Monday, November 26, 2007

Want that cutting edge? Get the right knife.

Let's face it, we all know great home cooks (your Mom, Grandma etc.) who never owned a decent professional knife and still produced great food every day. But we all know that the trend is towards creating a professional looking kitchen at home, with commercial ranges and ovens and all the great gadgets. But owning a top quality knife doesn't make you a great cook and neither do fancy knife skills. Professional chefs on TV may make you gasp with their dexterity with knife or cleaver, but that in itself doesn't make their food taste good. It suggests that they have spent a lot of time in a fast-paced professional environment that demands speed and efficiency to save on labor, but that's all, so don't assume their food is great because of their knife skills. It's just a circus act. So don't mutilate yourself trying to imitate the pros. Finger parts in the food are never appetizing.
But, let's assume you are serious about having professional quality knives in your kitchen. I do 90% of my knife work with one knife, an 8" Chef's knife, also called a French knife (can't escape that Gallic influence). That means that the blade is quite deep at the handle, at least 1&3/4" to avoid rapping your knuckles when you use the knife correctly. From the handle the knife curves smoothly to a point. The whole point (sorry) is that, in most uses, the tip of the knife never leaves the cutting surface, the entire blade comes into contact with the cutting board and the cutting is done in a rocking motion, up and down, tip to back. This is faster, more efficient, less hazardous and less tiring (and quieter!) than the all-too-familiar hacking motion that most home cooks adopt, where the whole blade comes up off the board and down again. But I don't expect you to change the habits of a lifetime. I've taught many classes and I always demonstrate proper technique, but I stress that I don't expect anyone to go home and start using a knife like a professional.
You really need professional supervision for that, just to tell you what you're doing wrong because invariably you will wind up performing some spastic parody of the professional chef. It feels awkward at first, but it really isn't that hard, otherwise how would some of the clowns on TV be able to do it and talk at the same time!
The knife I use is not some super Scandinavian-styled work of art with price to match, or part of some Magic Knife set seen on late night TV (OK I've been suckered into buying a couple, but, after the novelty wears off, they only see the light of day when someone in my kitchen is knifeless (a cardinal sin in a professional) and wants to borrow a knife. I'm not going to let them destroy the good stuff!
My knife is a Victorinox with Fibrox handle, costs about $25. Just Google "Victorinox Fibrox" and you should find the best deal. Mine came from Amazon. It has a deep blade, essential if you have large hands, and it keeps a sharp edge for longer than most knives I've tried over the years. It's also recommended as a "Best Value" by Cooks Illustrated (I'm telling you, subscribe if you haven't already, and they still don't pay me to say that).
The Fibrox handle is a plastic composite of some kind, but it's quite substantial, again important if you have good-sized hands. If the handle is thin, and not hefty, your hand will get awfully tired if you have a lot of slicing and chopping to do. The handle is comfortable and doesn't feel cold like wood or metal.
When you use this kind of knife your hand should be well forward on the handle so that your thumb and forefinger are actually straddling the blade rather than the handle. These 2 digits should sit in the indentations on the handle where it meets the blade. These indentations make the grip more comfortable. If you grip the knife back towards the butt of the handle and use it a lot you can look forward to carpal tunnel! The further forward you grip, the less stress on the wrist. Also it doesn't hurt to have your work close to you, so you can lean over the board and put the force of your whole arm and shoulder into what you're cutting, when you're cutting up whole chickens, for example.
As far as I'm concerned, anything bigger than an 8" or 9" blade is great for hacking through the jungle, but unnecessary in the home kitchen. Why pay for more blade than you need?
Other than my trusty 8" Chef's knife, the only other essentials in my knife kit are a paring knife and a serrated slicer, the parer for more delicate work and the serrated slicer for cutting soft foods that a French knife will mash or mangle, such as bread, or hard-boiled eggs, or tomatoes. A very sharp Chef's knife will slice tomatoes, but you have to keep it very, very sharp, and let's face it, who has the time for that. As for sharpening, you need a sharpening stone or good electric sharpener. If you bought a knife set, complete with wooden block and 6 steak knives you didn't need, it probably came with a steel, the cylindrical metal rod that you see mass murderers in horror movies sharpening their 15" machetes on before they slash the semi-naked, always beautiful, 6 or 7 girls who were witless enough to walk into an obviously creepy situation.
The truth is that a steel does not sharpen. It restores a sharp edge, which gets bent over slightly with use, so that the knife will cut better than before you used the steel, but it does not actually sharpen. A lot of older chefs will simply use the backside of another knife blade to do the same thing. I do it myself when some fool has put the steel in the wrong place and I can't find it.
One mistake a lot of cooks who haven't been properly taught make is to simply run the center of the blade up and down the steel, trying to look professional, but a little knowledge is a dangerous thing and they wind up grinding a hollow in the blade so that it can no longer perform its' proper function. Every part of the blade of a Chef's knife must come into contact with the cutting surface to do its job properly.
For real sharpening you need a sharpening stone, preferably one with more than one grade of grit: fine, medium and coarse, just like sandpaper. Start with the coarse and work through to the fine. Sharpening oil is useful, too, but I confess that most of the time I just dip my knife blade in the deep fryer!
I do have a number of other knives in my armoury, including a Japanese-styled santoku, which is like a cross between a cleaver and a Chef's knife, with a shorter, semi-curved blade. I see a lot of them on TV shows and I have used mine occasionally, but I find the handles on santokus are generally too small, so I always go back to my old favorite. A slicer with a long, narrow blade is useful if you find yourself elected to carve the roast at Sunday dinner. So what other kitchen tools do you really need? Watch this space......

