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woodenspatula
05 February 2009 @ 07:33 am
Wow, so ... it's been awhile. I apologize for such a long hiatus, but I've been mildly overwhelmed with various projects for the past... year so I had forgotten to update my poor, neglected food blog.

On with it!

Today I've decided is a good of day as any to talk about one of my favorite ingredients in the kitchen: salt. Ah, how I love it. You'll find it in almost any recipe, be it sweet or savory, and there's no denying that it's probably one of the most important ingredients to have on hand. Most people are familiar with basic table salt, or iodized salt, but there are dozens of kinds of salts on the market. Black salt, pink Hawaiian salt, sea salt, fleur de sel, grey salt, smoked salt (which is amazing, by the way), and of course my salt of choice, kosher salt. I stick with kosher salt because it's easy to find, it's not trendy or overpriced as a result, and it doesn't contain iodine which can leave a nasty flavor when you're using it in large amounts. That said, I do still try to use iodized table salt for baking because the crystals are much smaller, easier to mix, and most recipes are designed with table salt in mind.

One of the biggest mistakes of novice cooks is a fear of salt. While it's true that oversalting something can ruin a dish rather quickly (as unlike with sweetness or spiciness, there's not really an easy way to take the saltiness out of something) there is really no better way to get a dish to really reach it's full potential than to add just that right amount of salt. Don't believe me? Try making soup from scratch. Taste it before you add any salt, and then again after. Big difference.

After awhile, it's easy to acquire an 'eye' for how much salt you'll need to add to a dish. If in doubt, taste and try again.

And now I'm going to move on to one of my biggest salt pet peeves... cooking pasta. Oh yes, there are those who believe that to cook a delicious batch of pasta you need only a pot, water, a pinch of salt, and a few tablespoons of olive oil. WRONG. A million times wrong, get out of my kitchen, etc.

To start, grab the biggest pot you have. I mean the biggest. Mine is about 8-qt I believe and comes with slotted insert specifically for pasta. This is ideal, and I'll explain why later, but if you only have a pot that's fine too. Fill it with water, filtered or not it depends on which you prefer to cook with (I use filtered because Portland water is a bit sketchy). Put it on the stove, turn the stove to High and stick a lid on your pot. Yes, a lid. Why? Because the water will boil sooner if it's covered (perhaps that's where the phrase "a watched pot never boils" originates).

Once the water is boiling, add a gracious handful of salt and let it dissolve. Then, grab a spoon and taste the water. Yes, I said taste the water. Let's take a step back and remember that pasta is usually made of two or three ingredients: flour, water, and/or egg. Perhaps a pinch of salt. The pasta itself has little or no salt in it, which means to get a good flavor from it, the salt has to be absorbed from the water it's cooked in (osmosis, whoohoo). For that to happen, the water needs to be as "salty as the sea" as I've heard it described many times before. So keep adding salt until the water is damn well salty.

Very good. Now dump that pasta in and set a kitchen timer for the cooking time listed on the box. Put the olive oil away because you won't be needing it. Oh, and if your pot seems to be a bit full, as in quite a lot of pasta and perhaps not as much water as the box suggests, you might want to tack on a minute or so extra cooking time on to your timer.

The reason we salt the pasta water so much instead of just, say, salting the sauce, is because if the pasta doesn't taste good by itself, the sauce is only going to suffer with it when they're combined. There's a satisfaction I get out of fishing out a cooked piece of pasta and munching away on it and finding it quite tasty alone. Perhaps I'm just weird.

As for the reason I prefer pots with a pasta insert (this is what I'm talking about, by the way) is because pasta water is a magical thing. When your pasta is done cooking, the water is so full of delicious starch that it makes a great stretcher of sauces (meaning it can water down your sauce without making it taste, well, watery). I like to add a bit to my pasta sauce since I usually don't have time to cook my own, so I ladle a bit of the water in with a store bought jar of the stuff and add in a few tablespoons of olive oil.


