Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Food for Thought: Cooking Shortcuts?


There are also lots of little things I learned as my cooking skills improved over the years. I’ve learned that you can’t freeze alcohol and that plastic bottles of soft drinks will burst if you leave them in the freezer, and that you can literally burn through a cheap saucepan if you forget about it on a stove’s hot gas burner. I now know that if you burn bread in the microwave, the acrid smell will linger in your home for over 24 hours. I’ve learned that despite your best intentions, it detracts from the great aroma of your food if you burn potpourri or scented candles anywhere near the kitchen. I’ve learned that stir fry is meant to be cooked in layers, so that the distinct flavors properly meld together during the process. I’ve also learned that you should never cut a hot pepper before removing your contact lenses, unless you’ve scrubbed your hands four times under hot water or were wearing gloves during your prep work.

Although I’m glad that I have all of these sometimes hard-learned lessons under my belt, I’m always on the lookout for shortcuts in the kitchen or improvements on my standard practices. Last Christmas my friend Kelly gave me a wonderful little book called What’s a Cook to Do? by James Peterson. The cover identifies it as “an illustrated guide to 484 essential tools, tips, techniques and tricks.” It includes great clarity for mysteries like # 294: How to Truss a Chicken (pg 238) and # 392: How to line a Tart Mold (pg 331). Before reading # 138: How to Make Risotto I had ruined several potentially good lunches by either under or overcooking the arborio rice. Mr. Peterson’s instructions helped immensely, and today I am enjoying a creamy, al dente fennel and sweet Italian sausage risotto with pecorino.

While I really could have benefitted from # 14: Which Grater to Use prior to rubbing my hands raw and wearing myself out using insufficient graters on hunks of hard cheeses, I also understand that owning this book at the beginning of my cooking experience wouldn’t have necessarily saved me from most of my troubles. What’s a Cook to Do? is incredibly interesting, but I couldn’t sit down, read it and commit all of its great tips to memory, ready for instant recall when needed. Instead, the mistakes I’ve made in the kitchen have created permanent imprints in my mind that have guaranteed they won’t be repeated.

A co-worker told me that you can revive wilting celery by standing it up in a tall glass of water. I can’t tell you how many stalks of celery have apparently prematurely met their demise in my garbage disposal over the years. The same co-worker also passed on a recipe from a recent issue of Cook’s Illustrated that easily converts stale pita bread into crisp, tasty pita chips. Kyle and I often make chicken, egg or tuna salad on pita, and we only use a portion of the bread that we buy. Instead of allowing the remaining pita to get moldy and end up in the garbage, we’ll now be using it for pita chips and enjoying the added benefit of a less money spent on pre-made snacks. Little discoveries like that just make my day. It’s always exciting to learn a new skill in the kitchen, and there’s nothing better than getting to eat my reward. I’m still learning, and I hope I always will be.

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