The word of the day is Compendium. The definition of compendium is; a collection of detailed information about a particular subject. The particular subject here is Southern Cuisine and cooking in general. With the “cooking season” of Thanksgiving and Christmas behind us, now is the time to reflect on the daunting tasks you had before you and how you overcame the obstacles. Some problems we have in preparing large meals are logistical. Where do we cook the turkey and heat all the sides when there is only a single oven. How do we keep the food warm before serving? And some problems concern the appearance and taste of the food prepared. Why some of the recipes you used did not produce the results you were expecting.
The logistical problems are unique to your home and your kitchen. The appliances you have and how large is the kitchen. I visited a kitchen at a Four Seasons Hotel in Austin, Texas as part of my chef apprenticeship and was amazed with the amount of food that came out of such a small kitchen. Their reputation required high quality food and being a banquet hotel, quantity was also paramount. They overcame their physical restraints.
I have a four burner stove with a single oven that cooks fifty degrees hotter than the oven settings show. There is a large table in the middle of the kitchen that hinders either opening the refrigerator or the oven door. There is not a lot of counter space, but by removing some items (toaster, mixer, and t.v.) it becomes very workable. And I have the usual gamete of kitchen appliances, my favorite being a turkey roaster. My logistical problem is to keep the circuit breakers from flicking off. Physical limitations of your kitchen can be overcome, just think like Alton Brown and McGuyver.
Why did your food taste differently than you expected and not look as appetizing as you wished are topics we can work on in this article. Taste and appearance are only two senses that you need to appease to produce appetizing food. You can smell and touch and hear the cooking process. There are four tastes; sweet, sour, bitter and salty. At least there were four, now there are five. The fifth taste is umami. A particularly appealing taste produced by a chemical in umami rich foods. Now, I am not going to bore you with the scientific studies and countless articles about umami, you can search GOOGLE. But there are ingredients that are rich in umami that give an extra happy feeling to your taste buds.
Adding items rich in umami can turn everyday ingredients into something sublime. Anchovies and dried mushrooms melt away in the cooking process but heighten the taste of the dish. Other items like tomato paste, balsamic vinegar, wine vinegar, garlic, and Parmesan will bring the bland to awe-inspiring. Adding tomato paste to any tomato based sauce will intensify the flavors and a little goes a long way. Reducing balsamic vinegar to a thick syrupy liquid and drizzling it over fresh strawberries will ruin you to any other way of eating strawberries. Try Parmesan freshly grated over steamed green beans, shaved over a plate of prosciutto and melon, or sprinkled on buttered popcorn.
Make gremolata. Gremolata is one of those things where the whole is definitely greater than the sum of its parts. Yet, using common ingredients you have in your kitchen, garlic, lemon, parsley and simply finely chopping them together, is your secret ingredient. Sprinkled over any number of dishes, it will make every mouthful pop with its bright, fresh flavors. A few twists of freshly ground black pepper and your mouth will think it had gone to umami never-never land. Sprinkle it over grilled or roasted vegetables, baked or grilled fish, chicken, or lamb. Many pasta dishes are particularly wonderful with gremolata, as well as creamy bean dishes, especially if they contain meat.
Herbs and spices are like coat hangers of the kitchen. If you put two coat hangers in a closet, in a month you will have twenty. Cans of herbs and spices are like that. You go to the store and find a good deal on a half pound of cinnamon and you get home and find out there are four other tins of cinnamon. And there will be tins of other spices that were purchased when the United States was still on the gold standard. When I first made a Chess Pie, I bought a pound bag of corn meal only to find that the recipe called for two tablespoons. Unlike wine and whiskey, those bags of grains, tins of herbs and spices do not get better with age. Try buying soft herbs such as parsley, basil, cilantro and chives that are freeze dried for a good substitute if you don't grow your own.
Another way of enhancing the flavor of your dishes that use a vegetable or meat stock is to make your own. For a vegetable stock, clean the vegetables you are to use in your dish and when you peel them save the clean peelings for your stock. If you want a clear stock don't use potato peelings. Add mushroom stems that you usually throw away and parsley stalks and strips of lemon zest from making your gremolata, and garlic cloves and peppercorn. This will add to the depth of flavor.
The high cost of meat can be a deal breaker for a steak night at home. You can buy cheaper cuts and still have that tender juicy , it's just a matter on how it is cooked. Cheaper cuts have a lot of connective tissue, which makes the meat tough. Breaking down that tissue is done by cooking the meat slowly and at a low temperature. About 160 degrees to 180 degrees will do the trick. All that will be lost if you do not let the meat rest after cooking. Use your meat temperature to check the center of the meat. When the temperature gets down 120 degrees it won't bleed out when you cut it. Also don't let it rest in the roasting pan, which will retain heat and continue to cook the bottom of the meat, making it dry and tough.
I am on of the chefs that cringe when I hear someone say, “You sear the meat to seal in the moisture.” No, you sear the meat to caramelize the proteins of the meat to impart a certain taste, a crusty coating for taste and appearance. Cooking rice seems to fluster many people also. Maybe the reason is that there are so many conflicting instructions on rice cooking. Some say do not boil the water first, some say boil the water. There's a method where you take the lid off the rice once you have determined it is done, and place a dish towel over the pan and then replace the lid and let sit for 5 minutes to keep steam from condensing and dripping back on the rice. There is also a debate if you should rinse or soak the rice before cooking. My suggestion is to go on the Internet to www.wikihow.com/Cook-Rice. But an easier method is to read the directions on the packaging for the rice. The manufacture will want their rice to cook properly so you will buy more of their rice.
Part of any culinary training requires the making of mushroom duxelles. It is not hard to make, it just can be used to in so many ways to bring umami (there's that word again)to a dish.
Add a spoonful to any savory dish to intensify the flavor. Add a little tarragon and use as a ravioli stuffing. Stir in wilted spinach and some heavy cream and a small grate of nutmeg and you have a side dish. Coat a beef fillet with the duxelles then wrap in puff pastry and you have Beef Wellington.
Remember the Irish proverb: Laughter is brightest, where food is best.
Julia Child: You don't have to cook fancy or complicated masterpieces, just good food from fresh ingredients.
See recipes on pdf page.