My photo
Santa Barbara, CA, United States
I enjoy creating original wine-pairing recipes that are healthful and delicious. I work for Touring & Tasting a Santa Barbara based wine club and national magazine as Food Editor. However, I am not paid for this blog and the opinions expressed here are strictly my own. I received my Personal Chef Skills Competency Award from the SBCC's School Of Culinary Arts. In 2012, I started Inside Wine - Santa Barbara with pal Lila Brown which features wine tastings with winery owners and winemakers. I also serve on the Board of the Santa Barbara Culinary Arts group, which had Julia Child as one of the founding members and funds scholarships for SBCC culinary students in her name.

Search This Blog

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Five Essential Tools To Become A Better Cook

To be a good cook, five tools are essential. Use all five of them in your kitchen: your senses of smell, sight, hearing, touch and taste, and you will quickly begin to improve your cooking! Beginning cooks rely on recipes for cooking times, which can be a disaster. The reason for this is that most ovens are mis-calibrated and have hot and cool spots. Also, stoves vary wildly in temperature--a medium low setting on an old range could be 220 degrees, whereas medium low on a 15,000 Btu Wolf range could be over 260 degrees. You can see how using a recipe's cooking time as an absolute can lead to undercooked or overcooked food.

Instead, use your senses to determine when something is cooked properly. While baking bread, notice the aromas that emanate from the oven. With practice, you can smell when your bread is ready. Cultivate this ability by using the traditional methods to determine when bread is finished (a golden brown crust, an internal thermometer temperature of 190 - 200 degrees, or a hollow sound when the bread is thumped) along with your sensory experience during the cooking process. Remember the aroma of perfectly cooked bread--and next time you will know when the bread is done.

wine pairingYour sense of hearing can be a powerful tool. Have you ever cooked meat that stuck to the pan, even though it was greased? Chances are, you did not hear a sizzle when the meat hit the pan, because the pan wasn't hot enough. Heating a pan correctly for a sear, whether meat or fish, relies on your senses of sight and touch. Hold your hand an inch above the surface of the oiled pan when it first goes on the stove. Notice there is just a bit of warmth. Tilt the pan and notice that the oil runs smoothly across the bottom. As the pan heats, continue to feel the heat above it. At some point, when you tilt the pan, the oil will run across the bottom in waves, so the surface looks dimpled instead of smooth--this is the sign the pan is hot enough. Hold your hand an inch above the pan again and remember the sensation of heat--you can use this memory the next time you cook. Lay the meat or fish on the hot pan and hear that satisfying sizzle!

wine pairingYour sense of touch will tell you when a steak is cooked, without needing to cut into it (though you can--just to check!). Make a fist, with your thumb inside your palm and squeeze tight. Touch the area shown in the photo--that is the feeling of a well done steak. Release all the fingers except the index and thumb. Touch again--this is medium rare. Relax the hand apart--touch and feel the softness of raw meat. Try this next time you cook steak--touch the steak, then touch your hand in the appropriate configuration and see if this simple sensory guide works!

wine pairingYour sense of taste is obviously the most important tool in the kitchen. Pity the unfortunate ones who "eat everything" and are just as satisfied with bland food as spiced, with junk food as gourmet cuisine--they will never be great cooks! If you want to be a good cook, be a discriminating eater--notice the difference between food you eat that is ok versus fabulous and use your senses to decide why you like something so much. Is it the herbs in the dish? The smell of the food? A crunchy sound? The way it looks on the plate? Use vision, smell, taste, touch and hearing to experience what you eat--then use those memories to recreate the experience in your own kitchen. Come to your senses and delicious food will follow!

Focaccia With Pesto and Fresh Tomatoes:

Ingredients For the Pesto:
2 cups packed fresh basil leaves, stems removed
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan-Reggiano        
1/4 cup pine nuts
3 tablespoons minced garlic
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon black pepper

Ingredients For the Focaccia Dough
4 1/2  cups unbleached bread flour
1 1/4  teaspoons instant yeast
2  teaspoons salt
2  cups cold water
2 tablespoons olive oil

Other Ingredients:
spray olive oil
2 medium tomatoes, sliced thinly and drained on paper towels
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan-Reggiano

Directions For the  Pesto:
1 Pulse the basil and pine nuts together in a food processor for a few seconds. Add the garlic, and pulse a few more.
Add the olive oil and process for a few minutes--you would like the pesto to remain a bit chunky and not be pureed smooth. Add the grated cheese, salt and pepper and pulse until just blended.

Directions For the Dough:
The day before, put all the ingredients, except the olive oil, in the bowl of a stand mixer. Mix with the paddle attachment on slow speed for a couple of minutes. Add the olive oil and mix for a minute. Let the dough rest for 5 minutes. Mix for one minute more.  The dough will be soft and shaggy. Use a spatula or bowl scraper dipped in water to scrape the wet dough in an oiled bowl that is more than twice as tall as the level of the dough. Cover the top with plastic wrap and put in the refrigerator.

The next day, take the dough out 4 hours before you want to bake the bread. (The dough can be in the refrigerator 12 - 18 hours.) The dough will have doubled overnight. Spread a sheet of baking parchment on a large baking sheet and spray it all over with olive oil. Scrape the dough onto the baking sheet using moistened tools and gently spread into a rectangular shape. Spray a bit of olive oil on your fingers and on the top of the dough. and dimple the bread--start in the middle and press your fingers into the dough, then pull them out a bit to the side. In this way, you will stretch out the dough in the pan as you dimple it. Don't' worry yet if it is not fitting in the pan exactly or is not symmetrical--further steps will start to even it out. Let the dough rest for 20 minutes.

Once again go through the dimpling process again, starting in the middle and moving outwards. Let rest 20 minutes and repeat. During the dimpling process, even and shape the dough so it almost fills the pan and is rectangular. Let rise for 2 hours. During this time, preheat the oven to 425 degrees (375 with convection).

Bake the focaccia in the middle of the oven for 10 minutes. Remove from the oven and dot chunks of pesto over it, then top with the tomato slices. (Do not put the pesto or tomatoes on at the beginning or they will burn.) Rotate the pan and put it back in the oven for another 10 minutes until it is starting to be golden brown. Remove and sprinkle with the Parmesan, then bake until the cheese is melted, just a minute or two. Let cool a few minutes before slicing into squares.

No comments:

Post a Comment