Sunday, November 14, 2004

Arming Yourself For the Battle--Part I

Rather than posting another recipe, this morning I’m gonna take a minute to talk about cooking in general and share with you some of my observations about learning to cook and the things you need to do a good job.

I didn’t start cooking regularly, other than being the king of the charcoal grill, until the past ten years. I got really serious in the past five years, although I have no grand aspirations to do anything other than over-feed my own rapidly growing stomach and entertain guests in our home.

To those out there (particularly the gentlemen) that don’t cook regularly, I can remember the feeling of helplessness when faced with even something as simple as frying eggs and bacon and getting it all to the table moderately warm and properly done. Guys, our mothers and (ex)wives usually stepped up to the oven (or in my case, over me) and we just didn’t have the opportunity to cook much. Some women I know out there also have chosen the path of take-out and freezer-food fare. My heart goes out to you all.

News Flash--you have to cook regularly to be any good at it. Another News Flash—you often have to cook a given recipe more than once to get it right. I constantly piss myself off analyzing the food on my plate before my home cooked dinner is even over with. It’s a curse, I guess, and I have to be careful not to insult my hosts doing the same in other’s homes.

I know that the temptation is to run out and blow your entire equipment budget on all of the wrong stuff. Actually, a good kitchen is equipped over a period of years, not in one trip to the mall. Any way…forget those funky pots and pans sold on late night TV and about 90 percent of the gadgets sold in stores, I’m here to tell you a few things about outfitting a good working kitchen, and it doesn’t have to cost an arm and a leg.

Food processors are neat, but first you absolutely must have a couple of good knives and a good cutting board. For knives, you also don’t need to spend a bunch of cash on a giant wooden block radiating with 25 different stainless steel implements of torture. All you really need are three knives--a good 8” or 10” chef’s knife for dicing and chopping, a small pairing knife for de-boning, and a nice serrated knife for cutting bread. Buy the best you can, preferably Henkele, but even some store brands can be had for less that $50 for all three that will do a good job. Only cut food with the knives and only cut on the cutting board. Also, get yourself a sharpening steel, learn how to use it, and use it regularly. It’s easier to keep a knife sharp than it is to re-sharpen it after using it to work on your lawn mower or pick up truck carburetor.

For a cutting board, I like the synthetic boards that are immune to absorbing water and chicken guts while you are working. I also like hard maple boards, but only for vegetables. If you have a wooden board, splurge for a synthetic one too for use with meat. The more cutting area you have, the less dish washing you have to do because you can simply leave the ingredients in piles on the board rather than dirtying up bowls.

Next comes mixing bowls. Don’t spend a bunch of money on fancy heavy bowls at first, buy yourself two inexpensive sets of graduated sizes and get at least one set with matching plastic covers. It never fails that I have my largest bowl loaded with something and need it to hold something else. The second set saves a lot of dishwashing and you can store things in the fridge in the bowls with the plastic covers. While you’re at it, get a couple of sizes of plastic colanders for straining.

Regarding pots and pans, I absolutely hate Teflon. I have one medium Teflon boiler my girlfriend inherited and a small Teflon omelet pan. Teflon is a good crutch for making omelets, but solid stainless steel is the only way to go with everything else. Buy the heaviest stainless you can afford, and everything doesn’t have to match. You pay extra for matching sets that often include things you won’t use. Make sure the pans have metal handles so that they are oven proof.

You need, as a minimum, a 12" or 14" round, heavy, deep (3"-4") skillet for frying, several medium skillets, a four quart and an eight quart boiler, and a small sauce pan. I also have a large inexpensive stainless steel stockpot that holds 20 quarts that I use for canning and for boiling shrimp.

Another tool I like is a mortar and pestle. This ancient, simple tool is excellent for crushing together small quantities of foods like those used in sauces or for making pesto. As I said earlier, I try to avoid the food processor unless large quantities are involved.

I believe that all of the other stuff on the isles of the cooking and chain stores is useless if you don't make good decisions on the basics. It don't have to look fancy to cook good.

And there it is--Part I of “Arming yourself for the battle.” Look for part II later this week where I’ll cover kitchen gadgets and some other stuff I need to get off of my chest.

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