Friday, November 23, 2007

Give Thanks that Thanksgiving's over!

Let me say first of all that I dislike Thanksgiving and any holiday that involves major consumption of food. The overindulgence is quite sickening. But Thanksgiving is the worst. There seems to be the feeling that excessive consumption is what defines Thanksgiving. Growing up in England where Thanksgiving is unknown, I don't have that nostalgia-fuelled compulsion to eat myself into a stupor, then force myself to eat even more before the effects of the first session have worn off. This doesn't make me very popular with my wife and her family for whom every gathering requires the preparation of more food than they could possibly eat, accompanied by alcohol, of course, which erodes the willpower of anyone interested in eating sensibly. Familial pressure is a powerful force, resistance is often difficult. Be that as it may, we as a nation will continue this tradition, so I may as well give you some useful advice about cooking your turkey.
This is all too late for this year, but hopefully you'll remember to come back to it next year. People ask me all the time for the best way to cook a turkey, how do I cook my turkey. The truth is I don't cook the Thanksgiving turkey, my brother-in-law Mark does, although this year I did smoke a turkey just because I wanted to play with my newest toy, a propane smoker. With the propane providing a constant heat I can put the turkey in the smoker last thing at night and let it cook all night at 200 degrees and it will be nicely done by morning.

But, since most of you don't have a smoker of any kind, there are 2 tricks to cooking a turkey so that the breast meat is not dry and all the meat is well-seasoned and flavorful.

The single most useful thing to do with your bird is to cook it upside down. It's really obvious isn't it. The white meat breast is naturally less juicy than the dark meat, and gravity only compounds that problem by allowing whatever juices are in the breast to drain down to the lower parts of the carcass. Which is why when I'm serving a turkey that has been cooked in the conventional way(or if someone else is serving, I do this when they're not looking) I flip the bird over and snag the 2 oval-shaped pieces of meat that sit in shallow depressions on the spine. These "pearls", which are naturally tender, have absorbed all the juiciness that has drained down during the cooking process. They slip out very easily when you pop your finger underneath them and push. These 2 pieces are the very best of the turkey, a kind of turkey tenderloin. I would be quite happy with just those on my plate at the Thanksgiving table.

