Monday, October 17, 2011

ten things i wish i knew about cooking when i was 20


I have lists of "things I wish I knew" for practically every area of my life. When I was 20, I never knew what 40-year-olds meant when they said they didn't want to relive their early twenties. I would think to myself, "How sad for them, having to make up excuses because they are so jealous of my awesomeness." Which, now that I'm thinking about it, is what whippersnappers are probably thinking right now when I tell you that I, too, do not want to relive my early twenties.

Sure, I'd love to have the freedom to do what I want, the joie de vivre, the lack of concern, the nonchalant ability to ask my family for money. But when I think of all the things I didn't know, my head spins and...I get a...little...tired.

Phew!

Let me sit down.

There, that's better.

Okay, I wouldn't mind having the energy of my early twenties. And oh, how much better at cooking would I have been if I had known what I know now! I would have been an unstoppable superhero, capable of delighting the taste buds of both paunchy potheads and fickle foodies alike.

What I'm saying, green chefs, is that you're lucky to have a friend like me who is willing to pass down my secrets. You are, no doubt, rolling your eyes right now. Not everything must be looked upon ironically, you know. Or maybe you don't know. But you will, someday.

Actually, I learned some of these tricks not that long ago, so I hope the list is helpful to all people who like to cook. Without further digressions, I present to you, ungrateful young'ns and grateful readers out there, my list of the top ten things about cooking that I'm glad to know. You're welcome!

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10. Celery trick: When your celery is limpy, cut it in half and put it in a glass of water for at least an hour, longer if you have time. 

It will be crunchy and stiff, good as new. I've never had to throw away celery since I learned this trick.


9. Even if you think you will remember where you put the recipe or what went in it, write it down!

 Kids, I hate break the bad news to you, but some day your memory might not be what it once was. Do your 30+ year-old brain a favor and start writing down your recipes now, both ingredients and a master list of what books the favs came from.


  
8. Ginger trick: A bulb of ginger will last ten times as long if you put it in the freezer, and it's easier to grate when frozen.

Win win!
 

7. Auntie M's soup trick: When making soup, use a spice blend.

Cutting corners can simplify your life, and your food will taste just as great, so no one has to know. Trader Joe's spice combinations are my favorite, especially the 21 Seasoning Salute and Lemon Pepper grinder.




6. Nate's egg trick: Always use more butter than you think you will need when frying or scrambling an egg. Your tastebuds (and your dish-scrubbing arm) will thank you.

[N.B. for parents: When making a scrambled egg for your child, cream cheese is your best friend. It adds calcium, protein, and fat and tastes delicious. If you don't have it, cottage cheese and sour cream are good substitutes. Thanks Mom!]


 
5. Patience is a virtue, especially when cooking an onion. 

To caramelize, you need time, fat, low heat, and a sweet onion. As a southerner, I use vidalias in almost everything. No one will ever be able to convince me that sweeter is not better!




4. Three essential cooking tools that are worth the investment: Dutch oven, sharp chef's knife, and seasoned cast iron skillet. 

Although they are expensive items, they have saved my sanity, which I have learned is worth the price! We recently inherited a few of Nate's grandmother Jane's skillets, which make a wonderful addition to our kitchen, both to our recipes and in our good memories of her. An addendum I might add to that list is a good knife sharpener. Visit America's Test Kitchen for tips on buying the right tool and learning to use it well. The best thing I've learned from ATK on that subject is that a steel is not a sharpener! Use a steel to refine the edge of an already sharpened blade. Nate is our master sharpener. I am much too clumsy to take on that task; I've already needed stitches in one finger for a knife incident.


 3. Never throw away vegetables. Make soup! 

I saute one onion until it's browned (see #5), then add carrots and celery and saute another 5 minutes.

Add two quarts of liquid (a combination of veggie stock and water is tasty), 1 cup of barley, two tsp. of salt, seasonings (bay leaf, handful of chopped flat-leaf parsley, see #7) and whatever long-cooking veggies you have on hand (I like cauliflower, zucchini, and potatoes).

Bring to a boil and simmer for 45 minutes. Assess flavor and season to taste. Then add your short-cooking veggies (cabbage, sliced sugar snap peas, and corn are my favs) and cook another 15 minutes. I like to top it off with fresh herbs, either more parsley or basil if I have it.




2. Ditto for chicken bones. Make stock!

Mine is a simple combination of two quarts of water, chicken bones, one onion peeled and quartered, a couple of rough chopped carrots and celery sticks, a handful of flat-leaf parsley, a few cloves of garlic, a bay leaf, and a handful of black peppercorns. Simmer for about an hour. Food & Wine magazine has a fancier version in this month's issue. Where'd they find pink garlic cloves?




1. Learn a repertoire of vegetarian meals.

No one needs to eat meat every night, nor do you always have to eat ramen noodles if you're on a budget. Last night we had lentils (dice and saute 1 small onion, 2 carrots, and 2 sticks of celery until soft. Add 2 c. chicken stock, 1 c. lentils, a pinch of salt, and a handful of chopped parsley. Simmer for 20-30 min. until tender), Pioneer Woman's roasted acorn squash, and tabbouleh. Lots of mmmmmms, and neither of us (that includes both me AND my lumberjack) missed the meat.

Yes, I know chicken stock isn't vegetarian, nor is nitrate-free bacon, another common ingredient in our household. Maybe that's cheating in some worlds, but our method works for us because of the umami flavor those components add. Bacon is a great, inexpensive way to jazz up many dishes; we love it especially in pasta dishes in the cooler months. Check out a few Cooking Light recipes: roasted butternut squash and bacon pasta and penne with Brussels sprouts and bacon.

When eating frugally, healthfully, and locally, it has paid off for us to eat vegetarian or semi-vegetarian meals about half the time. With a long list of Indian, Mediterranean, Moroccan, and Middle Eastern recipes from which to select, we have no shortage of creative choices. Does that make us flexitarians? Maybe, but don't tell Nate.

Editor's Note: This post is a part of the Patchwork Living Blogging Bee and Sunday School.

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