Monday, September 7, 2009

Cooking tips i've picked up along the way...

So I am no chef or culinary prodigy, but I've definitely have a passion for cooking for as long as I can remember. I've poured over cook books, watched countless food shows, and have cooked hundreds if not thousands of meals throughout my life. I've picked up a few tricks along the way and thought I'd share some of the stuff I've learned in this post.

Having extra sharp knives is a must
I can't stress enough the importance of having sharp knives. You don't have to spend a fortune on knives. Now don't get me wrong, if you want to invest in a quality knife set, I am all for that. But the fact of the matter is that with time and use, even the best knife will become dull. I personally spent $12.99 on my favorite knife at Target which I use for mostly everything. Having a knife sharpener in your arsenal will make prepping so much easier. Have you ever tried to slice a pepper with a dull knife? Not fun my friends. Not to mention that if your knife is sharp, you will have a lot more precision and speed. Here is a challenge for you. If you have a knife that is dull, invest in a good knife sharpener ( I have this one). Take an onion and cut it in half. Try cutting one half of the onion in very thin slices with your dull knife. Then wash, dry and sharpen your knife and try slicing the other half in the same way. You will be amazed at the difference.

Kitchen Must-haves
I am the type of cook that doesn't really plan ahead much. Unless I've been asked to make a specific dish, I usually decide what to make right before making it. Part of the reason I am able to do this, is because there are a few staples that I always have on-hand. Below is a list of things you will find on any given day if you raid my kitchen:

Bell Peppers
Chicken Breast
Tomato Paste
Chicken Stock
Good Extra Virgin Olive Oil
White wine
Parmesan and mozzarella cheese
Turkey ham
Pasta (usually one short and one long, like linguine and Rotini or Cappelini and Farfalle)
Canned beans (black, cannelini, chick peas, and pinto)
Rice ( I have a drawer just for rice which includes short grain brown, long grain white, Arborio, basmati, jasmine, and parboiled) but I am a freak so as long as you have one variety (like a normal person would) you should be fine.
Flour (I usually have a bag of whole wheat flour and regular unbleached white flour)
Leavening (baking powder, baking soda, and yeast)
Canola oil
Bread crumbs
Vinegar (white, apple cider, balsamic, red wine and rice wine)
Brown sugar
Dried herbs (parsley, thyme, chives, basil, herbs de Provence, oregano, and cilantro)
Fresh herbs (parsley, rosemary, thyme, dill, cilantro, and sage (in the fall especially)
Cornmeal and polenta

Appliances no kitchen should be without:
The small appliance I use the most by far is a food processor. There are so many things you can do with this thing it's amazing. Surprisingly enough, the other thing I use quite a bit is my bread maker. When I bought it originally, I thought that it would be stored in the cabinet and I'd only use it once a year, but i have to say, it is one of the best inventions ever made. You dump all of the ingredients into the canister and in about 2-3 hours time you have fresh bread. A couple of cool things to add to your collection might be a mandolin, a microplane (a fine grater and a course grater), a box grater, hand or stand mixer, a good sieve and colander, and last but not least a nice grill pan.

Garnishes are important:
I am sure you have heard the saying “You eat first with your eyes". This saying is so true. It’s amazing what a few chopped fresh herbs can do to a dish. It usually only takes a minute or two to garnish a dish, but it's worth every second. You shouldn't reserve garnishes for special occasions or when you have company over. Life is too short to wait for these opportunities. So the next time you're making a nice meal, think about its presentation and how taking time to make sure your dish looks great can add something special to the meal.

Oil and Smoke point:
How many of you have ever tried to fry something in extra virgin olive oil? If you're like me and have attempted this before, you know that it's only a matter of time before the smoke alarm starts going off. There are so many oils available in the stores that you probably are overwhelmed by the choices. But never fear, here are a few rules to go by.

A. Extra virgin olive oil should be used for lightly sautéing, dressing a salad or drizzling over something. There are many grades of olive oil which range in flavors from robust and fruity to green and grassy. EVOO has a low smoke point which means that it does not tolerate high heat well. Stick to other oils such as canola for deep frying,

B. Canola, Vegetable, Corn, or Peanut oils are great for frying, and sautéing. These oils typically do not impart much or any extra flavor to your food, so it's a nice neutral oil to use when you don't want to alter flavors. These oils however, are probably not good for things like dipping bread in (with balsamic) or flavoring salad dressings. If you want to use an oil that is neutral but good for drizzling over humus without imparting that strong olive oil taste, try using grape seed oil. It's really good for you too- it's higher in the EFA's than olive oil.

C. Coconut oil has gotten a really bad rap over the years.

The reason is that it is a saturated fat- (a saturated fat will be solid at room temperature). But not all saturated fats are bad for you. There is a huge difference between trans-fat and saturated fat. Coconut and Palm oils (especially in their raw state) are actually very healthy oils. Coconut oil is high in Lauric acid which has anti-microbial properties. Not to mention that coconut oil is extremely high in E. The health benefits of using this oil are amazing. One of the cooking benefits of coconut oil is that it's smoke point is extremely high. This oil is often used for Stir frys or cooking popcorn kernels because of its ability to withstand heat.

D. Exotic oils- go ahead try them.

Usually these oils are use to enhance or finish off a dish. White or Black truffle oil, sesame oil, chili oil, walnut oil, almond oil.... so many it makes your head spin. In my experience, a little of this stuff goes a long way. All you really need is a few drops and that should do the trick. It's a good thing too, because some of these are SUPER expensive.

E. Oils as supplements:

There is a lot of debate regarding which oil is best to fulfill the EFA daily requirement. Some say Flax is the best way to go, others debate that wheat germ oil (or vitamin E capsules) are more easily absorbed by the body. Others take fish oil capsules. There are mixed formulas specifically for women (I take a mixture of flax, borage, and evening primrose and mix it in plain yogurt) and combination for men. The reason why it is so important to take these is because EFA's cannot be created in the body naturally. EFA's are important for regulating metabolism, and supporting the reproductive, cardiovascular, immune, and nervous systems. It is a good idea to take some form of Essential Fatty Acids as a supplement daily. One to two tablespoons a day is enough to satisfy the requirement.

I am thinking of making this an on-going post. These things usually come to me while I am cooking, so I have put a notebook in the kitchen to write down my thoughts. Until next time- happy cooking!

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