Love to cook? Read on for professional tips on building flavor without all the calories!

Archive for March, 2012

Nightmare Clean ups

This post is for Ed, who asked me how I keep from having nightmare style clean ups after preparing meals. Standing at the kitchen sink for an hour after eating is taking the enjoyment out of his cooking! So here’s my advice on how to handle it.

1. Every chef quickly gets familiar with the concept of mis-en-place. That’s a French term meaning everything in its place and it’s one of the first things addressed in culinary school. First, spend 10 minutes setting up your work station (cutting board, knives, pans needed, etc.) and getting out the ingredients you need for your dishes. Measure out what you need and place them on the counter in the order you will use them. Then put any leftover food products back where they will be stored or in the refrigerator. By the way, this is a safer practice for food that will be used in the future. This is another huge topic, but in a nutshell, uncooked and cooked foods both can only be safely kept at room temperature for so long and this time is cumulative. For me, that’s more reason to do it than the fact that 1/4 of your clean up just got done.

2. Also before you begin cooking, empty the dishwasher. Then clean up as you go. Some of your time while cooking is spent waiting , so use that time to rinse what you just used and put it in the dishwasher. Now you’re at 3/4  of your clean-up done before you sit down. All you will have is the last 1/4 after dinner – plates, silverware, serving utensils. If you are really lucky, everyone will carry their own plate over and you can just rinse and stash.

3. Hang as much on the wall as you can. There are all kinds of different rack systems available. I use Roesli (a German brand) because I like the flat bars and the utensils are cool. The racks hang all around my kitchen, with the utensils on them near the areas where they are most used. That helps me to cook efficiently because I can look and grab – no sorting through drawers to find what I want. In some places I also have hanging jars (with vegetable powders and spices in them) and shelves where I store food rings and other things I use often. When they’re in plain sight, it’s as easy to put them away as it is to grab and use them.

4. The last bit of organization has to do with cupboards. Most kitchens have piles of things in cupboards because of  the cupboard design. A standard 30″ cupboard will normally have two shelves. That means one of two things. Either things are piled up and hard to get at and/or you have a lot of dead space. To fix this, I had a carpenter install an extra shelf in most of my cupboards. Voila! No more piles and I could actually fit more in each one. It makes it a lot easier to see what you have, to get things out and to put things away, saving more time.

So you see, it’s simply a matter of keeping a good, organized routine. Nightmare clean ups: Be gone!

Saucy Secrets

As you know, I’ve been thinking a lot about “diet food” lately and how to make it as fun and appealing as “regular” food. I’ve noticed that when my friends go on a diet, the first thing they throw out the window is sauces. Sauces have gotten a bad rap because traditional sauces that taste great are full of thickeners, cream, carbohydrates, butter and of course, calories.

Sauces, however, play an important role in a dish.  They finish off its look and can dramatize it with contrasting color. They can spice it up. They add flavor and nutrition. They can soothe a piece of meat that might be a little overcooked.  Their eye appeal is important and satisfying. Half the battle of dieting is not feeling like you are and having sauce on your plate helps you accomplish that. Knowing a few tricks can help you include them with very few added calories.

The first trick is reduction. Reducing the liquid in a product intensifies its taste. It also thickens it. As I mentioned earlier, if you boil a gallon of cider down to 1 cup (over about 2 hours) and then cool it, you end up with a delicious tasting jam that can be used on toast, as an ingredient in cabbage dishes, as a glaze on a pork roast, or even re-heated as a sauce. You can do the same thing with broth. Simply boil it down until it’s thick enough to be used as a sauce. If it doesn’t get thick enough, you can add a small piece of meat or a few vegetables like carrot, onion and celery and simply purée it. Make sure to add any spices or especially salt at the very end – after it’s totally reduced, because they will also intensify and you could unwittingly overdo it. The result will be a delicious and nutritious sauce with no butter, cream or thickeners. You only need a few Tablespoons of a flavorful sauce for it to work its magic.

The second trick is to look for canned and bottled items that you keep on hand in your refrigerator that can double as sauces. Specialty mustards can be thinned with a very small amount of chicken broth and quickly heated. Chutney is also a great one. Just purée it, heat it (which will thin it out slightly) and use it as a sauce for poultry or fish. Jams and jellies can work the same way. Colorful leftover vegetables can be heated, pureéd and if necessary thinned with chicken or vegetable broth. Add the broth sparingly – just literally a Tablespoon at a time because you truly do not need much.

The third trick is to take advantage of fat free mayonnaise. Thin with a tiny bit of fat free milk and add taste with herbs, spices or horseradish sauce. You can even thin it with other fat free salad dressings or use those dressings by themselves. Lately, I’ve seen some bottled in chef’s squeeze bottles, so all you have to do is take the cap off and zig zag it across your food or plate for a pretty and tasty garnish. Thicker pastes and sauces can be positioned under your meat or vegetables for a different look. The point is to use contrasting colors and tastes that complement – and you can turn even a diet dish into a work of art.

And don’t forget your herbs. Pestos (like the one made with basil at the left) are highly flavorful sauces that are simply chopped herbs and spices with a very small amount of oil. The more taste you can get into a dish, the more it will fill you up. So also use hot sauces liberally.

To check to see if your sauce is the right consistency, put a little on a plate and tip it slightly. If it runs all over, it’s too thin. It should generally stay where you put it.

Before you serve any sauce, or any dish for that matter, TASTE IT. This is a crucial step for anyone who wants to be a good cook. Don’t ever skip it. Salt and citric acid (like lemon, lime, wine or vinegar) can brighten up flavors in a nano second and make all the difference in your dish. Add a little at a time, taste and adjust until it’s just right. You will be so glad you did!


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