To prepare for a reality TV cooking show, I read a long list of relevant books, cooked (a lot), studied, cooked more, and challenged myself in some ways I expect might occur on TV. Along the way I had some solid insights that will help my cooking in the future and should help you too.
I'll boil it down to 4 things:
The first thing I took away is that very advanced cooking, with exotic ingredients
and elaborate presentations, still always starts with fundamentals. The quality
of ingredients selected is key for every kind of cooking. A chef's knife (and other good tools) should be every cook's best friend, because every dish starts with simple prep work on vegetables, fruits, meats and fish. Even the most advanced cooking is simply built upon basic techniques that at their core are individually quite straight forward.
I seemed to be getting caught up in the competition aspect of all this. Such as,
"Your challenge today, Master Chefs, is to make a three course meal using only butter, a rutabaga and this shoe. You have 30 minutes, starting.....NOW". So I sat back and thought about recipes and restaurants. While the most talented chefs in the world can come up with ingenious combinations of flavors spur of the moment, and have the skill to combine everything in perfect proportions. We don't have that skill (for the most part), and we don't need it.
Even restaurants don't cook by the seat of their chef's pants. They spend days and weeks perfecting a recipe, then try to make it exactly the same way every night for months. So while improvisation is fun, it may also be too pressure packed for most of us in the kitchen. So grab a few good cookbooks, find some really reliable recipes and USE THEM.
Flavor gets built up in a good dish in many ways:
- High quality ingredients (there it is again)
- The combination of one ingredient with a complementary or contrasting ingredient
- Techniques that add (browning) or coax (sauteing) flavors out of ingredients
- Concentrations - cooking something down (reducing) or heightening the presence of an ingredient by using it in different forms (e.g. lemon zest and lemon juice)
- Proper seasoning along the way (pretty much, I just mean salt here).
- Last, and only now, will I mention herbs, spices and specialty ingredients.
I get so disheartened when I see the latest flavored olive oil (make it at home) or trendy product of the year (e.g., pomegranate juice) sold at super premium prices in our markets. If you look at my personal list of what makes for good flavor - notice that there are no true short cuts. You can't buy a bottle or package of good flavor. That doesn't mean it has be to complicated and time consuming to create flavors - but you're gonna hafta put a little effort into it. And the right recipes that create flavor naturally, with good ingredients, well, there I go again....
The icing on the cake is presentation. I swear these puns just fly out of my fingers without forethought. There is no doubt that good presentation heightens the anticipation of a dish. If you've put effort and care into a dish, make it look good. You don't need to be that creative - just don't be sloppy. Look at the shapes of the food and put them in some sort of order. Last week I served whole carrots (orange) and parsnips (white) - so I put them on a plate in alternated rows of orange and white. It just made sense. Anything more creative that that - well, good for you. But just a little order from the chaos will make a plate more appealing. Try it.
So I'll wrap up this week with a recipe that allows you to use very basic skills and ingredients, but will allow you to create a lot of flavor. It's just and extension of scrambled eggs, easier than an omelet, and packed with multiple types of flavor - the Frittata.
See the next post for Frittata techniques and recipes.