Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Mastering My Mistakes in the Kitchen by Dana Cowin

 I think my hero, Chef Jacques Pepin, recommended this book. Cowin is editor-in-chief for Food & Wine, and has gathered a nice collection of well-tested recipes that are, perhaps, a bit more pretentious than my normal fare, but definitely worth experimenting with. Each recipe has a brief story, and often a selection of cooking tips from world class chefs (most of whom I'm ashamed to say I've never heard of). Not a page-turner that keeps you up at night, but it definitely stretches the old creativity muscles for those of us who have a touch of foodie madness.

Chef Suzanne Goin shares a useful tip regarding the proper ratio of oil and vinegar in vinaigrette.

"All vinegars have differing acidity, but almost every one (and this goes for lemon juice too) works at a 2:1 oil-to-vinegar ratio - although most people say the perfect ratio is 3:1. Red wine vinegar is the only exception. It is stronger and more acidic than other vinegars and works best at 5 tablespoons olive oil to 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar."

I probably should have been a vegetarian, did not my carnivorous urges rule, as I took many notes in the Vegetables section.

I could definitely relate to Cowin when she said, "I grew up eating 'square' spinach." I was totally shocked when I first saw what spinach leaves looked like, when I learned to make a spinach salad for an early restaurant job. The only other type I'd seen was Popeye's - out of a can.

Chef Alice Waters prefers "juicy, fat asparagus with really tight ends - unless they're thin wild asparagus", but I've always preferred the pencil-sized stalks that are only available in the first rush of Spring. She also says never to refrigerate asparagus, raw or cooked.

Chef Seamus Mullen relates a handy tip for keeping corn from being overcooked and dry when grilling it - soak it in a brine for a couple of hours while still in the husk.

If you like to roast tomatoes, and are having consistency issues, owner of Craft restaurants Tom Colicchio suggests using plum tomatoes, as they contain less moisture than other varieties.

I learned a new term, frico. Fricos are shredded cheese crisps. I think I've inadvertently created them while toasting my home made cheesy breads. Lidia Bastianich says that the best frico cheeses are Parmesan, Grana Padano and Montasio. I think I need to visit Whole Foods to find the last two.

Cowin's recipe for Brocolli Rabe Pizza reminds me of one of the most delicious sandwiches I have ever tasted, Tommy DieNic's cheesesteak topped with Brocolli Rabe found in Philadelphia's Reading Terminal Market.

An out of the blue idea I'd have never thought of - butternut squash cubes in chili!

The Greek Chicken Salad recipe looks fantastic! I must try this.

Legendary chef Thomas Keller of The French Laundry says that for perfectly burnished skin on a roast chicken, you should let the bird air dry for at least two hours (preferably longer), and make sure the bird is at room temperature before placing it in the oven. I'm sure the health department would take issue with holding the bird at room temperature - too much time to allow bacterial growth, but if you're non-commercial and you cook the bird thoroughly, go for it!

I would never have guessed this was important - Chef Edward Lee says of meat loaf, "Don't overwork the meat mixture - that guarantees a dense meat loaf. Mix the ingredients just enough to distribute the flavors evenly. Don't be tempted to squeeze the meat."

One interesting idea from Chef Bryant Ng - Incorporate curry paste in the crust for chicken pot pie. Hmmm. My next kiwi savory pie experiment just got more interesting.

There are many interesting recipes for sauces to accompany or marinate meats, from seafood to steak, from chimichurri to jerk sauce to chermoula.

Something I hadn't thought of in the art of cooking, from Chef Jerry Traunfel of Poppy,
"Balance is one of the most important principles in cooking. In a dish, it's about balance of sweet and sour, salty and bitter, crisp and soft. In a menu, it's about balancing light and rich, spicy and cooling, hot and cold."

Another important tip, should I ever prepare quinoa, Rinse the quinoa before cooking it. Rinsing removes the saponin, a natural coating which can taste soapy.

I love Mario Batali's phrase regarding cooking pasta in plenty of water, "pasta needs room to dance". Chef Cesare Casella says the same thing about cooking beans, and also tips us never to put anything acidic in the pot while cooking beans, as it will keep them from softening.

Another new (to me) term, fideos, refers to toasted broken pasta cooked in a rich tomatoey sauce. Bookmark that recipe, with chorizo chipotle. Mmmm.

Cowin mentions her attempt to make strawberry jam and ending up with a delicious syrup instead. I had the same experience with raspberries a couple of summers ago! Pectin is our friend.

I bake frittatas regularly for breakfast. It's a great make-ahead dish, and I can prepare enough in a 9 x 13 baking pan for a week's worth of working man's breakfasts. Chef Hugh Acheson tells us, surprisingly, that frittatas should never be baked, but prepared in a nonstick pan on the stovetop. I'll have to give that a try next time.

Joanne Chang, of Flour Bakery, tells us that for the smoothest crepe batter to use a blender to mix the ingredients. My daughter loves crepes - she should try this. There's a whole page full of baking tips from Ms. Chang, from rolling out dough to making fluffy biscuits - "a shaggy dough is a good biscuit dough". She also says you must use a scale to measure flour, as measuring cups will yield varying amounts of flour for a given volume due to the density of the flour.

This book is definitely on my wish list. I need to have a copy laying around the kitchen to browse for fun and interesting ideas and tips - there's a whole page of chef tips on biscuit making, for Pete's sake!

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