Last year just before Thanksgiving I was teaching a class at Viking HomeChef here in San Jose in which I recommended this method. A couple in my class had attended a class the night before given by a "celebrity chef" who disdained the upside-down method. They had tasted his turkey and they tasted mine. Mine was the clear winner. It works. If you're concerned that a turkey cooked breast side down will not present well at the table, turn it over for the last hour or so to give it that nice golden-brown breast.

The second most useful thing to do with your turkey is to brine it beforehand. Brine is, in its simplest form, a salt solution:

1 cup of salt per gallon of cold water for a 4-6 hour brine

1/2 cup of salt per gallon of cold water for a a 12-14 hour brine

Since many frozen and self-basting turkeys are injected with some kind of sodium solution, you may want to minimize the added salt, but a low salt brine enhanced with other flavors will still achieve the desired result, which is to add moisture and flavor to the bird before it cooks. To enhance the brine you can add one or several of the following: garlic, lemon, pepper, sage, poultry seasoning, maple syrup (seriously), rosemary, brown sugar, honey or whatever your imagination tells you might go well with turkey. 2 gallons of brine should be sufficient for most birds, an extra large bird might need 3. Brine your turkey in an extra large ziplok bag in the refrigerator, and rinse the brine off the surface before cooking. Rub the breast with a couple of tablespoons of butter before you flip it over into your roasting pan. If you're concerned that the breast might stick to the roasting rack, you can spray the rack with some kind of pan spray, or put a layer of aluminum foil or parchment paper (NOT wax paper!) with holes punched in it over the rack and spray that.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Books for cooks

In the internet age, you can have access to literally thousands of recipes without owning a single cookbook. Mind you an online recipe can't replace the simple pleasure of cracking the spine of a new cookbook and drooling over the illustrations. I use,, amongst others. One of the advantages of using these sites is that the recipes, posted by home cooks, are, in many cases, reviewed by other users of the site, so you can more easily select the best version of a particular dish.
But this doesn't spell the end for books on food, as opposed to recipe books, and I have 2 particular favorite reference books. One is "On Food and Cooking" by Harold McGee, the other is "The Food Lover's Companion" by Sharon Herbst.
"On Food and Cooking" is sub-titled "The Science and Lore of the Kitchen" and this is where you turn to find out where our foods come form, what they're made of, what chemical and physical processes take place in cooking and why transformations take place, tips for selecting the best ingredients and preparing them successfully. This is food science made cook-friendly.
"The Food Lover's Companion" is a food dictionary containing some 6,000 definitions of foods, dishes and cooking terms, an invaluable resource.
I still occasionally fall back on the tried-and-true "Joy of Cooking" or the "Silver Palate" cookbooks, but these days, more often than not, when I have to prepare a dish that I'm not that familiar with (not that a chef would ever admit that) I go to or Google it. This reminds me that the first time I ever made a Hollandaise, in a Holiday Inn in Irving, Texas just down the road from DFW airport many years ago, I was not about to let the Chef know that I had never done it before, so I casually informed him that I knew how to do it, no problem. I had memorised the procedure from "The Good Cook" series of books by Time-Life (an excellent collection for the aspiring cook, if you can find it) and I proceeded to make a perfect Hollandaise (with a sigh of relief).

Friday, November 9, 2007

What's worth watching?