Perhaps my mild obsession with salt is a bit odd, but I can't help it. There's nothing comparable to a piece of salted caramel, or the perfect batch of popcorn, or even just a well seasoned steak... but more on that next time. Eat well!
 
 
woodenspatula
26 October 2007 @ 12:55 pm
I have mountains of ideas for topics to post here, and I've been rolling them around in my head for plenty of days. However, before I begin there's a little something I have to get out of the way.

Hopefully you're familiar with the phrase "too many cooks in the kitchen." Good. Every cook in the world has their own way of doing things which makes them unique or gives them a certain style or flair or whatever. In school, it was easy to find something that the teachers disagreed on (especially if you asked our French instructor since he had his own French way of doing just about anything). For example, my baking instructor iced cakes with what's called a "quick icing" tip (cause it's quick, ha!) whereas most other, I suppose more traditional bakers, do it the more common way where you pile the icing on top then work it down the sides. I wish I had bothered to learn the second way as people tend to give me a weird look when I say I need my quick tip to ice a cake, but in all honesty I prefer the method I use and I'm glad I was taught that way.

So the moral of the story is, everyone has their own way of cooking and this journal is (for the most part) going to be strictly how I prefer to do things. My way certainly may not be the most preferred or the most common, but hey, if you don't like it, Google for a different technique, or leave an opinion in a comment. I'm always open to feedback, unless it's stupid.


Bah, enough of that crap! Let's move on to knives!

I received my very first "chef's knife" my first semester of community college because it was required that all students bring their own knives to class. (After seeing poor saps stuck with the house knives, I had no regrets.) This is also the first time I met John Cooke, one of the instructors, and the purveyor of knives to the greater part of Northern California.

He took one look at our bright eager little faces and said, "I will not sell you a good knife." Why? Cause we were students, and while I still have my first knife, it's scratched to hell, it's dull, and it makes sloppy cuts. (I'm too lazy to sharpen it most of the time.) So, if you're looking for a knife that's going to last a long time but may need sharpening now and again, I recommend the same knife I first got, an 8" Messermeister. It's a decent knive and I revered it like a really sharp god when I first got it, making sure I was the only one who washed it (because the rest of the people in class were not to be trusted!) and placing it loving back in my leopard print knife case.
But, you know, after a little while the charm wore off and I began lusting for a set of Globals. Oh. My. God. The Japanese had taken European knives and improved them! These knives are sharp as hell and take a while to dull. Sushi chefs in particular tend to use Global knives (if they're worth their salt) since they make a wide array of sashimi specific knives.
Well, since a single Global knife can go over $100 easily in retail, I waited and waited. And waited. In the mean time I heard a lot of good things about Mac knives which were not only slightly more affordable, but sharp and sturdy enough to warrant their price. They are good knives, definitely a step up from the Messermeister, and my knife seller swears by them. When I approached him and asked what his first recommendation for me would be he immediately replied Mac. Well.... they're ugly and they're not really what I want to spend my money on.
Moving on, my friend Andrew decided to let me use his newly sharpened... well actually I don't remember if it was a WÜSTHOF or a Henkels but my instinct leans towards Henkels. I asked him how he liked it and he said he had hated the thing until he had it professionally sharped because it was such a strong metal that it was too difficult for him to sharpen himself. However, after having said that he proceeded to tell me he'd fallen in love with it again because it had been keeping its edge really nicely since then. It was a bit heavier that my poor, old Messermeister and I liked it. It was sharp, too.

