|Good Cooking Refinements
Here are some techniques that are followed as a matter of course by chefs in
fine dining restaurants.
Skimming--a Good Cooking Refinement
There are procedures routinely used by savory chefs in fine dining restaurants
that are not practiced often by home cooks or, for that matter, by chefs
in family restaurants: Stocks and sauces made daily, pasta made fresh
every day, meats trimmed of every streak of silver skin, fresh veggies
blanched and chill-shocked to hold, good knife work required to slice and
dice rather than chop veggies and herbs (that are always fresh) and simmering
liquids skimmed and or strained.
These and other procedures fall into the category of refinements.
They drive up quality but also drive up costs. Where the two lines
intersect—quality and cost—defines the passions of the chef and the aspirations
of the owners. Time and labor, however, are not critical variables
for the home cook. Quality reigns (within reason, of course).
Over the holidays, we were invited to a spaghetti dinner to be prepared
by one of the guests who loves to cook and is good at it. I stayed
clear of the kitchen until called in at the last minute to make an emergency
salad dressing. Our cook for the evening was just finishing making
his tomato sauce with Italian sausage that he constructed lovingly and
simmered long and slow. A side glance at the pot and a distant sniff
suggested a promising deep red sauce. “Skim off the fat and it'll
be great,” I said to myself. Not to my surprise, our cook gave it
all a good stir and poured the sauce over the steaming pasta. It
was delicious, a fine dish.
It would have been cleaner on the palette, better tasting
(more complex) and more healthful if he had skimmed off
the fat, which came mostly from the Italian sausage.
(Historical note: As I kid, I don't remember very
much skimming by mom at home or by the “farm grandma,” but
that was then and now is now.)
Stocks, soups, sauces, chilies con carne, meat loaves—just
about every product (veggie, poultry, meat or fish) that's
cooked long and slow (simmered, baked or braised with liquids)
should be skimmed of discolor and fats. It doesn't
take all that long. Your seasonings will come through.
The food will look better and be better for you.
Straining--a Good Cooking Refinement
back, I put together a pork tenderloin roast at my sister's house as dinner
for eight. Her husband was in and out of the kitchen watching the
proceedings. He loves veggies and commented that the carrots, onions
and celery I sautéed in the roasting pan were sure going to taste
good. An hour of so later, the roast was on the table along with
a nice salad, baked potatoes and sautéed Green
Beans. "Hey this is great, especially the gravy," raved my brother
in law, "but what happened to the carrots and onions? I love carrots
and onions . . .!" My sister preempted my reply with "they're is
the sauce, dear," She knew because, earlier, I opened every drawer
and cupboard in her kitchen looking for the strainer.
The strainers in the photo take up a lot of space, but
they are used a lot. Straining cooked liquids serves
two purposes: The first is to remove ingredients added
to impart flavors and never intended to be on the table.
Veggies, herbs, bones, tough meats that get cooked to death
and fall apart in the process. Having served honorably
in the pot and given their all for an hour, two or three,
they got to go. Think home
chicken stock and all other stock preparations. So too,
big meat dishes roasted, baked or braised in beds of veggies
and herbs (here, here
and here) that are served
with robust sauces redolent in the bouquet and flavors of
slow cooked meat, stock, veggies and seasonings.
|Tips: When you know that you are going to
strain what is in the pot, you can save time in the preparation.
No need, for example, to pluck leaves off of fresh thyme or parsley branches.
Toss them in whole (yes, they are a little stronger) and stain them out
later. Chop veggies rough and quick and toss them in.
It is best to strain cooked liquids before reducing
them over high heat to desired sauce consistency.
Straining serves a second and higher purpose. Namely, to refine
the texture and thickness of soups. A "country soup" is served with
chunks of food, unstrained. A consommé is so finely strained
that you should be able to "read a coin" at the bottom of the pot.
Other soups are strained more or less to relieve the pallet of too much
coarseness, fiber, calories, or whatever. Our Vichyssoise,
of Cucumber, Butternut Squash and Roasted
Tomatillo soups are better if some of the bulk is strained out. Yes,
they can pureed instead, or puréed before straining. It's
your call. How do you want the soup to look, feel and taste?
|Another tip: If you plan on straining a soup, be
sure to make enough of it. You will lose volume big time. That is
why consommé is the most expensive soup on the menu and why rich
smooth bisques cost more than their country cousins.
