of cooking steak, but interesting variations (to get it even rarer) involve blow-torching the outside before cooking. Technically, of course, you don’t want to burn the steak, but anything with a blow-torch has to count, right?
- Chestnuts. OK, it’s only really the outside that get burnt. But still.
- Blackened fish. There are loads of recipes called “blackened” when it comes to fish (e.g. blackened tuna). Technically, you are burning the cajun seasoning, but again, I’m going to take it… There’s also a recipe from Jamie Oliver that involves wrapping a fish in newspaper where the newspaper gets burnt
- Flambé. Brandy, pastis, Christmas puddings, lamb steaks. There are many fun ways of setting your food on fire…
- BBQ / flame-grill. Think flame-grill, think burgers and steaks, but normal BBQ can involve bits of charcoal too – think the shells on prawns
- Caramelised onions. I think “caramelised” is really just a euphemism for “burnt” so I’m gonna count it. I have a fun dish that involves basically burning onions and garlic and then frying chicken in the oil. Sounds crazy, and it’s hard to get right, but it’s nice when you get the sweetness just right.
Picture credit: fiskfisk on Flickr
Posted on 25 January 2009 by willcritchlow
Of course there are times when I don’t much feel like cooking. It can be a chore, but I have found there are a few things that get my creative juices flowing (so to speak) and make it feel fun again:
- Chopping is one of those menial tasks that are delegated in ‘proper kitchens’, but can be one of the most fun parts, but only if you get a proper knife and a proper chopping board. It only sank in properly how important this is when I had to use a shit serrated knife on holiday and realised how much I missed my knife (does that make me sound like a psycho?)
- Learn how to sharpen your knife. Not only does it make everything more fun (see above) but the actual sharpening makes you feel like a real cook
- Use quality cookware. It can be expensive stuff, but it’s brilliant. You might want to get married and put it on your wedding gift list
- Use quality ingredients – if you know the butcher you bought the meat from and you know the quality of the stuff you’re using, you’re far more likely to take care with the cooking of it
- Have seasoning to hand – having proper salt on hand to pinch, a big black pepper mill and so forth make the finishing touches fun – which means you’ll do them – which means your food will taste better. Everyone’s a winner
Picture credit: noii on Flickr
Posted on 25 January 2009 by willcritchlow
It should go without saying that every pudding is improved by a drop of alcohol of one form or another. Alcohol has long been a cook’s best friend; you will want to console yourself with a drop or two when you’re stuck in the kitchen and your guests are merrily playing strip poker (what? That’s not how your dinner parties pan out?).
Do be careful though: the closest I have ever come to killing myself in the kitchen was after a few beers with a good friend (who is also a far better cook than me). Drinks before and during cooking led to a wok being left on the heat with oil in it. Cue huge bang, 4′ high flames and a ruined pan. Luckily we had a ledge outside the window and managed to get the pan outside before we did ourselves any real harm.
Safer ways to use alcohol in cooking
Following that experience, I thought I’d share some safer ways to use alcohol in cooking. Starting with the easier / more obvious and progressing to some you hopefully haven’t thought of before:
- Obvious: recipes with alcohol in the name. Think: pears in red wine
- Marinade: many a meat is improved by a little of the tenderising effect of alcohol. Try red wine with dark meat, sherry with lighter meat.
- Subtle ingredient: if you have some wine that is a bit past it, it makes a great addition to big, strong, winter-warmer dishes. Add your old red wine to chillis, stews etc.
- Bread: replace the liquid element of your favourite bread recipe with beer. I like using stout or old peculiar to get enough flavour in the finished article
- Drinks that are almost food: if you subscribe to the “eating is cheating” school of drinking (I clearly don’t) then you might still want to get some sustenance – in which case Guinness is clearly your friend. Other foods that can be squeezed into this category are bloody mary (any drink requiring a recipe that complicated…) and liqueur coffee (practically a dessert)
Spirits and fortified wines
- Flambé: most people’s experience of setting fire to foods comes either by accident or in lighting the Christmas pudding. Stop to think about it though and loads of options open up – a personal favourite is lamb flambéd in pastis – just fry the lamb steak and finish with a flash flambé
- Serving: when I make chocolate mousse, I not only add a little brandy to the mixture, but also drizzle a little into the bowl before dolloping the mousse in to set (I tend to make individual bowl servings).
- Deglaze: a great use for fortified wine (sherry, marsala etc.) is to ‘deglaze’ the roasting / frying pan before making a proper gravy (please don’t use stock cubes – real gravy is so much easier and better)
- Adding food to drinks: I have a half-remembered anecdote in my head (I think probably from Anthony Bourdain’s “A Cook’s Tour” – a great book) about a Japanese drink that has tiny live fish added to it at the last moment – but I can’t find it just now. Other examples of this include adding cherries to cocktails, celery to bloody mary, Cadbury’s Creme Eggs to dirty pints…
Any more ideas of unusual ways to use alcohol in cooking? Let me know in the comments…
Image credit: Mark McLaughlin on Flickr
Posted on 08 January 2009 by willcritchlow
I love cookbooks, love reading recipes and get most of my cooking ideas from other people. Yet that’s what they are: ideas – not prescriptions. I strongly believe that many people would have a lot more fun cooking if they relaxed a bit, read cookbooks as sources of ideas and just tried things without worrying about measuring everything out exactly.
Don’t try this for your first dinner party (or indeed for the first time at any dinner party).
Actually, you know what? Do. What the hell. It’s not safe and 100% guaranteed, but it’s a heck of a lot more fun.