Our problems are seldom as serious as we think they are while in the throes of trying to solve them. That’s true in the kitchen, too.
Readers tend to have lots of questions for me, especially when something has already turned into a wee crisis, but instead of answering yours today, I’d like to pose 20 of my own — not to solve your problems, but maybe to help you avoid a few in the coming year.
1. Do you read the recipe all the way through first?
Over the years, I have taught many classes in communications and there’s an exercise that never fails to brown people off, but it also never fails to provide an aha! moment. I hand out a sheet with 15 instructions, the first of which says, “Read all instructions before starting this exercise.” The last one reads, “Ignore the last 14 instructions.
Of course, the ones in the middle are a bunch of foolishness. So go many recipes — you get to the end and wish you had made the topping first.
2. Do you organize your ingredients before you start?
Mis en place is Lesson 1 in every cooking class, and every good home cook knows this, but we’re all caught from time to time running to the fridge when we should be stirring at the stove.
3. Do you taste as you go?
Seasoning is rarely an all-at-once event in a main course dish. You have to build flavour layers, so as soon as it is safe to do so, sample. Even if it doesn’t seem appetizing at the moment, you need to know what’s going on in there.
The biggest mistake this avoids, of course, is over- and under-salting. By the way, nobody adds enough salt to pasta cooking water — just so you know.
4. Do you overcrowd the pot or pan?
Nothing is more vile than grey meat, unless perhaps it’s pasta glued together in a single mass. You aren’t saving anything by trying to squat a gallon of food into a quart-sized pot.
5. Do you preheat the oven or burner?
The first thing I do is turn on the oven. If it has gone through at least one, but preferably two, preheat cycles, it’s ready.
Same goes for the cold frying pan — too late to turn up the heat once the steak is in there.
6. Do you have a meat thermometer or do you guess?
I don’t care how experienced you are, you can make a mistake. A couple of bucks can save an expensive cut of meat from ruin.
7. Do you allow your meat time to take a good rest?
A large roast or turkey can happily sit for half an hour or longer, and every minute is an investment in perfecting texture and flavour. Don’t be in such a rush.
Likewise, let the chill come off it before putting it in the oven or pan.
8. Do you substitute at random?
Cocoa is not the same thing as chocolate; cream is not milk; and margarine and canola oil are not butter.
The Internet is not a bad resource, but don’t trust unknown sites. Many older cookbooks have great sections on substitution, and that’s where I go when I have a strange question.
9. Do you assume 8 oz. is the same as 1 cup?
This only works for foods whose density is roughly the same as water. For most dry ingredients, using a scale is more precise. In a recipe where the amount of flour is critical, one cup can be four, five or six ounces, depending on the type of flour and whether it is sifted first — a big enough mistake to ruin a perfect cake.
10. Do you remember to take out butter or cream cheese to soften it?
I know you’ve forgotten because I have, but if you nuke it even a fraction beyond room temperature, it will collapse and so will your cookies. If you need to do it in a hurry, microwave on the lowest setting, checking every 20 seconds, until you can put your finger in easily, then use your mixer to finish it off.
Best answer is take it out of the fridge long in advance.
11. Do you know your oven’s true temperature?
If you find everything is baking lopsided, or is over- or undercooked, then you need to check. It could be slightly off level, have a hot spot or an inaccurate thermostat. You can fix the first problem by rotating the dish — carefully if it’s a cake — quarter then halfway through baking. Same for the hot spot. If the temperature is off, then adjust accordingly.
12. Do you flip, wiggle or otherwise play with food in frying pan, grill?
For heaven’s sake, leave it alone. When it’s ready it will let you know. Beef or chicken, for example, will lift right off the surface and be thoroughly brown.
13. Do you cheap out on ingredients?
I know chocolatey chips are half the price, but there’s a reason they are called “chocolatey”— there’s no real chocolate in them.
If you don’t care, then go ahead and reach for the green jar of Parmesan cheese-like powder and add that to the lasagna, but if I’m in the kitchen all day, I am sure gonna want to spend that extra dollar to make it worth my while.
14. Do you overlook the dumplings in your gravy?
I like little bits of caramelized onion and vegetables in my sauces, too. What I don’t like is lumps of flour. Either use a butter and flour roux or take the time to strain.
15. Do you work your dough to death?
Unless you are trying to develop gluten to achieve bread-like structure, minimize the handling, especially for lower-fat recipes. Nothing toughens up a beautiful pastry pie like a rough going over.
Overworking ground beef has the same effect, by the way.
16. Do you know when to give up on the unrescuable?
I admit I’ve kept a brave face when serving up the flattest soufflé ever made — I called it baked pudding. But I know when something is burnt beyond recognition and that’s when I don’t throw good ingredients after bad.
17. Do you watch TV while you cook?
Anything on or under heat should be watched carefully. Pay attention in the kitchen!
18. Do you always go for the boneless skinless chicken breast?
All meat and fish tastes better with the bones still where they belong — a little harder to deal with, I know, but worth it.
19. Do you think about temperature while whipping egg whites, cream?
Egg whites at room temperature will gain the most volume and structure — even a peck of yolk in there will prevent this, of course, so separate them one at a time.
Ice-cold cream will whip up with a whisk, but if it’s warm, count on getting almost to butter before it sets.
20. Do you ever admit you don’t know something?
This isn’t like when you pretend whatever you are serving is exactly what the recipe intended. This is when you just don’t know the answer to a critical question.
If the dish calls for a chiffonade of basil, and you don’t know how to do that, look it up.
Simple Carrot Soup
For those of you who can’t live without a recipe fix, here’s my foolproof, impossible-to-make-a-mistake, carrot soup, to take advantage of the beautiful local root vegetables this time of year. So that you don’t have to look it up, chiffonade refers to greenery sliced finely into long strips. For this recipe, stack the basil leaves on top of each other and roll them up like a cigar, then cut into very thin strips with a sharp knife.
This will serve 4 to 6, depending on what’s going with it.
4 cups carrots, peeled and coarsely chopped
1 medium onion, chopped
1 tbsp. olive oil
1 clove garlic, minced
3 to 4 cups chicken broth (or water)
1/2 tsp. each salt and brown sugar
2 sprigs fresh thyme
1/4 tsp. freshly ground black pepper (or white if you don’t want the specks)
handful fresh basil, cut into chiffonade
Place carrots and onion in oil in a Dutch oven and fry until they start to change colour. Add garlic and cook another minute then stir in broth, salt, sugar and thyme and bring to a boil. Reduce heat, cover and simmer until carrots are very tender. Remove thyme stalks and puree in batches in a food processor or blender. Stir in pepper and more salt if needed. Serve with basil on top; a dollop of sour cream is nice, too. It might be long past time to wish season’s greetings, but it’s never too late to wish you a problem-free 2011.
Cynthia Stone is a writer, editor and teacher in St. John’s. Questions may be sent to her c/o The Telegram, P.O. Box 86, St. John’s, NL, A1E 4N1.