Puréeing--a Good Cooking Refinement
Puréeing is about smoothness, thickness and texture.
So too is straining. Are they the same? No.
Are they related? Yes. Where's the distinction?
Pour a product through a strainer and some goes through
and some doesn't. So, to strain is to remove unwanted ingredients.
Subject a product to the whirling blade of a
food processor or a stick blender
and it is broken up violently but with nothing is removed.
Often, straining is all that is needed to achieve a nice texture of,
say, the braising liquids for lamb shanks
done in a Dutch oven or tagine. Puréeing alone will do the
trick in many soups where you want everything in the pot to stay but it's
all a bit too heavy on the spoon. (The beauty of the stick blender
is that it allows you to plunge it in and out of the pot of food until
the desired consistency is achieved. That is harder to do with a
food processor or with a bowl blender.) Gazpacho
for example, smoothed out with a stick blender, should have a nice consistency
without staining. Heavier soups need to be puréed and strained.
I find that my Vichyssoise usually
needs to have some of the bulk strained out after it has been puréed.
Soups with high fiber content, such as Butternut
Squash, Roasted Tomatillo or Asparagus
(I'm working on it) must be puréed to break up the fiber
and then strained to get some or all of the fiber out.
Straining out a portion of a product after it has
been puréed is a process that you should try.
Especially soups. Fine tune your soups with the blender
and strainer to a texture and smoothness so perfect and
inviting that, after the first taste, spoons around the
dinner table will hover and vibrate over each bowl in anticipation
of the next sip.
Can't Cook Without Ice
On the first day of school, I was surprised to find a huge ice maker
in the kitchen. “Must be for the pastry class,” I surmised.
"Cooking is all about heat, not cold." Wrong!
Just as a takes time to heat a product hot enough to cook
it, it takes time to remove enough heat to stop the cooking
process. That amount of time may have good or bad
A good effect example is the slow cooling of large pieces
of meat to allow for interior liquids to cool and re-infuse.
The rule being that red meat roasts and steaks and whole
poultry should be allowed to cool, in a warm place, for
20% of their cooking time. That's right. One
of those rib house huge standing prime ribs of beef, that's
roasted for 5 hours, stands for an hour before leaving the
kitchen. If not, the deep interior will be blood red, mushy
A bad effect example is cooked shrimp. Shrimp need to be done
just right. The difference between underdone and overdone shrimp
is half a minute. Worse still, they will continue to cook when removed
from heat if let to rest on the cutting board. Whatever the degree
of desired doneness, it will be long gone if the shrimp aren't served immediately
or cooled quickly when taken off heat. So, if shrimp are to be prepared
ahead of time they must be chilled in an ice bath for 3 to 4 minutes and
then drained and held for cold service or for reheating later.
So too with veggies. Retaining their color brightness is
an added incentive to use ice baths. Pigmentations
in veggies are altered during the cooking process.
While carrots and tomatoes lose little color, spinach, asparagus
and broccoli lose a lot of their chlorophyll pigmentation.
When preparing veggies ahead of time, whether blanched,
boiled or steamed, they will retain their color and degree
of doneness if placed in an ice bath for 3 or 4 minutes
and then drained and held. This is not, in my view,
a “nice-to-do-if- I have-time” thing. When
I prep green veggies, an ice bath is prepared as soon as
the water boils.
Another essential use of ice baths is to retard discoloration
of fruits and veggies that are cut and exposed to air.
A razor sharp knife helps, but the phenolic compounds in
raw potatoes, apples, eggplants, bananas and avocados quickly
oxidize and turn brown or gray unless the product is held
in cool water—sometimes with a little lemon juice added
So, when you have sawed through a tough shrimp, hoisted
a limp spear of asparagus, wondered which is older—the broccoli
or the cheese— spied brown apple slices in the pie, cringed
at the sight of gray-brown guacamole or un-white potato
slices in the German potato salad, you know the problem
and now know the solution.
Can't cook without ice? Indeed.