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Recipe Rock Star #5: It's the little things

resting pork loins
A pair of pork loins, resting. From missginsu @ flickr

The Recipe Rock Star is a cooking tutorial series meant to make you a better home cook. It's kitchen hacking. So far, we've covered one focused minute, mise en place, the importance of quality and the proper tools for the task. These aren't necessarily ordered, so feel free to read, review, skim or skip. Now then...

Recipe Rock Star Lesson #5:

It's the little things


My father likes to say, "Don't sweat the small stuff." He means, of course, that life's details weren't worth a lot of stress.

We live for a short period of time, after which we're dead for a very long time. Within this perspective, an ugly chink in the paint on one's new car really means nothing at all. Water off the proverbial duck's proverbial back.

Now I'm going to contradict myself a bit, because one of the lessons I picked up from cooking school and restaurant gigs is that good cusine really does require that some fussing over the small stuff. In cooking, the details make the difference.

The key is knowing which details matter and how much they matter.

Take stock, for example. Long ago, good home cooks put down a pot of water to simmer at the back of the stove before they began their other kitchen tasks.

As they cut vegetables, the trimmings went into the stockpot. As they picked herbs, the stems went in the stockpot. As they butchered meat, the bones joined the veggie trimmings and herb stems. When it came time to moisten a sauce, a stew or a braise, well... no problem. The stock was waiting there at the back of the stove.

Who makes stock anymore? Restaurants do, but for home cooks, stock is a neglected detail. Home cooks have day jobs, and the broth that comes in cans and aseptic containers is more convenient.

And yet, a quality home-brewed stock adds flavor characteristics that canned broth can't match. If you're making a soup, stew or a simple sauce, good stock is one of the details that makes the difference between not bad and daaamn!

Better still, making stock is a small effort. Just put a pot of water on the stove. If you're already in the kitchen cooking something else, you're bound to have things to simmer in that pot. Carrot peels? Wilty celery? Onion ends? Parsley stems? The bones from that rotisserie chicken you picked up at the deli yesterday? Into the pot!

Simmer everythig with a couple of bay leaves, some thyme (if you have it) and maybe some peppercorns. When you're done working in the kitchen, strain out all the spent aromatics and bones through a strainer or colander, cool down the stock and transfer it to small containers. Keep 'em in the freezer. Some people freeze stock in ice cube trays and later transfer the cubes to freezer bags for easy portioning. When you need stock, it'll be waiting for you.

There's a lot of details that make a big difference in the final dish. Most take very little time. I'll quickly list six more of my favorites:
  • Warming first, resting later. Don't take a piece of meat, fish or poultry out of the refrigerator and slap it down in a hot pan. Proteins cook more evenly when they're a few degrees closer to room temperature, so take it out to warm a few minutes before you cook it. (I'm not suggesting you take that steak out after lunch when you're planning to eat it for dinner. Just let it warm for twenty minutes while you prepare the salad or chop the vegetables.) And while you're at it, plan for a little resting time after the protein is cooked. Heat drives juices to the center of meat and chicken. A five- to ten-minute rest on the cutting board allows the muscle fibers to redistribute the liquid, ensuring a juicy steak or cutlet and preventing a soggy cutting board.

  • Minding the texture. Does the recipe call for cheese or citrus zest? The texture makes a big difference in the final dish. For example, if you use a microplane to zest a lemon, you'll end up with small, airy shreds, which are going to release oils and hit the tongue in a different way from the plump shreds you might get from a box grater. Similarly, a powdered Parmesan cheese tastes different from one that's lightly shredded or sliced.

  • A quality sear. When cooking meat, it's generally a good idea to start with high heat in the pan and reduce the temperature once the protein has a good sear. As it turns out, that sear produces a chemical reaction that really makes a big difference in the meat's flavor in a process called the Maillard reaction. That sear is important whether you're braising, grilling, broiling or pan-frying. Keep that in mind next time you use your slow cooker. The sear is a great investment in flavor.

  • Browning that roux. Thickening a sauce, stew, gravy or soup with a flour and butter mixture? The few minutes spent patiently stirring and toasting the roux can mean the difference between a bland or even slightly bitter dish and something that's rich, complex and toasty.

  • The last-minute herb attack. Ever notice how restaurant chefs often toss a pinch of fresh-chopped parsley, cilantro, basil, chervil, rosemary, chives or mint on top of your dinner entrée? It's not just garnish (although fresh herbs do generally make any dish look a little more swanky.) The vibrant, verdant flavors of the last-minute herb sprinkle (or citrus squeeze) have a big flavor impact... particularly in heavy dishes that benefit from the contrast.

  • Freshly whipped cream on desserts. Cool Whip is more convenient. Spray cans are more fun. But there's nothing quite as flavorful, decadent or impressive as topping your dessert with cream you've freshly whipped yourself. Bonus: Whisking is great bicep exercise.

  • There's more. A lot more. Just keep this in mind: Sometimes cutting corners means you save time, and sometimes it just means you deprive yourself of flavor. Know what the shortcut really costs.
    Next time in the Recipe Rock Star, I'll discuss why being "in the weeds" is unpleasant and what can be done about it.

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    2.15.2007

    2 Comments:

    Anonymous Sebastian said...

    But nothing about the original Currywurst to find :-( but the The Recipe Rock Star is really good...

    2/21/2007  
    Blogger MissGinsu said...

    Howdy! The Currywurst commentary is waaay at the back of the line. That venue, sadly, has closed, but one of these days, I'm going to make some currywurst sauce of my own...

    Thanks for reading!

    2/21/2007  

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