The only reason he let me use it is because he had bought a beautiful, new Shun. I will admit, when I first started hearing about Shun knives I was hard into Global knives and thought that Shun knives weren't any better. Then one day my teacher James convinced me otherwise. He grabbed a kitchen rag, folded it in half and then rolled it super tight.
"You know how you tell if a knife is sharp?" It was a rhetorical question as he immediately cut through the rolled up towel in quick slice. My jaw dropped.
A few months later, as sort of a graduation present to myself, I bought a 10" Shun Chef's Knife for myself and I have no regrets. I went with a 10" because I'm tall and knife length should coordinate with your height or you can mess up your arm and shoulder. This knife is sharper than anything I have ever known. My fiance was washing the dishes once with the knife on a cutting board next to the sink, barely grazes it, and nearly lost the top of her pinkie. (She came running to me crying, blood gushing from her finger and all I could think was, "Shit she cut her finger off." The nice thing about sharp knives is the wound will heal quicker and cleaner and hurt less than it would with a dull knife wound.) And I didn't go out and spend $130 on a knife I knew nothing about. Shun knives are sharp, they don't dull easily, and they have a "D-shaped" handle that allows the blade to rest comfortably and securely in your hand. Also, they are the choice knives of Alton Brown. You may have heard of him?

Now, here's where I remind you again that this is only my opinion and my personal experience. Everyone has their own preference of knife and there are a lot of other good knives that I don't know enough to talk about. If you're starting out I recommend beginning simply and working your way up. Learn about knife care, learn how to sharpen, learn how not to sharpen, and learn how to wield them.

Finally, here's a plug for my home slice knife purveyor, John Cooke. He has really fair prices and a lot of resources that include knife care and specs, so check him out!

I'll be back soon, so stay sharp! ♥
 
 
woodenspatula
18 October 2007 @ 06:48 pm
To be fair, I'll begin this new endeavor with a bit of history. I first began cooking when I was too young to reach the stove and had to crawl up on the counters, ducking under the cabinets as I did. My early specialties were sliced apple drizzled with honey and scrambled eggs. Since my mother slept during the day (and worked nights), I was mostly on my own for lunch growing up, but I survived.
Between cartoons, I would flip to the public broadcasting channel to watch Julia Child, Jacques Pepin, and Jacques Torres' cooking specials. This was long before Food Network existed and most of the foods I watched them make included ingredients I'd never heard of. I still recall watching Jacques Pepin making Bûche de Noël as it was the episode they played most frequently, I swear.

Despite growing up pretending to host my own culinary show, it didn't occur to me until I was enrolled in the American River College Culinary Arts program that, hey, I could do this for a living! I am one general ED class away from my AA in Culinary Arts/Hospitality Management. I worked for one year in the on campus study staffed and operated Oak Cafe, first as a waiter, then in the kitchen. I miss it terribly.

I am currently looking for a job, because I am a bum, in the restaurant industry. Ideally, a bakery job where I can learn more about pastry and sweets and breads.

On that note, for the baking classes at ARC, it is required as a final project that the students type and submit a cookbook of all the recipes they have prepared throughout the semester. I was fortunate enough to befriend a classmate who worked in a print shop and he put together a beautiful compilation of all of our recipes. You can download it here. It's a whooping 92 pages of beautiful photography and some of the best recipes.
I uploaded a sample page in case you're on the fence about it.

So now here we are! Before I leave, have some book recommendations!
On Cooking - an all encompassing guide to meats, vegetables, cheeses, seafood, appetizers, soups, salads, sauces, basics, cooking temperatures, butchering techniques - basically if I don't know how to do something, this is the book I turn to. It's heavy and expensive, but you can find it for a decent price if you check Half.com.
Professional Baking - the title doesn't lie; this book is for professionals, or just people who want to bake the professional way. That means that all measurements are by weight or volume and baker's percentages are included. It has the best recipe for pie dough that I've ever found, which is included in the cookbook I linked above.
The Professional Pastry Chef - my favorite book by far. I could sit and read this book from front to cover, and for some chapters (ice cream!) I actually have. I love his bread recipes. The glossary in the back is quite good, as well.
The Food Lover's Companion - I will admit that I do not own this book, but I want to! It's the cheapest on this list and serves essentially as a food dictionary. In the back it has a lot of good references including things like the hand test for grilling meats, frying temperatures, metric conversions, etc. Every cook should keep this book on hand~

Until next time, eat well. ♥