Friday, April 24, 2009

General Notes for the Workshop

This post will go over some things that are always good to keep in mind while in your workshop. The discussion might get somewhat philosophical at times but only as necessary. This post is also the answer to Mr. Ward's request for information "What are the fundamental principles that a good chef always follows and practices?" Brace yourself, because this baby is looooonnngg.

The first thing to remember is that cooking is, above all else, a craft. That is to say, it is a skill that can be learned. Of course some people are going to be better at performing this craft just like any other but always remember that anyone can be a great cook. With that in mind, think of cooking as being a series of tasks that when completed, yields delicious food. The rest of these fundamentals are all based upon that notion, that cooking is a craft that can be learned.

Fundamentals to live by in the kitchen:
"You ain't done cookin' 'til you done cleanin'," - Unknown Chef
How in the world are you going to create a delightful little something if your kitchen looks like it should be on Clean House. The easiest way to keep your kitchen clean is to work cleanly and efficiently and clean as you go.
So what are some tips to doing that?
  • Start with a clean kitchen.
  • Organize yourself before you start cutting things and actually cooking things. If you have a lot to prepare or you have trouble knowing what should be done next, create a prep list or have the recipe that you are working from easily available.
  • Collect all the equipment that you will need for your dish and have it waiting on you. Put the pans on the stove and start them heating at low heat. Have your cutting board out and knives sharpened and ready to go. Have someplace for your prepped items to go while waiting for the next step.
  • Assemble all your ingredients that can hang out at room temperature for 30 minutes, i.e. meats, veggies, canned items, broths etc.
  • Work in stages, do all your washing, then all your cutting, then all your cooking, then all your plating, etc.
  • Find a warm place in your kitchen that finished items can hang out until the whole thing is done. Maybe it is a warming drawer, a low oven, the back of the stove, hot window sill in the desert.
  • Keep an old plastic grocery bag in your prep area for waste and scrapes. Most everyone has about ten thousand plastic bags lying around with nowhere to go, put them to work for you. That way you can keep your prep area free of clutter and reuse those plastic bags. Another great thing is that when have finished you can just tie up the bag and throw it in your trash, making the stinks take a little longer to get out. Oh and if anyone uses Rachel Ray's garbage bowl, you will hear a knock on your door and it will be common sense coming to your house to punch you in the face. Why would you buy a bowl to put trash in before you put it in the trash can that you then have to wash. Plus the bowl is super ugly.
  • Fill up one side of your sink with hot soapy water to put your pans in right after your are finished using them. This helps to loosen the cooked on bits and speeds up your cleaning time.
  • Do the dishes right after you finish your meal. If you wait you will not do them and then next time your are ready to cook you will have to wash them before you can even start.
  • The more organized and cleanly that you work, the more time and attention you can spend making the food taste good. If you are running around like crazy in a dirty kitchen you will get nothing done, take longer to do it and make food that tastes marginal at best. The best cooks always look cool ,calm and collected while cooking and their food reflects that. Working clean and being organized is something that chefs are judged on in professional cooking competitions as well as what culinary students are graded on while taking their exams.
Classics are Classics for a reason:
  • Cooking has been around for ever. You will never create a truly unique dish. Someone, somewhere, did it 500 years ago in a village somewhere. It might not have been identical but it was close enough. Depressing? Not really. Take advantage of that long history. Those villagers have taken care of the research for you. They tasted the things that did not go together. They caught the diarrhea so that you could learn from their story. So look at the dishes that cultures become famous for and notice the flavor combinations that they use. Notice how they choose to prepare those ingredients. Learn from them.
  • When you cannot think of something to make or what a dish needs to make it taste right, look back to the classics for the answers.
  • Learn the classic from as many different cultures as you can. This will give your cooking, your diet, and your mind a wide diversity. Plus, you might find that you like the flavor profiles of a particular country better and you might start using those to build your dishes instead. Epicurious has a list of classic recipes from around the world so you can try just that.
Use the best that your budgets allow:
  • Sometimes quality costs more. There will be times when you are going to have to decide whether to splurge or sacrifice. This is true for your pocket book as well as your wrist watch. You will have to decide where you should spend your time and money on your dish. Will it be the protein, the side dish, the dessert, the beverage accompaniment? Is it a special occasion that calls for privacy and indulgence or is the 4th of July and the neighborhood is coming over to your house?
  • Try to find someplace in your city that sells consistently good produce. More so than anything else, this will make the biggest difference in the quality of your average dishes.
  • If you are going to make fish at home, pay the money and get some good stuff. If you are going to risk making your house sell fishy you better be cooking some quality fish and you better take care to not overcook it.
Proper Preparation trumps everything:
  • If you can learn to prepare things to the correct level of doneness, you are 75% of the way to the great cook promised land.
  • Performing the basic things correctly will make a huge difference in your final product. So if you are searing something, sear the ever loving hell out of it. Do not be timid, make it happen. Put some damn color on whatever you are searing. If you are sauteing then you should be sauteing and not steaming or sweating. This goes for every technique and everything.
  • This also plays to a more philosophical level as well. If you are going to prepare something that so many people have worked so hard to get to you the cook, then you should do your best not to waste their efforts.
Start simple and work up from there:
  • Almost every accomplished chef spends much of the early part of their career finding their style. This usually ends up with them creating these incredibly elaborate dishes that no one understands but them and half the time the dishes are not even that good. The flavors do not meld real well or the there is just a lot of superfluous stuff there. Then something happens along the way and they start removing things from their dishes. They take their dishes to the basic level that they can and still have it work. Then maybe they build it back up and maybe they don't.
  • Everything you make should taste like what you are making. Sounds stupid right? Think about it this way, how many times have you had carrots that tasted like something far from carrots. Chicken should taste like chicken with complimentary flavors. Carrots should taste like carrots with complimentary flavors. So on and so on.
  • People have been making food for centuries and it has only been recently that we started getting purpose built gadgets. Steer clear of most one dimensional gadgets, they will clutter your kitchen and keep you from learning how to do things the right way. The simplest way to prepare something is most often times the best way.
Always be a student of your craft:
  • Great cooks are always paying attention to what they are doing. They always want to know why doing something makes the end result taste a certain way. Talking to a great chef about why they prepare a dish a certain way can be intimidating. They will talk about little nuances about the preparation that you would never have looked for. They are always striving to know exactly why everything works so that they can increase their skills.
  • Researching cooking can lead you to new inspirations. You can learn about a dish from the past that makes you look at something today a whole new way. Look at cookbooks and restaurant menus and keep your eyes open for new ways of doing things.
To summarize the things that a good chef always practices:
  • Always work organized, clean, efficiently, and with forethought
  • Be familiar with as many classic dishes and flavor combinations as possible
  • Work with the best ingredients that you can
  • Prepare everything with as much respect and care as possible
  • Keep your preparations simple, add complexity with the combinations
  • Stay a student of your craft, it will only better your cooking
Wow that was a lot of writing. Congrats if you made it through the whole thing. Sorry about the typos.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

