This essay was originally posted on SFC Ton’s blog on October 30, 2014. I’m working on some new and original content for Spawny’s Space, but I don’t have a lot of time to devote to writing these days. Also, since new faces are showing up ’round these parts, I figured a recap of my past babbling might be slightly interesting for them. Also, my ego needs a boost.
Here’s the thing – anyone can cook. You don’t need to be a professional chef in order to put a decent meal on the table. Sure, it helps, but it’s not necessary. At all. The only reason why chefs are “better” at cooking is because that is what they have been educated and trained to do, in much the same way that a professional soldier is going to be better at combat than a non-soldier.
I am what you could call an apprentice chef. I currently work at a cooking school where our purpose is not to train people to be chefs, but rather to teach folks how to liven up their own kitchens a little bit. While we provide people with all of the recipes for the dishes we show them, the more important aspect, as far as I see it, is that we teach them a set of basic principles from which to build their repertoire. Edit – I’m no longer employed at the cooking school. The bitch who owns it fired me when she found out that I was offered another job.
If you’ve ever studied martial arts, it’s a similar process – first you learn how to stand properly, how to punch properly, how to block, how to move, etc., then you put everything together and start laying the smackdown on folks. Only in the current context, you’re laying the smackdown on people’s tastebuds.
What I intend to do with this essay is share a few basic thoughts with you, in the hope that it will aid you in any culinary adventures that you might wish to undertake. Comments, questions, and complaints are all equally welcome. Except the complaints will probably be answered with a smartass remark. I have to entertain myself somehow, after all.
To start, get yourself some decent equipment. A properly seasoned cast iron pan, one or two stainless steel pans, a Dutch oven, and a couple of small to medium sized pots are a good place to start, and really all that you need to put out a decent meal. If you feel the need to buy some more specialized or “fancy” equipment, go for it, but for most applications, it’s not necessary unless you do a lot of baking. Certain baked goods are impossible to pull off without the right gear, such as cheesecakes, bunt cakes, and so on.
Avoid Teflon/non-stick pans for the most part. After time, the coating will start to flake off, which in turn may cause food to stick to them. The flakes themselves are pretty much harmless, but it’s visually unappealing to some people.
Also, invest in a couple of high quality knives. A 7 or 8 inch chef knife and a paring knife will cover about 95% of the jobs in a home kitchen. Again, if you find yourself engaging in more specialized endeavors, by all means, get more knives, but if you’re on a budget or just don’t have enough space, those two blades will serve you well. At my [former] job, there are [were] 3 highly talented, professional chefs who both teach the bulk of the classes (I get to teach one), and try to pound some knowledge into my thick skull. While they all have a number of specialized cutting implements, the knives that get the most use are the chef knife and the paring knife. Food for thought (yes, yes – bad pun. I know.). In addition to the knives, get yourself a couple of decent cutting boards. Wood or plastic, at least 18 inches by 12 inches, so you have plenty of room to work. I would recommend getting one specifically for raw meat, one for fish, and one for anything/everything else. Plastic boards are ideal for this sort of set up, as they come in multiple colors – red for raw meat, blue for fish, etc. Also on the subject of cutting boards, place a damp paper towel under your board before cutting anything. The paper towel with give the board a decent amount of “grip” on the counter, which will prevent it from slipping/moving around, which in turn will minimize the chances of your cutting yourself.
A food processor and an immersion blender would be the only other “essential” equipment that I would suggest you have on hand. A food processor is a blessing for large jobs of chopping, grinding, shredding, etc. and an immersion blender is just fantastic for making smoothies, milkshakes, certain types of soup, and just about anything else that needs to be pureed.
I collect recipes the way that young boys collect baseball cards (do young boys still collect baseball cards…?). I enjoy reading through them, as I get a lot of new ideas, but the important thing you need to remember about recipes is this: they’re guidelines, not RULES.
Don’t be scared. Alter a recipe to your liking. If you like one ingredient more than another, add more of it. If you don’t like something that’s in the recipe, substitute it for something else. Personally, I hate green bell peppers, so I swap in red or yellow bell peppers for the green without fail. Do whatever the hell you feel like doing; this is YOUR kitchen, after all. The only time I would recommend that anyone follow the recipe precisely is if you happen to be baking something. Baking is an extremely precise exercise that depends on the proper balance of ingredients, and I am not knowledgeable enough about the subject to understand how or why it works.
As far as actual cooking goes, specific techniques may be required for certain dishes, but generally speaking, avoid overcooking your food.
I know, right? So simple that it sounds foolish, doesn’t it? Just think about for a minute, though – if you overcook vegetables, they become mushy and taste like baby food. Overcook pasta and it falls apart. Overcook meat and it becomes tough and dry.
For veggies and pasta, just bite into a sample during the cooking process, and once it reaches the point where you’re comfortable with it, then it’s done. While that may sound vague and annoying, just bear with me and try it the next time you’re in the kitchen. It will make a lot more sense then, I promise.
Meat is a little more complicated, but only a little. Invest in a meat thermometer, and you’re on your way to ensuring that you’ll never have to chew on shoe leather again. Whether you want to slice into the meat right away, or let it rest is entirely up to you.
What do I mean by “rest”, you ask? One school of thought says that after cooking, leave the meat alone for a few minutes (depending on it’s size – a steak should rest for 3 to 5 minutes, a roast or a turkey for about 30 minutes) in order to let the juices redistribute evenly. The other school of thought says that is rubbish. I tend to lean toward the “don’t rest” school, mainly since I hate waiting. *IF* any juices are released from the meat when you cut into it, just pour them over the meat or use the cut up pieces to mop them up, and eat ‘em. Problem solved.
One last point I’d like to make is season your food. You know how those granola crunching, hippie liberal pansy-asses go around screaming about how salt is bad for you? Fuck ‘em. Too much of ANYTHING is bad for you, but I can think of two damn good reasons to use salt just off the top of my head. First, the human body requires about 1500 mg (milligrams) of sodium per day to remain healthy. Second, salt is a flavor enhancer, so if you don’t use it in your cooking, your food will be bland. Bland food is an offense against the Food Gods. True story.
How do you know if you’ve used enough salt, but not too much? That’s easy – taste your food while cooking. If it seems a little bland to you, add some salt and give it another try. Add it sparingly, though. There’s an extremely fine line between maximizing flavor and over-salting your food. Also, keep in mind that salt draws moisture out of food, so when adding it to meat, ensure that you only do so immediately before you start cooking.
Well, there you have it, boys & girls. Cook With Sumo 101. If any of these tips helped you out, then my work is done. If you’re a better cook than I am and are laughing your ass right now, well…..at least I put a smile on your face. If you want to get a few more laughs at my expense, feel free to stop by my blog, and look around. Peace.