Helpful Hints for Home Chefs
Being a home chef means something different to everyone, and the definition often varies by how much time we can commit to spending in the kitchen. Some days it may entail planning and executing an elaborate, four-course meal (with wine pairings) for a group of fascinated friends. Other days it may mean successfully preparing a healthy-enough meal in a short amount of time that results in zero complaints, zero plates pushed aside and zero portions secretly fed to the family dog. One thing home chefs of all sorts should agree on is that no matter your cooking style or level of culinary expertise, there’s always room for improvement.
Rather than fixating on complicated techniques and obscure ingredients, we’re taking a step back to Cooking 101 to hone in on some basic principles that can make meals more flavorful and flexible too. To do so, we reached out to Chef Robert Patton, CEC, CCA, Campus Director for the Culinary Institute of Virginia. He shared some helpful hints to incorporate in the kitchen, as well as items to ensure a well-stocked pantry, how to make the most of your summer harvest and even some common mistakes that you could be making with meal preparation. Bon appétit to all you hardworking home chefs.
Making the Most of Summer Harvest
We’ve all experienced the conundrum of being overwhelmed with too many goodies from the garden. Use these three ideas to utilize all the produce you’ve worked so hard to produce.
- Excess herbs: Combine with fresh fruit to concoct refreshing batches of flavored waters. Try infusing different combinations of herbs and fruits, like cucumber and mint; watermelon and basil; or blueberry, lemon and rosemary.
- Far too much fruit: Freeze fruit while in season in bags and use all year round for pancakes, dessert toppings or smoothies.
- So very many veggies: Learn canning and to pickle fruits and vegetables to preserve the summer harvest and make it last through the winter
Fundamental Tips for Phenomenal Results
- If you keep it simple and buy fresh ingredients at farmers' markets, the food and ingredients will stand out. Do as little as possible to the food; let the freshness of the product shine through.
- Take away the stress by doing the prep the night or day before. Don’t underestimate prepping as much as possible ahead of time.
- Always make stock in a larger quantity and freeze it in plastic bags. That way, when you want to make a nice soup or boil veggies, you can simply pull the bag out of the freezer.
- After cutting corn off the cob, use the back side of a knife (not the blade side) to scrape the cob again to extract the sweet milk left behind. This milk adds flavor and body to any corn dish.
- Recipes are only a guideline, not written in stone. Feel comfortable replacing ingredients with similar ingredients that you like.
- Plunge vegetables in ice water after boiling them (blanching) so they maintain a bright color.
- Make large batches with seasonal ingredients and take advantage of seasonal produce. Use that bounty of tomatoes to make extra marinara sauce that you can freeze and use later in the year.
- Get a good set of knives and learn how to keep them sharp.
- Keep your vegetable scraps. Toss fennel fronds, carrot ends and other vegetable scraps into a re-sealable plastic bag and keep in the freezer. When it’s full, make vegetable stock.
10 Mistakes You Could be Making in the Kitchen
- Overcooking your vegetables. Unless you are serving them to small children, the vegetables should still have a slight bite to them.
- Pouring out all your pasta water. Save some of the pasta water instead of tossing it down the drain and add it to your sauce or toss your pasta in it with some good cheese and extra virgin olive oil.
- Cooking bacon on the stovetop. Instead, cook it in the oven in a glass baking dish. It saves a ton of mess and allows you to do other things on the range top.
- Mistreating your fresh herbs. Trim the root ends a little bit, and then dunk them in a jar with water as you would a bouquet of fresh flowers. For cilantro and parsley, place a damp paper towel over the herbs and store in the refrigerator. For mint, rosemary, thyme, sage and hardier herbs, keep them in their vase out on the counter at room temperature.
- Refrigerating things that don’t like to be cold. Common sense might suggest that keeping things cool in the refrigerator is good for everything—but it’s not. Many items that are often refrigerated don’t need to be, and worse, some things behave badly in there. Potatoes and tomatoes, for example, suffer on the molecular level and lose much of their texture and flavor.
