1. Pay close attention to the type of salt you use in the kitchen. I use Kosher salt the majority of the time when cooking, followed by sea salt, and finally fleur de sel, which I reserve only as a finishing salt on special occasions. I do use iodized salt, but only to gargle with for sore throats. I find iodized salt too salty for cooking, and the flavor somewhat metallic. Iodized salt is processed and the grain extremely small, so teaspoon of Kosher salt and a teaspoon of iodized salt are not actually the same according to volume. When I go out to eat I'll politely ask for a side of Kosher salt if I need a bit more seasoning. So if your finished meal at home is too salty, check the recipe, more than likely it calls for Kosher.
2. When storing fresh berries, the best way to keep them without having them rot so rapidly is to not wash them right away. I used to wash berries when I got them home and then kept them in a bowl in the fridge poised for my next attack. In fact the opposite is best, the less moisture the better. I store berries in the refrigerator, layered between dry paper towels in plastic wear. Then when hunger strikes, I simply give them a quick wash just before I eat them. This storage method will keep fresh berries from rotting up to two weeks.
3. In order to get a good sear (aka caramelization) on anything, be it vegetables, or meat, or even fruit, the first step is to remove any excess moisture. Moisture can be removed manually or by using the correct cooking method. For example, sea scallops should be dried with a paper towel so that when tossed happily into a hot sauté pan they will caramelize rather than partially steam. The same holds true with vegetables such as spinach or mushrooms. By using a large sauté pan, higher heat, and being careful not to add too much food at once, the water vapor will evaporate rather than accumulate in the pan. The end product is nicely colored mushrooms and beautifully sautéed spinach, not flabby colorless mushrooms and wet soggy spinach. For color and flavor, get rid of that water.
4. Eating healthy is easy when we have access to farmers' markets but during the winter months, for a large percentage of the country, this not an option. I have the answer. The healthiest, and least expensive way to shop in the supermarkets is called perimeter shopping. The floor plan of every grocery store that I have ever shopped in is generally the same. As you walk around the store do your best to say clear of the isles and stay only to the outside perimeter of the store as you shop. It is there, in the perimeter, where you will find fresh fruit, vegetables, eggs and dairy products, fish and meats, and usually whole grains and breads too! In the middle of the store you will find mostly processed foods, which are higher in price and lower in nutritional value. One loop around and you're done.
Night School cont'd
5. If you find that cutting makes your shoulders and neck hurt, chances are that your counter top is too high and that you are shrugging your shoulders in order to prepare your food. Just like typing, your shoulders should be relaxed while you work, so rather than redo your kitchen counters, most of the time a small plastic mat on the kitchen floor will do the trick. Another problem in the kitchen is using the wrong sized knife. Everyone has different sized hands and if your knife handle is too small, your hand will be cramped. If the handle is too large it will be clumsy in your hand and difficult to use. My favorite knife is not my super expensive, slick, fast-looking knife, no-no, rather the knife I prefer to use almost every time is my $38.00 eight-inch chef's knife that fits my hand like a glove. Relax those shoulders, and purchase your knives one at a time so that cooking will not only be painless, but fun too.
6. When cooking with oils, my preference is first cold pressed extra virgin olive oil, which I find to have the fullest flavor. The only difference between regular first cold pressed olive oil and first cold pressed extra virgin olive oil is not quality but rather the ph of the oil. The flavors between olive oils differ too. My favorite olive oil is actually one of the least expensive varieties around, so paying top dollar is never a guarantee for flavor. I do use other types of oil too however I rarely use Canola oil because I don't enjoy the flavor on its own. It tastes somewhat metallic and unpleasant to me. In my kitchen I prefer to use ingredients that are tasty on their own, and for most hot cooking, salads, and even (believe it or not) freshly made ice cream, extra virgin olive oil stands alone. Shop around, taste often, and like a good hair stylist stay with what works for you.
