My Core Cooking Tenets

October 01, 2009

Ideas on how to Keep it Simple in the Kitchen



Food that is simple to prepare, yet pretty awesome, is not hard to do.  I'm not exactly a 3-star chef, but I've learned quite a bit over the years about how to simplify in the kitchen and still turn out some pretty stellar food.  

Much of what I know I've learned the hard way or absorbed from others that are either professional chefs or professional writers.  Where possible, credit is given where credit is due.


Here are my general tenets:


1. Use high heat to intensify flavors

Whether it's grilling, broiling, sauteing, roasting or throwing on a fire pit, the raw movement will never be able to match the unique flavors brought about by heat.  Whether making a reduction sauce or a piece of meat that has benefited from the Maillard reaction, always look to cook items individually where you want to focus and bring out their intensity.

Francis Mallman is someone that's super passionate about this in his book on Argentine style grilling.


2. Pair the food to the wine

Someone once told me that when you're putting together a meal, you pair food with wine, not the other way around.  Rather than thinking "Hmm, what wine goes with _____?", start with the wine in mind.  Everyone has a number of bottles they are saving for some occasion they don't know exists yet...so pull it off the rack and learn how to cook towards it.  I've got a couple of great books that break down flavor pairings, bridge ingredients and recipe ideas by varietal that are super helpful in this situation.


3. Keep the ingredients, and prep required, simple

You don't need exotic ingredients to make a great meal.  Anything requiring a special trip to a out-of-the-way store to buy one ingredient where you really have to think long and hard about the price and you might have leftovers of which you'll never use are a bad purchase.  Find an alternate.  

Now, this generally doesn't apply to the main ingredient when it's something like live lobster, sashimi, dry aged porterhouse, rack of lamb, etc.


4. Keep your kitchen gadgets simple as well

Along the same lines, kitchen gadgets that serve a single purpose and may only come out once a year are wasting space.  Alton Brown is a huge proponent of this one and it makes a ton of sense.  I have a creme brulee torch I've used once in 6 years and numerous other silly purchases.  

Then there are some I couldn't do without.  My top 3 are probably my cast iron pan I received as a gift in 1999 that's never seen a drop of soap (only cleaned with Kosher salt and hot water) and has a super smooth surface.  A Cuisinart food processor.  And of course, a non-stick, high wall sauté pan.  Honorable mention to the Zojirushi rice maker.  


5. Know where to take shortcuts, don't sacrifice quality

Keep your cabinets full of great shortcuts that don't cut quality.  Can tomatoes (BPA fears aside), for example, are consistently awesome year round.  This can't be said for the tomatoes sold in Chicago that are only acceptable for a few weeks each summer.  Other items, like jarred garlic, are terrible substitutes and should always be chopped fresh.


6. Avoid Hype, Invest in classics instead

Foam, vacuum bag cooking, liquid nitrogen, etc.  All nonsense.

Seek out the quality ingredients you need to have like high quality extra virgin olive oil.  I keep a few bottles of a great one from Mendoza for dressings and an ordinary one from Costco for everything else.  


7. Recipes are a great guide, keep notes on the ones you like

This blog is largely a collection of recipes I've jotted down in my Blue Notebook and dozens of note cards and scraps of paper, stuffed in said notebook.  They've been tweaked, scratched out and updated.  Getting tired of typing them up in email when asked, and needing a better storage system, I started the blog.

We were fortunate years ago to have dined in the kitchen table at Charlie Trotters.  I took in his Kitchen Sessions cookbook to be signed and he wrote "The best food is cooked in the moment".  There's a lot behind those words.  He had a short-lived series on PBS and espoused the idea that recipes are only guides.  And despite having cranked out volumes of great cookbooks, he'd tell you that they are there for one to learn from, not directly replicate in the kitchen.

I've bought a lot of cookbooks but have only kept a small number.  The ones I have either have a great focus on a particular culinary theme or are written by someone with some really unique ideas.  I use them for inspiration when cooking something special.  When I find something that intrigues me, I look at the ratios to see how much of A is used with B.  I take away new ideas on food pairings and combinations and I try to understand how it's prepared.  

In the end, you'll always want to swap out some ingredient you don't like (or seasonally can't acquire) for something else.  Maybe you'll use a different meat.  Maybe just make the broth.  Or you'll start shopping and it'll inspire you to go in a different direction and try something else.  That's cooking in the moment.  


8. Learn Timing

By far the hardest, and most critical, part for most in cooking is the timing.  I used to create intricate charts, like a project plan, of when to start/finish every last part of various recipes and dishes, working backwards from when I wanted to be done.  With practice, you learn how things cook.  How long they need to rest, and what you can make ahead of time.  And most importantly you learn the art of prep. Mise-en-place....getting it all ready beforehand so you don't waste time cutting and chopping.  Oh, and you also remember to turn the oven on first.





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