The Basics to start considering

The next few posts are going to be covering some very basic things so that all 8 of you who follow this blog with an almost obsessive dedication can have things to refer to if needed. The other fun thing is that these techniques can be linked back to through the subsequent posts. If you are already familiar with these then witness the mastery that is the Cooker's.

In no particular order so far.
Using the tools in your kitchen the right way, and knowing which ones to have
Choosing the right pan or pot for the job
Getting friendly with your friend the knife (your new friend)



Those techniques will take us right into a whole bunch of other wonderful things as well, however that list is looking daunting enough as it is.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

On the Workbench...The Basics

The Workshop had a realization. This Workshop has a shoddy foundation. Shoddy at best. How can a quality establishment that can withstand all that is thrown at possibly stand for long without a rock solid foundation? This house of cards need to be rebuilt with Legos...or something stronger.

With that in mind the Workshop humbly and with a whiff of embarrassment presents for exploration...The Basics. Basic preparations that can be applied to anything will be explored such that this Workshop can be rebuilt proud and tall. Who knows, it might even be LEED qualified when all is said and done.

Furthermore, if there is some basic ingredient preparation that you are feeling uneasy about or feel that it could use some fine tuning, drop a line in the comments section.

Off the Workbench...Lemons

Lemons, there is no easy way to say this. Your star is fading. You are no longer the hot ticket. You are like John Travolta in the late 80's, before Pulp Fiction. Take this time to do the work you really love. Start a band, do some plays, work on your "one-man show." Only take roles that you will be really appreciated in.

