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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

Awhile 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, Cream 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 effects. 

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 and inedible. 

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 for fruits. 

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.


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