Monday, June 14, 2010

Operation Free-from-Recipes phase 1

Good Monday and happy new week to everybody!

As promised, I'm embarking on a journey to the recipe-free world! Here is the first post out of a series explaining the different cooking techniques and some recipes that demonstrate how simple it is to achieve success in the kitchen, without the old enemy of creativity, the recipe book.

So first -- Sauté. Why first? Because even if you’re no kitchen expert, even if the only use for your counter in the kitchen as storage for old junk mail; even if the only appliance you use in your house aside from your TV is the microwave; even then, I can assure you that at one incident in your life you’ve sautéed something. Have you ever fried an egg?

While by definition frying an egg is not a “sauté”, it still uses the same principles of application. Sauté in French is literally “to jump”. In cooking, that would refer to “jumping” in a hot pan (picture your favorite TV chef tossing some chopped vegetables 2 feet up in the air in a sizzling hot pan). Sautéing is a dry-heat method of cooking in high heat with just enough fat (oil, butter…) to prevent the product from sticking to the pan. If the items are small enough (chopped vegetables, shrimp or other small diced proteins etc.) then they may be tossed or “jumped” in the pan. Otherwise, in the case of a steak, a whole chicken breast or the fried egg, you would pan fry both sides till done. These days, sauté has more modern interpretation along with tossing. It now includes anything that is pan-fried.

The main purpose of sautéing is to create that magically attractive brown crust on the outside of any product, be it a piece of meat or a slice of mushroom. That brown crust is the visual result of proteins and natural sugars caramelizing (a.k.a. the Maillard Reaction). Caramelized sugars and proteins are desired because they enhance the flavor of the product, while giving it a much sexier, tanned look. When exposed to the high heat, any moisture in the product would ideally be released immediately, and allow for maximum color to be created.

Several principles to keep in mind while sautéing:

1. Get the pan really hot with a minimal amount of oil. Make sure the pan is as hot as it can be without the oil burning. Different oils have different smoke points (the point where the oil gets burnt and is no longer usable). Oils with high smoke points are ideal, such as canola oil, peanut oil, grapeseed oil, safflower oil. Olive oil, while giving a great nutty flavor, has a lower smoke point and will not allow for a high-heat sauté.

2. Make sure the product is as dry as possible. As I mentioned earlier, a key to a good sauté is the quick release of the moisture in the product. If possible, it is best to eliminate any excess moisture. If there is plenty of water present, it will first have to allow for the water to evaporate and only then is caramelize. But by that time, the product will be steamed and will overcook. Steamed beef? Bad idea. So, especially when it comes to meat, pat it dry before dropping in the pan, and remove as much of the natural moisture as possible.

3. Allow the product to get close to room temperature. If a piece of chicken is pulled straight out of the fridge, and is immediately dropped into a pan, it will have to get up to temperature first, and only then start caramelizing. Also, a cold product is much more likely to stick to the pan. This is even more crucial when dealing with meat still on the bone. All you need to do is remove it from the fridge and let it sit on the counter for 20-30 minutes. Don’t worry; nothing will get spoiled from sitting out for that short time.

4. Don’t overcrowd the pan. Remember, one of the most important requirements is to have a very hot pan. When you drop all the mushrooms you have into a pan that is not necessarily wide enough to contain them all, the temperature will drop instantly. Now the pan has to reach that high heat point first before it starts browning the mushrooms. Also, a cold pan will not release the moisture fast enough. This is especially crucial with mushrooms, because they have a high content of water naturally, that must be released. The solution is to sauté in batches, if necessary. The same goes with sautéing meat for a stew like the classic Beef Bourguignon. Sauté the cubes of meat in batches, brown from all sides and remove. Add more fat if needed, and sauté the second batch. That way the pan temperature will stay at a desirably high level.

Hopefully this explanation was straightforward enough to get you pumped so “jump” in there and sauté something! Anything!

