Monday, January 19, 2015

Mastering the art (and science) of cooking

This is how you prep a dish before cooking it.
The past little while, we’ve done a lot of cooking and preparing of food around here.

There was that beautiful pork roast with crackling family dinner we had a couple of weeks ago. I also turned two more hog jowls into guanciale which are now hanging in the basement as they lose moisture and turn more flavorful and succulent. The last of the first batch of lonzino has been sliced, packaged and frozen for enjoyment over the coming months – especially over the summer as a “nibbly” before dinner. I’d run out of smoked roasted almonds, and seeing as “the nut meister”, Karel, was otherwise engaged, I made up a few pounds myself. A small handful is wonderful in the morning with my usual yogurt, bran buds and muesli. Oh! And last week we brined and smoked 3 pork hocks (a gift from Andy at Our Gate to Your Plate), and smoked a kilo of old cheddar.

My lovely wife has been making and freezing small patties of various kinds for our grandson who comes over for the day twice a week. There are salmon patties made with mashed potatoes or rice, shallots and peas. Fry one up and he’s got a complete meal he can eat with his fork (after the patties have been cut into small pieces). Imagine a one-year-old getting food with sauteed shallots in it! She also froze the remainder of a meatloaf for Jackson.

Then there’s her fantastic bread which she occasionally makes. (Can’t eat too much bread these days!) It makes the world’s finest toast in my opinion and many mornings start with coffee and buttered toast. Lovely!

The point of this post, though, is not the great food we’re enjoying but that we enjoy making great food. No, it’s not as quick as ordering out, or opening a can or taking some sort of frozen meal out of the freezer, and a lot less expensive than going out to eat. When people join us for a meal or find out what we’re producing in our small kitchen, the first question we’re generally asked is, “How do you find the time to do all this?”

The trick is to make the time. The charcuterie, the preserving, the making of bulk food, all is done in order to minimize cooking (and shopping) times later on and allow us to know exactly what’s in what we’re eating, and making it does take a chunk out of your day. Certainly, as I’ve consistently stated, curing, drying and smoking meat is not a huge undertaking in terms of hours, but preparing it and dealing with it at appropriate times is something that has to be considered. Preserving (canning, etc), unless it’s done in small amounts, takes a larger chunk out of your day. The secret here is to do it with other people to minimize the time. You can turn it into a part – and you all get to share the wealth at the end.

I wrote a post several months back where I talked about the way people often cook that can make it distinctly “un-fun”. That revolves around the prep stage. If you’re doing prep work at the same time you have things on the stove, you’re opening yourself up to a world of hurt (especially if your recipe calls for expensive ingredients, but you’re also boxing yourself into a corner and making preparation of good meal far more stressful than it needs to be.

I don’t always follow my main rule (but I try to): do all the prep first, then just sit back and enjoy the process of cooking it. You cannot enjoy cooking if you’re trying to chop vegetables while your meat is searing, and the potatoes are being boiled. There are just too many things going on at the same time. The last thing you want is one of those “Oh my God!” moments when you realize that you just overcooked that very expensive cut of meat because you were so focused on chopping the onions that go in next. And forget doing anything else when it’s time to cook fish or seafood where the correct doneness can come down to a matter of seconds. The only respite you can build in if you still need to prep when something’s already cooking is when something you’re cooking has a longer cooking time (like stews, roasts and the like). While something like that is cooking you can, of course, work on a first course or a dessert.

(Sidebar: Which brings me to a rule I never break: when baking always have everything measured out and ready to go before you do anything else. Baking, first and foremost, is chemistry and it requires precision and an understanding of what recipe ingredients do to the finished product. But even if the esoteric part of baking doesn’t interest you, remember this: a baking recipe is not a general guideline. It is a master plan. Always follow it (unless you know a lot about kitchen chemistry) and measure all ingredients carefully before you start.)

Unless you’ve worked in a restaurant kitchen, you don’t realize how many ingredients have been prepped first. If a recipe calls for a mirepoix (chopped onions, carrots and celery), that has been already handled by the entremetier (vegetable cutter) earlier in the day. All you need to do is just measure out what you need. Easy, right? How often do you do that when you’re cooking?

In a home kitchen, one person generally wears all the hats: chef, line cook, entremetier, garde manger, even bottle washer (unless you’re lucky enough to have help). And there’s the rub. Construct a large, involved menu and you need to be super-organized. The prep you do before turning on the stove or oven will be critically important to how everything turns out – unless you get a charge out of extreme stress.

Take a look at any recipe you’re going to undertake and make sure you understand all the steps. Prep and measure all the ingredients. Read the cooking method again. Start to cook, carefully and with thought. Watch what happens. Your food is changing in structure due to the heat. It’s very zen-like and calming to watch this process.

If you’ve planned your moves well and in advance, I guarantee you’ll enjoy what you’ve done, especially when you taste it!

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