Yesterday was my last day in the kitchen. After two and a half months in New York learning to roll pasta, fillet fish, gut pigeons and fry cannoli, followed by two months in Italy learning the traditions and values of Italian regional cuisine, it’s time to head back to real life.
As I start packing up my dorm room, I thought I’d take a few minutes to look back at what I’ve learned. So here goes: the top 10 things I learned in my epic cooking adventure.
10. Bench scrapers are great.
This is a bench scraper.
It’s a little piece of plastic or metal you use for picking things up off your cutting board — and it turns out to be the thing I miss most when I’m cooking at home without it. After you slice an onion or cut parsley and you want to get all the pieces into a bowl — use a bench scraper. After you roll out dough and want to collect all the stuck bits — use a bench scraper. When you want to clean out the bottom of a bowl, or squeeze a thick sauce through a strainer to filter it, or cut dough into pieces — bench scraper.
9. Sharpen your knives.
Once you’ve cut with sharp professional knives, you won’t want to go back. It’s almost impossible to break down a chicken cleanly, or get a clean fillet off a fish, or cut vegetables precisely without sharp knives.
This is a steel.
It’s used to hone a knife — to line up all the metal fibers to get the best possible cutting surface — but it doesn’t actually make the blade sharper. To sharpen your knife, you need a stone or an electric sharpener.
Buy a stone, and learn to use it. Five minutes, once a week, and you’ll always have sharp knives.
8. Everything looks better in a ring mold.
Take any ugly pile of food, stuff in a ring mold, and voila — fancy plate.
7. Pan sauces are great.
After you sautee meat (ideally in a non non-stick pan so that you get little pieces of caramelized bits sticking to the pan), add a little wine and/or stock to the pan (if it’s wine, do it off the heat so it doesn’t burst into flame), and let it reduce. If you want, add some herbs or a bit of butter (off the heat), and you’ve got a rich flavorful sauce.
6. Don’t be afraid of stock.
I always though of making stock as a complicated thing that only professional chefs do — but it turns out to be stupidly easy, and makes all your food taste better. Any time you have leftover bones or vege scraps, you can make a quick stock, and then use the stock in whatever you’re cooking to give it more flavor.
There are basically two kinds of stock, white and brown. For veges or chicken, you usually make white stock. Just throw your leftover vegetables and chicken bones in a big pot with cold water, heat it to boiling, then let it simmer for a while. When there’s foam on top, skim it off. When it’s done, strain it.
For fish or meat, make a brown stock — basically the same process, but you roast the bones a little first to get more flavor. Throw the bones in a pot with some vegetables and olive oil and sautee it to get a little color. Add some wine and cook it until the liquid’s gone, then cover it all with cold water and cook it like white stock.
You can add the stock to a dish to give it more flavor, reduce the stock to make a sauce, poach meat or fish in the stock, or add vegetables to make a soup. If you have leftover stock, put it in ice cube trays and freeze it, and you’ll have individual cubes you can use later.
5. Cook your pasta correctly.
Steps for making perfect pasta:
- Boil the pasta in heavily salted water (when you taste it, it should taste like sea water). The pasta will absorb the salt and become more flavorful.
- In another pan, make or heat up your sauce.
- When the pasta is 3/4 done, drain it and add it to the sauce, along with a bit of the pasta cooking water. The starch in the water will help thicken your sauce.
- Finish cooking your pasta in the sauce. The pasta will absorb some of the sauce to make it more flavorful.
- When the pasta is done cooking, leave the sauce a tiny bit liquidy. Take it off the heat, add some more fat (olive oil or cold butter), and mix it rapidly. The water from the sauce and the added fat will blend together to make your sauce thick and creamy.
4. Use more salt.
Salt makes everything better. Enough said.
3. Taste everything.
They always say this on Top Chef and it seems so obvious, but it’s amazing how often people (myself included) don’t do it. We trust the recipe over our own pallets, so if the recipe says to add half a lemon, we add half a lemon regardless of whether the result is acidic enough or too acidic — when the reality is, the recipe represents how much a particular chef used on a particular day with particular ingredients to get the right balance of flavors. Add a little, taste it, then add some more until it tastes good.
2. Buy good ingredients.
We hear this over and over again from Italian chefs. The job of the chef is to find the best ingredients and then just not screw them up. Italian tomato sauce tastes better because their tomatoes are better, their basil is fresher and their garlic is more flavorful. Italians don’t buy olive oil — they buy a particular olive oil from a particular region prepared in a particular way in order to best complement what they’re cooking. If you buy local and organic and talk to the farmer to find out what’s good that week, the ingredients will taste better, and all you’ll have to do to make a great dish is to present the ingredients in their best light.
A corollary to this is that you can’t go the store knowing exactly what you want to cook for dinner. I always used to pick a recipe, make a list, and buy everything on the list — even if the ingredients I wanted were out of season and looked terrible. You need to leave some flexibility to look around and see what’s good, and then figure out how to use what you found.
1. Balance salt, acid, freshness, sweetness, and texture.
After sitting through about 100 hours of demos by some of the best chefs in Italy, I think the secret of great cooking lies in those 5 elements. In the last two months, we’ve eaten some amazing dishes from some amazing Michelin-starred chefs, and the best dishes always combined something salty, something acidic, something fresh, something sweet, and something crunchy.
For example, this gnocchi with baccala (salted cod)from Marco Gubbiotti was incredibly simple (basically 9 ingredients), but was unbelievably delicious.
The fish was salty, the tomatoes were acidic, herbs provided freshness, prunes provided sweetness, and celery and carrots were left partially cooked to add crunch. The same is true for desserts. His caprino cheese mousse used cheese for salt, lemon juice for acid and freshness, sugar for sweetness, and caramelized nuts for crunch.
Almost anytime you taste an incredible dish, you can identity at least 4 of those 5 elements, and almost anytime a dish is underwhelming, you find that it’s missing one.