The most rewarding thing in comparison to the effort put into preparation, has to be onions. Nothing smells better the just plain chopped or sliced onions! It fills the house with an aroma that makes others believe a masterpiece is in the making. And all it is, is onions. So, slice an onion and toss into a sizzling hot pan with a little bit of oil from the ones mentioned above. Perhaps a green bell pepper, cut into strips (julienne). Add 2-3 cloves of garlic, finely chopped. Keep tossing and slowly you’ll start to see the vegetables getting golden brown. Season with salt, pepper, perhaps some ground coriander seed, maybe some fresh chopped mint to finish and you have a tasty side dish! Add strips of seasoned chicken tenders (salt & pepper), sauté till done and you have a Mediterranean style stir-fry. Now how easy is that? Don’t forget to pat the chicken dry and allow it to get close to room temperature, remember?

So there you have it. I’ve passed on the knowledge, hopefully in a helpful and approachable manner. The most important thing is to simply have fun with it! Follow the basic guidelines but other than that, just enjoy the experience! Season well, taste as you go and come up with your own creations! This is a movement towards freedom from recipes! Act 1 is in the books so sauté away my friends!

And stay hungry for more!


Monday, June 7, 2010

Mastering the freedom in the kitchen

One of the goals I set for myself with this blog is to help get people back in their own kitchens, cooking and enjoying the process as well as the results. In order to do that, I asked myself: “Why don’t people cook?” Yes, there’s the obvious lack of time. Really there is nothing I can do about that. How about lack of knowledge? Now here’s something I can put a positive dent in; lack of skill? Practice makes perfect as in any case and the skill level will go up with time. Intimidation? Now here is the key to it all, I believe. Most people will not attempt any kind of culinary creation because they are… afraid. Yes, it’s true. Grown-ups are afraid to try anything that has to do with anything besides their microwave. And why is that, you might ask. Simply because they think they cannot do it. As the great saying goes, he who thinks he CAN’T and he who thinks he CAN are both usually right.

One of the greatest foodie movies ever made happens to be animated: Ratatouille. Named after the traditional Provencal dish, this movie is the epitome of the phrase “anyone can cook”; and that phrase is the premise of the entire movie. A rat, normally enemy of the kitchen, becomes a culinary superstar. So now, are you still afraid to try?

The skill of cooking is divided into two worlds: the technical and the sensual and those two ideally grow and develop side by side assisting one another to expand.

By technical, I mean the actual skill of cutting, chopping, sautéing, boiling, blanching, baking, braising, grilling, steaming, seasoning… AHHH! There is so much to know but don’t let that scare you off. Allow that to fuel your fire of knowledge. You will only know as much as you want to know and everything will come gradually. It is easy to get to a reasonable level very quickly. And of course, anything that is executed well will encourage more doing, right?

The second aspect is the sensual one. By sensual, I mean the use of all senses to enhance the experience of both cooking and eating: tasting, smelling, touching, looking, listening, and of course -- that added factor of… well… je ne sais quoi. Sensual also expresses the intimate connection between the cook and its tools and products; a sensuality and connection that exists will always show on the finished plate. Same as with the hands-on technicality of cooking, the sensuality of it requires a lot of practice. But again, quick results are promised to those who are willing to give it a shot!

The next series of posts will be dedicated to the various cooking techniques that are used by any cook at any level, and what type of product suits each technique. Along with each description, I will provide an approachable demo and recipe that will surely help with the understanding. There is no better learning than actually doing. And even more than that, there is no better teacher than the mistake. So just try! I can easily remember failed attempts at cooking something and after knowing the principles of these cooking techniques, I now know what I did wrong.

What I’ve noticed once I started practicing these various techniques is that I don’t need recipes anymore. At a certain point you turn away from recipes and view them as the enemy of free thought. Recipes are full of “Do this.. Don’t do that..” and before you know it you’re getting cold-sweat flashbacks from the evil kindergarten teacher, your drill sergeant in boot camp, or any authority figure that dictated your every move. Your average cookbook is the dictator in the kitchen. Another problem is that everyone’s perception is different. Your definition of medium heat is the other person’s high heat; her 1/4-cup is more like your 3/8 of a cup. If 10 people are given the same recipe and follow it to a tee by their definition, they are bound to end up with 10 different dishes. No more. Practicing simple applications will allow you to be free in the kitchen and own it. That’s where the real fun begins. No recipe, just imagination. No rules or limits, just pure inspiration and a little bit of skill. It will all come together and make perfect sense -- anyone CAN cook!!

In the next post we dive in headfirst. I will tackle the sauté technique; one that most everyone that has ever held a pan over a stove has practiced whether they realized it or not. I can’t wait!