When I was first learning to cook, more than anything I wanted to learn basics. I've never used a ton of rigid recipes, and although I love to cook from cookbooks, I have always been interested in learning foundations upon which to build. For example, it's great to read a recipe about, say, sausage and bean risotto, but it's infinitely more valuable to learn the basics of how to make risotto, because once you have the technique down, you have infinite possibilities.
- Learn to make stock. It will change your life, I promise. If you eat pork, I'd recommend starting off with the pig foot and chicken stock I wrote about last year. Just seeing all the gelatinous deliciousness will empower you to continue making stock forever. In the summer time, I chuck all of my veggie trimmings into a pot for making veggie stock (which only takes about an hour to make). I save Parmesan rinds for turning into a rich vegetarian stock, and make duck, beef, chicken, and turkey stock whenever I'm not feeling lazy. You can find beef bones at lots of butcher stores and at some of the beef purveyors at the farmer's markets. At North Market Poultry & Game, you can occasionally buy raw duck carcasses, which make amazing stock. If you ask nice, they might even throw in a few livers for the kitties.
- Fondant. This is a method of cooking veggies with a small amount of fat and a flavorful liquid - it works particularly well for hard vegetables, potatoes, and root veggies. You basically brown the veggies and then cover them with stock (or wine, or water, or a mixture). Begin tasting the veggies when the liquid has almost cooked out of the pan. Add more liquid as needed. When the veggies are cooked to your taste, season them with salt and pepper and add a little more butter if desired. I used this technique here to make yummy rutabaga. If you are are using carrots, this is a great way to glaze them. Just add a little sugar along with the stock. A little white wine also goes very nice.
- Braising. Braising is important because, well, braised things tend to be delicious as a general rule, and it's a great way to streatch your dollars because cheaper cuts are the best choices for brasing. As a general rule, begin with a tough cut of meat which has a lot of connective tissue. Shoulders are generally good for braising - pork shoulder, lamb shoulder, goat shoulder - also good for braising are shanks (cross sections of legs). Veal shanks are amazingly expensive, but beef shanks are really great for braising and still contain lots of yummy marrow! The basics of braising couldn't be easier. Once you've chosen your meat, sprinkle it liberally with salt. You can either sear it or not - searing carmelizes the proteins in the meat, making the resulting braise richer in flavor and more attractive than its un-seared counterpart. Sear meat in a heavy pan set over medium-high heat (preheat the pan!) with a little oil. Place the meat in the pan and don't move it for at least a minute and a half! Begin to wiggle the meat with tongs; when it releases, roll the meat over and repeat until the whole piece of meat is completely seared. Throw in some wine, broth, or water - or a combination and maybe some onions and carrots and things (what things? celery, garlic, peppercorns). Throw it in the oven at 325 degrees and cook until falling apart - start checking after an hour and a half. Smaller pieces of meat, such as chicken thighs, cook faster, of course. After the searing part, you can throw the whole mess into a slow cooker and pretty much leave it for the rest of the day.
- Pan Sauce. I know that sauces seem really intimidating, but pan sauce is very simple. Again, it's something very basic which can be done a la minute to impress your friends or significant other. You just have to know a few tricks. First of all, you have to begin with a pan in which something delicious has been roasted. Let's take a simple chicken. Roast your chicken, remove it to a cutting board to rest, and make your pan sauce. First of all, there should be lots of browned bits in the pan. If there is a lot of excess fat, which is certainly possible when roasting a chicken, you should pour most of the fat off before you begin (but don't waste it!! Throw it over some potatoes at least). Place the pan over high heat and add a flavorful liquid - I like to use wine here, along with a pinch of chicken stock or even water - use a wooden spoon to scrap up any of the brown bits (in France, these browned bits are called the fond, which is probably why a previous method is called fondant). This is called deglazing and it's great for a few reasons - it makes a great base to a sauce, of course, but it also helps with the cleanup, because you are removing anything stuck on the pan by adding the liquid. Reduce the liquid by about 3/4ths and turn the heat to low. Add butter. Add chunks of butter, one by one, whisking each one in (this doesn't take as long as it sounds). This is called "mounting" the sauce; you are bolstering your sauce by adding the fat, which will make the sauce glossy and lovely, will smooth out the flavors and give it amazing mouth feel. As a general rule, I try to add just enough butter to make the sause come together. So if I added a cup of wine to the pan and reduced it to 1/4th of a cup, I'd probably begin with 2 tbsp butter. All of that to say, maybe add about half as much butter as you have liquid remaining in the pan. After you have whisked in your butter, add a pinch of lemon juice (1/2 tsp or so). Taste and add salt if needed (I rarely have to do this, because I put a lot of salt on my chicken before I roast it). Why would you add lemon juice? Well, that's another item on the list we're going to cover in a post on another day. Voila! Just a few easy steps and you have learned amazing pan sauce!
- Steaming. I love steaming veggies, especially in the summertime when everything is at its peak deliciousness. The flavor tastes purer somehow, and it seems as though maybe fewer nutrients are lost. Of course, I always save my steaming water as a base for veggie stock. As a general rule, I begin green vegetables at 5 minutes and then begin testing their doneness with a sharp knife. A few green vegetables, like string beans, take a little longer. I also like to give potatoes a brief steam before roasting them - usually about 12 minutes for 3/4" cubes.
- Almost everything can be prepared with olive oil, salt and pepper. Meat, veggies, lettuce, potatoes - you name it. Start it out with olive oil, salt and pepper, and see what happens. For example, when veggies are at their peak, I love to steam anything and put it in a bowl with a little extra virgin olive oil, crunchy sea salt, and pepper. That's really all they need.
- Restaurant style stove-to-oven cooking. In a restaurant, almost every piece of meat and fish begins life on the stove top to brown the outside and is then thrown into a hot oven to finish. It takes a little while to get the hang of this, and I hesitate to give exact guidelines because they vary so wildly, but I'll start off with salmon, which is good because it's a forgiving fish and is a good learning tool. Preheat your oven to 400 degrees. Heat an oven-proof saute pan over medium high heat and add enough neutral oil (canola, grapeseed) to lightly cover the bottom of the pan. Begin with a 6 ounce piece of skin-on salmon; dry it very well with paper towels and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Place the salmon in the pan, skin side down (because the skin is good for you, and it's delicious if it's crispy). Do NOT move the fish! Just let it sit there for at least 3 minutes. Turn the salmon over carefully, first testing it with a thin spatula or tongs to see if it will lift easily (remember searing? same concept - the fish will release when it's ready). After turning, cook the salmon for another minute and then put it into the oven. It usually takes about 8 minutes from this point, but again, there are lots of variables, like the thickness of the filet. Your salmon is perfectly cooked when you can begin to see the fat turn white and ooze from between the layers of flesh. Remove the salmon from the oven and serve with some veggies! I say perfectlly cooked, but this may be too done for some and overdone for others, so you can hopefully see why I said you have to get a feel for this. This method of cooking is great for any sort of lean meat or fish. For even more deliciousness, remove the meat from the oven and throw a good knob of butter over it while it's still sizzling. Melt the butter and add a pinch of lemon juice (see anything recurring from our pan sauce bullit point?)