This is an actual sample chapter from Eva's Kitchen Confidence:


Getting Started

This work is intended to be a basic guide to cooking. If you get interested in a specific subject, build on what you learn here. The way to do that is keep asking questions.

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Remember:

Learn to group (mentally), recipes by method of preparation, not by ingredients required. Remember a beef stew easily becomes a lamb stew if lamb is what you have or it is what you wish to buy. Don't be limited by the type of meat, vegetables or seasoning called for in the recipe. If you understand your ingredients and the way they behave during cooking you've freed yourself of restraints and can create your own unique combinations.

What is a recipe?

A recipe is a series of instructions on how to combine ingredients and specific methods to prepare a certain food.

A recipe is only a ground rule for building.

If you examine recipes closely you'll realize that traditional spicing is what gives ethnic food that special flavor. Methods of preparation vary little from country to country.

If you want to become a creative cook, choose a simple recipe that mentions several variations and practice by cooking several of the suggestions. Then start creating your own variations. When trying new recipes do make notes on the margin, recording your observations. For instance: double the recipe the next time, big blue pot at #3 setting, add more pepper, reduce liquid.

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How to decide what to cook?

This work's main aim is to give you know-how, understanding and techniques to get a well cooked, tasty meal on the table for your family. Since the emphasis is on the family, in a broader sense those you live with and share your meals, their special likes, dislikes and food sensitivities, must be taken into consideration when preparing food. This means if you understand how things are made you are in a good position to alter, omit or vary ingredients to fit in with those preferences or needs.

Choose ingredients appropriate to the dish. Understand the cuts of meat and choose the appropriate kind for the type of cooking method you wish to use. The same goes for vegetables and all other ingredients.

The other important consideration is what is on hand? Running out to the store in mid-preparation is frustrating and time-consuming and often impossible. How to substitute, ad lib or change the menu with little effort will come from understanding the events happening in the pot.

Today's cooks must realize that a large segment of the population has gone to a vegetarian lifestyle. While this form of eating requires a nutritional know-how well beyond the realm of the conventional cook, you need not panic if a guest is vegetarian. They know how to balance their food, even if you don't. Just provide a variety of meatless dishes, preferably one with legumes, and let them eat without fussing over them and making them feel self-conscious. While we're on the subject of meatless dishes a great percentage of people have reduced their meat intake in the past few years. For this reason it is a good idea to always provide a quantity and variety of meatless side dishes, as options, for your guest.

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Why are methods important?

If you understand the method, you can cook with only a glance through the recipe. On the other hand, if you take the recipe as mysterious unrelated steps to follow religiously, you can easily miss a step or an ingredient.

 

Familiarity with basic methods is most important in becoming a confident cook.

Basic cooking methods are the building blocks in the creation of a meal. Recipes are the blueprints of how to assemble the blocks.

Cooking methods can be put into three categories:

Many recipes combine several of these methods in succession to achieve the desired results.

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How do I plan a meal?

How to link the recipes successfully together to create a well balanced, harmoniously flavored, eye and palate pleasing meal is seldom mapped out. This linking needs careful planning of the menu taking into consideration the amount of time and logistics the situation allows, good nutrition, food preferences of the family or guests, availability of ingredients and space and utensils available to the cook.

The aim of planning is to achieve excellent timing so that all parts of the meal appear, seemingly without effort, at the right time at the peak of their flavor, temperature and appearance.

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Timing is the trickiest of the kitchen skills!

It takes lots of practice to have all the dishes at their peak arrive at the table at the same time piping hot.

This is a tall order and good cooks will admit to seldom succeeding completely in reaching this goal of perfection, but you must aim to try your best.

Whether it's a sit down formal dinner or "just" a family meal you should plan it. For everyday meals, the planning may be done in your head in the grocery store or while waiting for the elevator or a traffic light.

For important events I suggest sitting down with a large sheet of paper and making 3 columns:

 

MENU SERVING DISHES GROCERIES

No great problem you say? Not until you find that you used a bowl that must be used for another dish and find yourself scrambling to pour things from dish to dish and a pile of unexpected containers to wash and dry just when you should be serving. Don't forget to add table cloth, napkins, center piece if any and serving utensils to this list.

 

What is visualizing?

Before you start cooking you should read the recipe carefully, to visualize each step: the ingredients, the utensils needed, the look of the food at each stage, try to estimate the time available between steps and how you'll utilize that time for other preparation. Envision the garnishing, the serving presentation, the serving utensils and most importantly how the recipe will interact with the preparation of the other parts of the meal. If you visualize the recipe you will not make the mistake of using too small a container for mixing or cooking and will not end up with a mountain of unnecessary dishes. Obviously, if you have no willing and able help you must design the menu to balance the work-intensive items with easy and make-ahead preparations to accomplish good timing.

 

Why do I have to be relaxed?