I mentioned yesterday that the only magazine you really need if you're serious about becoming a better and more knowledgeable cook is Cook's Illustrated, which has a companion TV show, America's Test Kitchen, also well worth watching. So let me tell you what else I watch and what I don't. Let's get this out of the way first. I think Emeril is a great self-promoter, but a terrible cook, so I refuse to watch his antics. I used to enjoy Gordon Ramsay, before he went global and saturated the airwaves with however many shows he has on now.
In case you're not familiar with Ramsay, he drew national attention in England, not for his culinary success but for his obnoxious way of treating his staff. He was featured on a program about Britain's worst bosses, filmed secretly in his restaurant being thoroughly unpleasant to the poor unfortunates who worked for him. But, unpleasant as he is, his outbursts stem from a passion for excellence in cooking and a refusal to accept anything less than the best, which is why he is one of England's most succesful restaurant owners and chefs. So he parlayed that notoriety into a fascinating reality show called "Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares" in which he was invited in to fix restaurants that were in trouble. Ramsay pulls no punches. If you watch this show in England or Canada, the language is quite graphic and crude. Fortunately, perhaps, here in the US most is bleeped, although a lack of familiarity with some English slang does let the occasional obscenity slip through. Earlier this year I was in Canada visiting my brother for a surprise 60th birthday party, and I watched a Ramsay episode there and the uncensored version was a little hard to take. In fact, big brother Tom actually told me to turn it off because he didn't want his wife listening to it. Different personalities, Tom and I.
But, language aside, Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares was a fascinating program because Ramsay would zero in on what was not working and get in the face of who was not working and tell them exactly what he thought of them, but also what they needed to do if they wanted their restaurant to survive. Some were sullen, some belligerent and some were shamed into restoring their pride and commitment to good cooking. It was painful to watch at times, but Ramsay knows his stuff, knows what works, knows that you fit your menu to your market. This was not about 3 or 4 star dining but about well-prepared food cooked in a clean and well-organised kitchen with a motivated staff.
Then America discovered Ramsay and we had the American version of RKN, and "Hell's Kitchen" and whatever else. Saturation. I stopped watching.
Another chef I enjoy watching is also something of a renegade, the chain-smoking, hard-drinking, foul-mouthed Anthony Bourdain, who is now to be seen mostly on the Travel Channel in a show called "No Reservations". Anthony Bourdain wrote a book several years ago called "Kitchen Confidential", an account of his career as a chef in New York. There was little glamour here, it was drugs sex rock and roll, a sordid behind-the -scenes look at life in a working kitchen. I found myself nodding and smiling a lot while I was reading it: there was a familiar ring to much of it.
So now Anthony Bourdain travels the world on the Travel Channel's dime, experiencing the culture and cuisine of exotic cultures. He is frequently sarcastic, pithy, irreverent, and at times poetic. He never fails to entertain.
And then there's Robert Irvine, another English chef (not the oxymoron it used to be. Or maybe he's Welsh) in "Dinner Impossible". Each episode, with little notice, Robert is given an almost impossible challenge of feeding some large group or other in extremely difficult circumstances with limited time, limited equipment and sometimes no food on site. Irvine always seems to be on the brink of failure, yet always seems to somehow pull it off or come very close. It's actually quite nerve-wracking to watch as he teeters back and forth between good humor and downright irritation, but fascinating nonetheless, though I suspect that it's more interesting to fellow professionals who can appreciate the magnitude of his achievements each week.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

A soupcon more on soups

Truth is I could write a book on soups. (Anyone like to pay me to take a sabbatical?)
The hotel owners are Italian and somewhat anal, so Thursday is Minestrone day (Friday is Clam Chowder, of course, groan!) At least I have the opportunity to be creative Mon through Wed.
There was a time when I used canned tomato products in minestrone, but not anymore. With canned products, no matter how good they are, you cannot escape the suspicion that you are eating a thinned out marinara sauce with vegetables added. So I take the time to dice fresh tomatoes. As always I start with my diced onions, carrot & celery (no pureeing today) coloring on low heat. At the same time I cook the white beans separately (Cannelini in this case,which I soaked overnight).
When my aromatic vegetables are nicely colored, I add a little minced garlic, cook that for a couple of minutes then add the diced tomatoes and a little Italian seasoning and let that cook down until the tomatoes release their moisture. At that point, the next additions are personal preference. I usually add diced zucchini, sliced mushrooms and a little chopped cabbage (green peas will go in at the end. I think it's a crime to cook peas any more than absolutely necessary. I prefer to thaw them and warm them and that's it.)
If I'm vague on quantities on all this, it's because I think you should experiment to find out what you like and how much of it. Diced, cooked potatoes are good, so is turnip. So often in cooking, consistency is lauded as a virtue. But if you're consistent you'll never get any better. Consistency is the enemy of improvement. In our restaurant we are obliged to be consistent: consistently good. But we only arrived at that by experimentation.
I had some roasted red pepper left over from quiche I made for the breakfast buffet, so I threw that in too. Of course, one of the owners, the most vocal one, doesn't like bell peppers or Italian seasoning and is quick to tell me so. I tell him he's anal and a disgrace to his race. He laughs, fortunately, but I'm too old to kowtow.
Now in goes the chicken stock. Even water is fine at this point: there's plenty of flavor in that pot. The cooked beans can go in now, also. Bring the whole mess to a boil, then let simmer so all the flavors can blend. At no point have I mentioned pasta which is an essential for minestrone. I cook separately a small amount of firm-bodied pasta such as penne, take it off the heat before it's fully cooked and cool it under cold water, then cut it into small pieces to be added at the end. If you add large-sized pasta earlier in the cooking process it will absorb too much liquid and you will wind up with a pot full of very mushy, bloated pasta, vegetables and not much liquid. This is especially important for me because that soup is going to sit in a soup well for several hours.
Add the peas and let simmer for a little longer, turn off the heat and season with salt and pepper to taste, then add the cut pasta. Done! Enjoy!