- Overcrowding the pot or pan. This doesn’t allow the food to cook properly. Cook in smaller batches or invest in a larger pan. You’ll get a much better result.
- Rinsing the noodles. Your pasta wants to wear its sauce like a nice jacket. When you rinse your pasta after cooking it, you are washing away the starch that makes the sauce stick to it. The result? Slippery pasta to which sauce won’t cling.
- Not letting food rest. Food needs naps too! When you take meats and baked dishes out of the oven, they need to sit for a few minutes before serving. For meats, this prevents the juices from running away from the meat, and for baked dishes like casseroles and lasagna, it helps the liquids be reabsorbed into the food so you’re not left with a big soupy, slippery mess.
- Being afraid of the high heat. Sautéed vegetables, for instance, do better at a higher heat for a shorter period of time.
- Not having fun! Don’t be afraid to get out of your comfort zone and experiment.
Stock Up: Essentials for a Well-Equipped Pantry
- Oils (vegetable or canola, extra virgin olive oil, toasted sesame oil): Keep a variety on hand for a little drizzle to finish a dish or to top a salad for added flavor and texture.
- Vinegars (apple cider, red wine, rice wine): Each have a distinct flavor profile. A splash of vinegar does wonders to ‘brighten’ up a dish’s flavor and can be used to replace some of the salt.
- Soy sauce: It’s an essential to add a depth of flavor, some umami mouthfeel and also a salty taste.
- Worcestershire sauce: Most don’t know that it’s made from anchovies and also offers those umami flavors and a great savory saltiness to dishes.
- Sriracha Hot Sauce: It offers a great heat and flavor without having too much vinegar flavor.
- Local honey: A little bit of good quality honey instead of sugar not only adds sweetness but also depth of flavor.
- Dijon mustard: This adds another layer of flavor, slight heat and also can be used to emulsify or bind a salad dressing together.
- Sea salt: Have a nice sea salt on hand, not to use during cooking but to finish a dish and add a great flavorful burst.
- Canned beans (black, cannellini, navy, kidney or garbanzo): Having these on hand can give you a quick go-to meal.
- A good quality stock or base: This will add that savory quality and can be handy in a pinch for a quick soup or sauce starter.
- Canned tomatoes (paste, diced, sauce/puréed): These are a go-to for a quick sauce when tomatoes are out of peak season.
3 Wine Rules You can Break
There are certain rules when it comes to pairing wine with your favorite dishes. These guidelines are put in place to help you enjoy wine to its fullest potential, but don’t be afraid to bend—or even break—those rules to your liking. Wine should be approachable and enjoyable, so don’t be afraid to experiment to discover some preferable pairings. Nikolay Dimitrov, culinary arts and wine program faculty at Culinary Institute of Virginia, College of Culinary Arts at ECPI University, shares a few wine rules that can be broken.
- Only white wine goes with fish. The reason red wine typically doesn’t pair well with fish is the presence of tannins in the wine, which can make fish—which typically doesn’t have much fat—taste metallic. Although you shouldn’t pair a very tannic wine with some fish, the right fish could do nicely with Pinot Noir, Gamay or Beaujolais as long as it's not too tannic. Tannins and fats can pair nicely together, so if you have a fattier fish, such as salmon, you can have some luck pairing a tannic red wine.
- White wine should be ice cold. We have all heard that we should slightly chill our red wine, but it's also true that you can drink your white wine at much warmer temperatures than you might think. Keeping your white wine ice cold will tend to mask the flavors of the wine.
- You need to be a wine expert to truly appreciate wine. Hogwash. You can appreciate wine just because you like to drink it and like the taste of what you're drinking. It's much more important to experiment with different varieties of wine and find out what you like. Appreciate each wine for what it is, and if you enjoy drinking it, then so be it.
Visit here for Chef Robert Patton's Warm Corn Chowder Salad with Bacon and Cider Vinegar recipe and Nikolay Dimitrov's summer wine pairings.