7. From time to time people ask me how to keep chicken breast, expensive steak, pork tenderloin, fish, and even scrambled eggs from drying out. Well, I protect them by not overcooking them. Seems simple enough, however as Americans we have all grown quite paranoid about the safe cooking temperatures of our proteins (meats). Quick lesson: If the source from which you purchase your proteins are reputable and their practices safe I would have no problem eating fish, meat, or even (not that I would find it appetizing) eggs—raw. Think sashimi (sushi), steak tartar, and disgusting raw egg protein drinks from the late 1970's ... but safe to eat raw non-the-less. Now back to keeping your proteins from drying out. When cooking chicken breasts I keep the skin on, the same with fish. Ninety percent of the cooking is done skin-side down not flesh-side down, which keeps the meat succulent and delicious. Only then, if you are worried about the fat in that crispy chicken skin, should you remove it and give it a toss. When scrambling eggs, use chopsticks and keep them moving in the pan, then remove the eggs while they still look a bit wet. Believe me, it works. Lastly for steaks and pork, I give them a warm pillow of olive oil and a touch of butter to cook in, the butter for flavor and the oil to keep the butter from burning. I like my steaks medium rare and my pork medium, so letting them sit out 20 minutes prior to cooking will warm the meat's interior to room temperature and the core of the meat wont be cool but rather moist and yummy.
8. What are rules on ripening? Have a seat and I'll tell you a little story on the subject. When people used to travel the seas for months on end they would pack all sorts of food, fruit included. Sometimes they would pack the fruit throughout the boat, and in time they noticed that the fruit stored next to the kerosene would ripen faster than the fruit stored elsewhere. The gas vapors from kerosene are similar to the gas ethylene. Most fruits release ethylene but there are a few varieties that let off major amounts, apples and bananas being two of the biggies. So it's true that most fruits, when paired with a banana or apple, ripen faster when put in a brown paper bag. The gas from the apple and banana bullies the other fruit to hurry things up—"Lets go! Ripen already!" Then when fully ripened, those fruits will fair best when stored in the crisper drawer in the fridge, except tomatoes. I never put tomatoes in the refrigerator; however, I will make an exception if tomatoes are beyond ripe. If I'm short on time, I'll place them in the crisper drawer for a day before making tomato sauce out of them.
9. Now after reading number eight some of you might be saying that fruit loses its flavor when put in the fridge, well that's not totally true. We do however lose our ability to smell them, but that is only temporary. Over 90 percent of our taste comes from our sense of smell, which explains why our taste buds are shot when our noses are clogged up. Just like white wine that comes straight from the fridge, the "wow this fruit smells/tastes great" molecules are moving very slowly and we can't taste much. But when it gets warmer those molecules move around faster and then that great flavor returns. Okay lets make a compromise here, you and me. When your fruits (peaches, nectarines, plums, avocados, apricots, apples, etc) are ripe, put most of them in the crisper drawer (no bag) and reserve a few that you might eat over the next day or so. Oranges too! Think of an orange as a little glass of orange juice. You wouldn't leave orange juice on the counter for a week would you? After enjoying the fruit sitting out, open the fridge and pull out a few more, allowing plenty of time for that chilled fruit to slowly warm up. This method of fruit rotation will keep your ripe fruit from rotting, and more importantly keep your family happy with flavorful fruit.
10. The last tidbit of information is usually the most important. The same holds true here. Healthy cooking is another way of saying preventative medicine. In America, rather than simply eating well and living a healthy lifestyle, we as a country, often eat poorly and only then when confronted with cancer, diabetes, or heart disease are we inclined to act ... usually with a pill. If you could save yourself thousands of dollars due to preventative medical problems by both eating well and exercising would you? People can lose weight. Change can happen. Don't get me wrong; I don't advocate rejecting the tasty treats that life has to offer, far from it. Chocolate, butter, and wine happen to be good friends of mine. I do, however, advocate limiting the volume of food consumed, in addition to raising one's metabolism by means of exercise. Life is fun, and food happens to be a beautiful toy with which to play. Respect yourself. Respect your food. Life is short, so have fun.