One of the greatest problems of many cooks is trying too hard, or as one of the students in my Community Class put it "I worry my stew to death." Constant watching, stirring and "worrying" have several drawbacks:

Chill out!

Things do not turn black and char in an instant. You may want to try training yourself with a timer and set it to 5 minutes and force yourself not to lift a lid or stir until the time is up. With stews, soups and braised foods you should aim to increase the time to 10-20 minutes, with roasts 40-60 minutes until close to being done. As you gain confidence and learn the settings on your stove and oven and become familiar with your own basic techniques you might become as blase as I am and know without looking when it's time. Of course no one is infallible. I have had my own share of burnt offerings and disasters, but it's important to realize that we all have good days and bad, and a not-so-perfect-dinner, even if it is for company is not the ultimate failure. Just repair it the best you can, pay a little extra attention to presentation, put on a bright smile, apologetically admit to having a bad day and I bet you'll be praised by all for your food, if for no other reason, but out of sympathy. While I encourage you to relax and turn your back on the preparation and let it happen, I also urge you to never leave the kitchen during preparation. Time seems to have another dimension when you leave the kitchen for the distractions of the other regions of the home. A minute can end up being 20 and real disasters can happen in your absence. Of course, sometimes it's necessary to see to something else in a busy household. Buy an electronic timer that pins or clips to your pocket or shirt and be sure to set it before you leave the kitchen for that so called "minute".

For long slow cooking or roasting on the other hand, do leave once the preparation is done and the area cleaned up, but set a timer to remind you when to look next.

 

Important techniques:

Stock and Broth:

These two expressions are often used interchangeably. Many recipes call for stock as the liquid in preparation. Cookbooks often give elaborate instructions for preparation of stock. This is fine if you have the time, the ingredients and the inclination, but many an experienced cook will tell you that their stock making is unplanned and variable.

Place ingredients in a suitable pot, add water to cover, a few pepper corns and 1-2 bay leaves. Bring the pot to a boil, reduce the heat to gentle simmer, cover and cook for 1½ -2 hours. Strain, cool and skim off all fat and package in small plastic containers, clearly label and freeze for use later in soups and sauces. You can if you wish, add a few vegetables like an onion, some carrots, parsnip and celery. You can add a small amount of salt, but keep it light. Adjust the salt instead, as required, in the final recipe where the stock is used.

Using this method may not give you a consistent flavor and quality, but you'll have the satisfaction of knowing that you salvaged nutrients and flavor from that which was destined for the garbage. Skin and gristle is high in collagen and protein, while the bone provides calcium and trace minerals.

You can either save the bits suitable for stock in a container in the freezer until you have enough for a large pot or just do a small quantity when the ingredients are right there. I sometimes make as little as a cup in a small sauce pan, because it's easy and I am in the kitchen cooking something else.

Beef stock: For crystal clear stock for making consomme or aspic use only boneless shank, for anything else you may use bone, gristle, bits of meat.

Chicken or Turkey stock: You can use whole stewing hen, but it's more economical to use back and neck, feet, fat-free skin, giblets, wing tips or any other parts you think would go to waste.

Brown stock: Any roast leftovers, generally beef or turkey, with their drippings, will give a robust brown stock.

Fish stock: Heads, tails, filleted bones, washed shells of shellfish and poaching liquid can be used for making fish stock.

Vegetable stock: All vegetable cooking liquids, woody stems, washed peelings, left over vegetables, wilted salad ingredients can go into making stock. Seeds and scrapings from squashes and pumpkins make an excellent stock resembling chicken in flavor. Vegetable stock needs only about ½ hour cooking time. Drain and discard solids.

Smoked stock: Use skin and bones of ham, water in which smoked meat was cooked, dried ends of smoked sausages to make a stock to be used in bean, pea or lentil soup.

 

If you run out of stock and a recipe calls for it, canned broth or consomme is a good substitute. You may also use bouillon cubes, but with caution, because most of these are loaded with sodium and salt.

Tenderizing: The various methods of tenderizing meat are designed to break down the tough connective fibers between the muscle tissue of meat, thus "relaxing" the toughness, making the meat more tender and more penetrable and better able to take up added flavors, such as seasonings.

Meat, if you examine it closely, has a thin membrane covering bundles of muscle fiber and the bundles end in a thick tendon or sinew, that attach it to the bone. The older the animal and the harder the particular muscle works the thicker the membrane and sinew. This membrane prevents the muscle fibers from "relaxing" and allowing flavors to penetrate. The membranes and sinew also shrink during cooking to make their grip around the muscle fibers even tighter causing toughness.