Cooking Magazines: There are lots out there, some of them more coffee table fare to impress your houseguests than anything else. But, honestly, there's only one cooking magazine you really need and that's "Cooks Illustrated". It's un-glossy, contains no advertising, only useful information about food and cooking techniques, well-researched and tested recipes and honest reviews of cooking equipment. It's always a pleasure to read and always inspires me with new recipes. Also check out their TV show, "America's Test Kitchen", usually found on PBS. And they're not paying me to say this. They don't even know I exist!

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Soup of the Day, a stock item

As the Chef in a moderately-sized hotel in Silicon Valley, it's part of my daily routine to prepare a Soup of the Day and a Daily Special. Soups are one of my favorite things to make and fortunately as a result of years of practice I make excellent soups. (When I worked in the cavernous kitchens of Pac-Bell I was known as the "Soup King", making two soups a day in 50 gallon steam kettles). The requirements are more modest these days, but I prepare all my soups in more or less the same way. I like to make my own stock, though I'm not averse to enhancing it with commercial soup bases.

Chicken Stock: Obviously it's part of my job to save the hotel owners money, so I look to be as economical as I can. So let's say I decide to make Moroccan Chicken or Chicken Cacciatore as the Daily Special. I always have whole chickens on hand, the least expensive and most versatile way to buy chicken. When I cut up my chicken for the special, I remove the backbone and the wingtips, parts that probably aren't going to get eaten anyway, at least not in this part of the world. Although if you watch "Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern" on the Travel Channel you know that someone somewhere is eating every single part of a chicken, except perhaps the feathers!
Then I take those removed parts and roast them in the oven because I would much rather have a stock with the color and flavor of roast chicken than one made from the raw bird. I throw those parts in a pot with the peelings and scraps from onions, celery and carrots that I've saved over the previous few days, cover with cold water because cold water gives a less cloudy stock, bring to a boil and let simmer for at least a couple of hours, longer if I can, adding water as needed.
Then I discard the solids, and I have a chicken stock with color and flavor that didn't cost anything to make because I used the scraps left from other dishes.

