Be Not Afraid
Cooking advice from a former chef.
Senses and Success.
Sitting on the back patio at a cookout yesterday, I exclaimed, “I’ll give you a quick kitchen hack.” Everyone’s ears pricked up, millenials LOVE hacks. “Set the oven at 350, regardless of what you’re trying to accomplish, 350 degrees will get you there.”
It’s true, I don’t think I’ve looked at an oven temperature for the last 20 years. This is mostly because the professional kitchens I worked over the span of my career always had at least one oven running, and the temperature was always 350 degrees.
I promised myself, and those who loved the “It’s a long way up to recovery” website that I would try to write more, so here’s a list of baseline skills, musings and thoughts for your kitchen tool box. Master these and the idea of “throwing something together,” will simply become cooking and those beautiful cookbooks you’ve been dumping money into, will be excellent coffee table reading material.
Learn to lean on your senses.
You’ve got five of them. Deploying them in your kitchen with regularity will lead to a sixth sense, that my cooks called, “chef’s sense.” Is your pizza burning in the oven even though it has 4 more minutes on the timer? You know what burnt pizza smells like, open the oven and pull it out. Is your garlic burning in the pan even though it isn’t as translucent as you’d like? Anthony Bourdain called burnt garlic a cardinal sin, cut the pan off so you don’t find out why. Learning to rely on your senses allows you to become attune to your surroundings. For a generation that seems to be stuck perpetually in social media and online, it’s a skill we’re lacking woefully. As your senses get sharper, you’ll level up and unlock a true sixth sense, someone sneaking up behind you, buzz off creeper! Kids misbehaving in the next room, “it’s AWFULLY QUIET IN HERE, WHAT ARE YOU TWO DOING,” as my mother used to say. Being attune to your food is what makes the act of cooking, in itself an act of service, gratifying. You’ll not only be a better, more present cook, but a better dining companion as well. If you want to BROWSE a recipe before hand for some salient details or specific ingredients, fine. After that, leave your phone in another room. It’ll be worth it, I promise.
Set up yourself up for success.
Almost universally, you’ll need the following close at hand; kosher salt, pepper, organic olive oil. That’s it, easy right? Don’t use iodized salt, I’m not kidding, it’s gross. Find a kosher salt you enjoy. Weird I know, but buy some in small quantities and taste them. Morton’s too salty? Try Diamond Crystal, scientifically proven to be less salty, (I’m serious). I flux between the two, but always have a box of either in the house. For pepper, keep the peppercorns whole and grind them as you need them. This isn’t a call for you to invest in some crazy pepper grinder with three settings, and that’s only gonna get splashed with the olive oil we’re going to talk about in a minute, the store brand will do fine. Someone out there is going to tell you to mix the ground pepper and the salt in the same container. They were probably a former line cook for fifteen minutes at Chilis, and they’re wrong. Pepper goes stale, that’s why we grind it when we need it, and often salt and pepper conflict with each other in the pan. Keep them separate, if for no other reason than it allows you one more layer of control over the final product. This brings us to the organic olive oil. In addition to being universally considered a heart healthy fat, it adds an additional layer of flavor to your cooking. While I don’t believe that your investment in nonsense like an expensive pepper grinder, I do believe that good olive oil will separate your cooking from the pack almost immediately. It should be fruity and vaguely spicy, when you buy it, taste it. Put a few drops on a spoon and let it sit on your tongue for a few seconds, find one you like, and use it with abandon. (NOTE: while olive oil has fantastic flavor, it does not however have a high smoke point, the temperature at which it will catch fire in the pan, and inevitably burn your house down, we’ll get to that detail at a later date).
This weeks’ mini hack, that isn’t a hack; taste your food. Don’t look at this so much as a hack but as a mandate, a mini commandment of sorts. Unless it’s going to do you physical harm by consuming it, I’m not advocating for the tasting of raw chicken, taste your ingredients and taste your food. Now that you’re getting attune to using your senses, this will help move your forward in your new quest to attain the sixth sense known heretofore as the “chef’s sense.” Besides, if you’re going to cook and serve it to someone else, and yourself, why wouldn’t you taste it first?