Saturday, September 1, 2007

10 Things I’ve Learned about Food

In the last five years, my relationship with food has matured dramatically. I was something of an novice cook in my teenage years, having learned a thing or two from working behind deli counters, pizzeria ovens, and bagel cream cheesing stations. In college, I worked in two dining halls as a short-order grill cook and as “the salad bitch,” or what would be known in the professional world as garde manger, though the former is a more accurate description. And in my first year as a graduate, I continued to work for several months in a sweet shop and bakery, returning home at night to cook meals for my roommate and me that were simple, but just on the verge of experimentation. And for the last five years, I lived in San Francisco, where being mindful of food is part and parcel of the lifestyle for many.

After all of that fairly limited experience, here are 10 things I've learned:

1. Be mindful dicing and slicing. As much as I’m an advocate for dinner in 20 minutes or less, never rush a dice or a slice, especially if you’re having company. What might take you 3 minutes to chop in haste will only require, at most, 8 minutes to chop conscientiously. Because the quality of the final product will be improved noticeably -- it will look more professional and, if the ingredients have to be cooked, they will come out more uniformly -- you’ll be happier with the more impressive dish.

2. Use the broiler. I don’t know how many friends of mine have never even opened their broilers, but that sliding compartment under the stove is one of my secrets to giving something a nice crust. I use it for finishing already cooked foods, as well as charring a thick fish steak. I use it in place of an outdoor grill to crisp up barbecue sauce on chicken, and I use it to make toast when I don’t feel like pulling out the electric toaster.

3. Know when to walk away. For omelets, rising breads, creme brulee, melting chocolate, and other temperamental foods, know when to leave it alone. Chocolate can take a long time to melt (I burned some truffle filling just this weekend), and it really doesn’t need constant stirring, so set it on super low heat over a double boiler, and leave it alone for 10 minutes. Don’t fidget with an omelet that’s not yet set. Give bread its full allotted time to rise rather than eyeballing its size. Trust the food to do its thing, and then give it the space to do it.

4. Enjoy your tools. I often get by in the kitchen with makeshift equipment, like an old mayonnaise jar filled with ice for a rolling pin (which works wonders on pie crust), a household hammer instead of a meat tenderizer (which doubles for crushing nuts), and a fork and my fingers for juicing lemons and limes. But for some jobs, the work is more pleasurable if I use a tool that I like. Cooking is not just a routine of following directions and picking the right tool for the job; it’s also a psychological and social affair. I’m more likely to hit the gym if I’m wearing a new and adorable, fitted and flattering pair of Puma yoga pants than if I’m in my pajama bottoms. Likewise in the kitchen, I’m likely to spend a bit more time and effort making sauce in my cobalt blue Le Crueset cast-enamel oven.

5. If a cardinal rule doesn’t work, break it. I don’t know how many times I tried salting and rinsing eggplant before coming to the conclusion that the Italian eggplants I buy are just fine (or in fact much tastier) grilled, pan fried, roasted, or deep-fried without any initial salting. And I don’t know who came up with the rule that one must only use flat leaf parsley and never the curly variety, but I like curly parsley. I like it tossed with toasted bread crumbs and olive oil over pasta, and I really like it in tabouleh because it grabs so much lemon juice in its little tentacle-like curls. I have yet to meet another curly parsley enthusiast, but so long as I’m cooking for myself, that’s what I prefer to use.

6. Add cayenne last (or to liquid). I’ve teared up many an eye and choked many a throat by putting a triple pinch of cayenne in a nearly dry pan over moderate heat. I still mess this one up at least once a year.

7. Cook from memory. Recipe-followers are slaves to the page. If you learn to cook from memory, loosely, you’ll learn how to make variations on a recipe -- and that’s the heart of being a decent home cook. Working from memory allows you to tap into what you remember liking about a dish, while becoming blissfully ignorant of what you didn’t like. It’s amazing what you can learn about your own preferences by cooking this way. You’ll happily forget the olives or capers that made the dish too salty last time, and you might go overboard with the stock if you remember enjoying the broth more than the food. This method can backfire -- I occasionally get halfway through a meal before shouting, “Damnit! I forgot to add lemon zest!” but it’s a wonderfully intuitive way to learn more about everyday cooking.

8. Buy good bread frequently and in small quantities. Almost no one makes their own bread on a consistent basis. It’s difficult to make in small quantities, and it requires the baker to be home every few hours to knead, cover, uncover, and so forth. Buy good quality fresh bread, and buy it in small quantities every other day. This is one area where urban people have a major advantage over suburbanites, as we usually have bakeries and patisseries within walking distance. Suburbanites and rural folk who have to drive a few miles to a grocery store tend to stock up on breads with a longer shelf life, which are hideous to eat on their own (they’re fine for bread crumbs and puddings, though). If you don’t have a fresh loaf, consider skipping the bread altogether.

9. There is no replacement for real vanilla.
I use a pretty high-grade vanilla extract for most of my baking, but there is no replacement for real vanilla bean. Good quality extract (think $8 to $10 for a 1 or 2 oz. bottle) will work, but don’t ever buy vanilla labeled "imitation." It’s almost as bad as buying cheap coffee.

10. If you don’t drink coffee, don’t keep that cheap shit around for guests. This isn’t something I’ve “learned” so much as something I feel is my duty to tell others. Coffee drinkers can tell when a pound of grounds has been sitting in the freezer for six months. In fact, we can usually tell if it’s been in there a week.

If you’re having a dinner party and want to serve coffee at the end of the meal, go to Starbucks or your local coffee shop (although realistically, Starbucks is everywhere and it’s reliably good) and buy a quarter pound of freshly ground coffee for $2.50 no more than three days in advance. Either get good fresh coffee or don’t serve it at all. There is nothing worse than ending a meal with cheap or freezer-burned coffee. It’s a complete waste to make it.

For overnighters, always ask them before they arrive if they are coffee drinkers, and then buy fresh coffee, a small container of half-and-half, and white sugar. Or better, tell them to bring their own. I have a small Italian stove-top coffeemaker that fits in any piece of luggage, and if I am visiting a non-coffee household, I bring it and a container of ground coffee with me. When my hosts asks if I need anything while I'm there, I usually say, "Do you keep milk in the house? I'll bring my own coffee, but it would be great if you could pick up a quart milk."

Finally, if you do not regularly make coffee, let your guests put the pot together. They won’t feel put out. In fact, they’ll probably thank you.

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