I almost always start my soup with a "mire poix", another one of those unnecessary French terms that plague the food business. It simply meams a mixture of diced onions, carrot and celery, the "aromatic" vegetables, in the ratio of 2 parts onion to 1 part carrot and 1 part celery.
I put my heavy soup pot on low heat with a splash of vegetable oil, and when I see that shimmery web in the bottom that tells me the oil is hot, I toss in my mire poix and let it sautee slowly, stirring from time to time, so that it develops color without burning (if you're planning to puree the soup, a little burning won't be noticed. Just tell yourself that you never burn anything, you just carmelise in different degrees) .
Today I made Cream of Mushroom, so the next thing to go in was a couple of cupfuls of sliced mushrooms. I added a couple of tablespoons of beef base to the mushrooms to bring out maximum flavor and let them cook down until they released all their moisture. Then I added chicken stock to cover and a little more, turned up the heat until it came to a boil and then let the whole thing simmer for a half hour or so until the vegetables were soft.
I took the pot off the heat and pureed the contents with an immersion blender. Mine's a household model, not especially expensive, although the largest commercials ones cost several hundred. Once I had a smooth puree I put the pot back on the stove, added a couple more cups of sliced mushrooms (hint: an egg slicer makes a great mushroom slicer and won't cut your fingers. works for strawberries, too). After those mushrooms have cooked down a little, I turned off the heat, added cold milk (2% is fine) to the pot, approximately equal to half the liquid that was already in the pot and add my roux. Roux!? Who!? (pronounced "roo", another gallicism).
Roux is simply a mixture of liquid fat and flour. It can be melted butter or margarine, chicken fat (liquid gold), beef fat, bacon grease, or in the case of a Cajun roux, very hot oil. The fat and the flour are combined and cooked over low heat to get rid of the raw flour taste. Then it's ready to use. It is simply a thickening agent. But if you add roux to a boiling liquid, the clumps of roux will solidify and cook before they can disperse and do their job, leaving you with little roux dumplings in your soup. That's why I add the cold milk and turn off the heat, to bring down the temperature to a safe point to add the roux. Then it can be whisked in easily.
Once the roux is well dissolved, I turned the heat back up to medium and let it do its work, at least another 15 minutes or more. If you decide your soup is not thick enough and you need to add more roux you will have to let the soup cool down again (adding a few ice cubes will usually do the job quickly).
Once the soup is nicely thickened, smoothly pourable, not thick enough to lay bricks, turn off the heat, let cool a little, then season with salt and pepper. You will get a better sense of taste if you don't burn your tongue as soon as you put the soup in your mouth. I generally prefer the milder taste of white pepper to black for most soups and for white meats. I will add a small amount of heavy cream at the end for a touch of richness.
Ever wish you knew what professional chefs know? Ever wonder why it looks so easy on TV when your attempts at cooking always produce a soggy or burnt mess? Does it really annoy you when professionals tell you how easy it is? After all they've spent years getting it right, you haven't. And you don't have time to fit in an extra career as a professional cook. So, maybe I can help.I've spent 30 years cooking professionally, in restaurants, hotels, catering companies and even over a campfire for a former governor of Colorado! And I still cook at least 5 days a week, sometimes more. Last weekend I served breakfast to 62 hungry (goes without saying)college football players in 15 minutes. I've trained many professional cooks and given instruction to home cooks. So I know a few tricks of the trade which I will share with you. I've written newspaper cooking columns. I'll tell you which is the only cooking magazine you need to buy, and which TV cooking show will actually educate you rather than merely entertain. I'll share some of my favorite recipes and techniques for making cooking easier, less time-consuming and show you ways to succeed in your own kitchen
by Kitchen Insider
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Monday, November 5, 2007

Why should you listen to me?

Ever wish you knew what professional chefs know? Ever wonder why it looks so easy on TV when your attempts at cooking always produce a soggy or burnt mess? Does it really annoy you when professionals tell you how easy it is? After all they've spent years getting it right, you haven't. And you don't have time to fit in an extra career as a professional cook. So, maybe I can help.

I've spent 30 years cooking professionally, in restaurants, hotels, catering companies and even over a campfire for a former governor of Colorado! And I still cook at least 5 days a week, sometimes more. Last weekend I served breakfast to 62 hungry (goes without saying)college football players in 15 minutes.

I've trained many professional cooks and given instruction to home cooks. So I know a few tricks of the trade which I will share with you. I've written newspaper cooking columns.

I'll tell you which is the only cooking magazine you need to buy, and which TV cooking show will actually educate you rather than merely entertain. I'll share some of my favorite recipes and techniques for making cooking easier, less time-consuming and show you ways to succeed in your own kitchen