Frontier Psychiatrist

Frontier Gastronomy – Top 5 Kitchen Tips

Posted on: April 6, 2011

Everything in its Right Place

My cooking expertise is the result of a lot of failures.  Exhibit A: When broiling scallops, a few extra tablespoons of oil and some unruly flames nearly set the kitchen on fire.  Exhibit B: Coarse grain sea salt turns a bran muffin into a mouth-puckering mess. You get the idea.  Luckily, I’m persistent.  I learn from my mistakes and am a better cook because of them. Today I thought I’d share my Top 5 Kitchen Tips.

5. Mise en Place

As a natural procrastinator, I like to push the limits of time.  I’ll start the onions in the pan, hoping that I can then mince the garlic and peel and chop and the carrots in the three minutes it takes for the onions to become translucent.  Spoiler alert: I can’t.  Or, if I can, I end up injured or frantic, or both. To avoid this, the single most helpful habit I’ve adopted is setting up a mise en place (French for “everything in place”).  This means cleaning, chopping, and measuring all ingredients ahead of time.  Aside from making you feel French and expert, mise en place will make your kitchen more organized and ready for you at a moment’s notice, just like on cooking TV shows.  It’s best to have “finger bowls” that hold a couple of tablespoons of garlic, for example, and then some larger bowls for chopped vegetables or measured grains. Having everything set up before the elements of heat and time factor in will make you a more accurate, in-control cook.

Push it Real Good

4. Salt and Pepper

Salt can make or break a dish, whether it’s highlighting the flavors of an ingredient or counteracting the cloying sweetness of desserts. There are many types of salt, and most people don’t know when to use which type. Most of us know iodized salt as table salt.  It’s chemically altered, which bugs some people, but it has its place in cooking.  It is a fine grain salt, and it’s ok for seasoning food, but I only use it for baking purposes (since the bran muffin incident). I generally only use kosher salt for brining or salting meat. For everything else, sea salt is my go-to.  It comes in different sized granules but is generally coarser than iodized salt.  I store it in a little covered salt keeper: it’s easier to grab a pinch or take a measured teaspoon than pouring from a canister.

In large quantities, salt masks the flavors of your food, but if used sparingly, it elevates flavors.  And good pepper (e.g. tri-color peppercorn blends) is indispensible.  Salt and pepper may sound boring, but they don’t taste it.  If you’re feeling adventurous, try a flavored salt.  I have a  jar of truffle-flavored sea salt, and it’s out of this world, especially on popcorn.

Knives Out!

3. Knives

There’s a reason chefs insist on using their own knives. A sharp chef’s knife (a.k.a. That Big One You’re Afraid To Use), is the most useful tool you’ll encounter.  Last year I attended a great cooking class at The Social Table, where I learned not to fear the big knife.  You should hold the knife itself, not just the handle.  Not to go all zen, but the knife should be an extension of your hand.  You’ll have much more control over your chop, and you’ll be much more efficient, especially when chopping finely.

Mincing fresh herbs used to be my least favorite food prep activity, but when you know the trick, it’s much more tolerable.  Make a pile of herbs, hold the knife in front of you horizontally so that it forms a barrier between you and the herbs, anchor the tip of your knife with your non-dominant hand, and use that as a pivot point as you raise and lower the handle end of the knife to chop.  Keep re-piling the herbs until you’re done.  This will make the process faster, easier, and even fun.  This strategy also works with garlic, ginger, or anything else that you need to mince.

2. Control your Heat

If your scallops are in flames because they’re too close the broiler, move down the top rack in your oven.  But the recipe says it should be four inches from the heat source, you say?  Does it also say that the fire department should get involved? Probably not. When cooking from a recipe, follow its guidance, but let your own results determine your actions.  Don’t be afraid to turn up the heat, lower the rack, or whatever else you have to do for taste’s (or safety’s) sake.

1. Trust your Instincts

No matter how tried and true the recipe, it was not delivered to you on a stone tablet. Always feel free to mess with a recipe as you see fit.  Your taste buds are unique!  Embrace that.  For example, I was making a soup with chickpeas, carrots, and pimentón.  It smelled and tasted incredible as I tasted it along the way, but the last step of the recipe called for orange juice, so in went the juice.  The soup was still good, but it was way better before the OJ, and if I had been developing that recipe then and there, I would never have added a thing.  The same idea applies to cook times.  If after 16 minutes, your cook-for-20-minutes fish looks good to you, take it out! The moral of the story is to trust your gut.  Every oven/stove/pan/etc. is unique, and your experience and results will likely differ a little from what a recipe indicates.  Taste is personal, and your palate should always rule your cooking.

Freya Bellin writes weekly for Mark Bittman’s web site and alternate Wednesdays for Frontier Psychiatrist. Her recent FP recipes include Risotto, Homemade Pizza and Tapas.


2 Responses to "Frontier Gastronomy – Top 5 Kitchen Tips"

Excellent essay! There are some seasoned salts that are great, others have lost their original panache. Lawrey’s just doesn’t seem as good as it did in 1954; possibly too many corporate takeovers/buyouts? Today, I look for a food co-op where I can get herbs and spices in little baggies, and mix my own. A salt mill is also good for reducing chunks of salt to something easier to dust lightly over the food.

Glad you liked it! The Filling Station at Chelsea Market in NYC is good for flavored salts. And a lot of outdoor food markets (is it spring yet?!) have big barrels of spices… really beautiful colors and great that you can get just the right amount.

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