Tenderizing may be accomplished physically or chemically:

Physically cutting the connective tissue improves the quality of the meat. Sliced meat like chops and steaks will curl when the membrane shrinks resulting in uneven cooking. The connective tissue need not be removed altogether, as it contains important nutrients, flavors and proteins, but should be cut into in several places to "relax" the meat. For instance 2-3 cuts through the membrane, but not into the meat, will improve the looks and cooking quality of your chops or steaks immensely. Another way to tenderize meat is to pound the meat with a mallet. Place the slice of meat between sheets of waxed paper and pound with mallet (or a hammer) to break the connective tissue. The thick outer membrane should still be slit open. Low-fat cuts of meat and poultry benefit from this treatment.

Chemical tenderizing can be achieved, with liquids and spices that penetrate the membrane, moisten and soften the meat. One of these methods is marinating.

Marinades usually consist of:

1. An acidic ingredient to "etch" through the membrane, like vinegar, wine, lemon juice, tomatoes, buttermilk, sherry or yoghurt.

2. Spices, sauces and sometimes sugar to flavor.

3. Fat or oil to moisten the meat.

Enzymes can have the same effect as marinating. Papain, an extract of the papaya fruit, is a protein-splitting enzyme which is extensively used as a tenderizer. The crystals sold as meat tenderizer are papain. Care must be taken to follow directions, because over-long exposure of the meat to papain can make it mushy. Heat deactivates the enzyme so that its action stops as soon as cooking begins.

I have a friend who used to sprinkle generous amounts of tenderizer on her meat while it was cooking in the pan. She might as well have thrown the tenderizer over her shoulder and said an incantation of some magic words, the tenderizer was dead in the pan.

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Cutting: Cutting up the fresh ingredients is usually the start of preparation. The terminology is simple. Slicing needs no definition. Chopping or mincing generally implies food cut into fine and very fine pieces, dicing produces little cubes, cubing refers to larger cubes, while Julienne means fine strips.

 

Food will cook, brown and fry in the same length of time if prepared in pieces of uniform size.

Pureeing is liquefying a chunky food and can be done with a potato masher, blender or food processor.

Blanching: Blanching or parboiling is a procedure where the food is briefly immersed in boiling water to stabilize and disinfect the surface or loosen the skin for peeling without cooking the food through.

Combining ingredients: There are several expressions used to describe this procedure. The terminology is rather confusing because different people interpret the directions differently.

Blending means to lift the ingredients with a spoon or spatula from the bottom to the top until the mixture is uniform.
Stirring and mixing suggest a more vigorous, circular motion to get the same effect. It often bruises the ingredients causing a change in texture especially in stir frying.

Shaking the pan horizontally is a safer method of loosening the ingredients.

Lifting or flipping with a spatula is also less disturbing.

Tossing is a vigorous motion, but without applying pressure to the ingredients, so as not to crush them.

Creaming is usually done to agitate butter or shortening until smooth and creamy.

Beating is done to incorporate air into the mixture with vigorous motion using a wire whisk or electric beater.

Folding refers to a special technique when an ingredient is merged into beaten egg whites or whipped cream by gently lifting from the bottom to the top and folding it over so as not to damage the structure of the foam.

Kneading is to work a mixture with the palm of the hand, making it smooth and elastic.

Searing: Searing is one of the most important techniques in cooking. It means that the food is cooked at a high heat on all sides. This causes a seal to form on the food which acts as a barrier keeping fats from penetrating it and seals the juices into the food.

Stuffings, fillings and dressings:

I don't understand why there seems to be an aura of intimidation about making stuffings. There are very few rules of preparation and a wide scope for the cook's creativity.

Stuffings usually start with a starchy base, usually bread, dry buns, bread crumbs, corn bread, seasoned breads, chestnuts or rice. Choose the type of base according to the texture you wish to achieve.

To this base various things may be added like sausage, ground meat, liver, giblets, oyster, onion, walnut, parsnip, celery, dry fruit or mushroom. The seasonings are usually two or more of the following: sage, thyme, rosemary, marjoram, savory, salt and black pepper.

The mixture is then moistened to a consistency that is loose, but can be formed into balls. Water, milk, broth, wine, fruit or vegetable juices, oils, fats, cream, eggs or yoghurt can be used singly or in combination. The mixture is then placed loosely, to give it room to expand, in the cavity of the bird and the skin flap is secured.

Although we usually think of poultry when talking about stuffing, there are many other things that can be done with this showy preparation. A slit may be made in just about any meat to make room for stuffing. Stuffing can be "sandwiched" between pork loins for a roast. Fish can be stuffed. Cutlets and thin steaks can be rolled with stuffing mixture inside them for a dramatic presentation. A number of vegetables can be stuffed which will elevate them to main course status. If the stuffing is kept meat-free the resulting dish is great as a focus for a vegetarian meal.

My personal favorite is stuffing placed under the skin of birds, rather than in the cavity. A handful of dressing goes into the neck skin, the loose skin between leg and breast holds another handful and some more fits under the wing. This gives the bird a very plump appearance at serving. Extra filling can be arranged in the pan in balls around the meat or poultry.

 

 


  

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