Who is the hot new thing that is replacing you? First of all, calm down and see this as an opportunity. Second, there is not a new star rising just yet. When the time is right one will burst onto the scene. No, this is a time for rebuilding, getting back to roots, the classics that have made the genre what it is. So, go and enjoy yourself. We will call when we have something that screams out for Lemon, don't you worry about that. This isn't goodbye, it is see you later.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Easy Lemon Cookies

The Workshop has maintained an Anti Rachel Ray stance for sometime. This cooker feels that she misrepresents her 30 minute meals and her $40 a day show is a detriment to servers and restaurants everywhere. Next time you watch $40 a day, look at how much free stuff she gets, how many "budget friendly" specials happen to be featured that day and she is the worst tipper ever. Stepping down from the soap box. Her magazine does have a good staff of writers and bakers it seems though. Mrs. Cooker found a simple lemon cookie recipe that is actually good. Clearly the Workshop has mixed emotions about the whole thing. However, with the exaltation of lemons in mind, the Lemon Cookie. This cookie is nicely crunchy with a pronounced lemon flavor and a nice sweetness to balance the acid of the lemon juice. The ingredient list is taken directly from the Rachel Ray website but the directions are pure Workshop.

Admit it, you have never seen baking goods look so ominous

Freshly "grated" lemon zest is crucial to the lemoniness of these cookies

The cookie dough in an arty shot

You might notice that these hands are far too delicate to be those of the Workshop Cooker. Those beautiful fingers belong to Mrs. Cooker, who made these cookies

Sugared and ready to go into the oven

Fresh out the oven and ready for consumption

General notes:
Prep Time: 25 min and 15 min baking time
Servings: 2 -3 dozen depending on how big you make them
General Notes:

1 Stick Unsalted Butter, chilled
1 1/4 cups Sugar
Grated Zest of 2 lemons
1 tbsp Lemon Juice
1 Large Egg
1 1/2 Cups AP Flour
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon table salt

Mixing bowls
Stand mixer or hand mixer
Microplane grater or cheese grater
Measuring Cups
Cookie Sheets
Parchment paper or Pam, paper preferred
Oven set preheated to 350 degrees

Written Instructions:
  • Preheat the oven, line the cookie sheets with parchment, put a quarter cup of the sugar into a small bowl, get your stuff together in general
  • Combine 1 cup of the sugar, the lemon zest, and the lemon juice in the stand mixer bowl and beat until fluffy.
  • Add the egg and mix until it is incorporated
  • Add the flour, baking soda and salt and mix until just combined.
  • Spoon out about a tablespoon of the dough into your fingers and roll into a ball.
  • Drop the ball into the bowl that has the remaining sugar and coat the ball with sugar
  • Put the ball onto the cookie sheet, evenly spaced out
  • Continue until you are out of dough or cookie sheet space
  • Bake'um up for 12 to 15 minutes, they should have browned edges like cookies
  • Remove from the oven and set aside to cool
  • Remove from pan and cool somewhere
  • Make it happen in your tum tum

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Chicken Piccata (Chicken with a Lemony Butter Sauce)

There is a good reason why some dishes have become classics. Piccata is considered more of a preparation than a dish unto itself, and most places try to sell you Veal Piccata. This is no place for those kind of discussions but Veal will never be prepared in this Workshop. Piccata is scallapiones of some sort, dredged in flour and fried up with a lemony butter sauce. It will always be the practice of this Workshop to jazz things up a little bit when possible. So this dish has the chicken sauteed and paired with a sauce made from garlic, lemon juice, lemon slices, vegetable broth, white wine, and capers. The sauce gives you a nice buttery kind of feeling with a little acid to cut it and a few goodies to peak your interest. Note: be careful when adding the capers, if they are packed in vinegar they are going to take your acid levels through the roof.

The Starting Line Up

Chicken in a bag about to get whacked


Sorry ladies, the Workshop cooker is in fact married

Nicely browned on one side and going for the second

The sauce simmering away, notice the lemon slices

Chicken Piccata with Angel Hair

General Notes:
Prep Time: 15 - 20 minutes depending on how fast you can flatten a piece of chicken
Servings: recipe is for 2 butcan be expanded easily
Notes: Taste the sauce before you "finish" if you are not careful you can make it feel like a Warhead. There are a lot of ranges in the ingredients as there are a lot of variables to adjust. You will have to adjust it to your taste.

2 Chicken Cutlets, pounded flat
1/2 cup to 1 cup Vegetable or Chicken Broth
1/2 cup White Wine, good enough to drink but do not spend more than $3
2 -4 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/2 cup - 1 cup flour, seasoned with salt and pepper
3 cloves of garlic, chopped
Capers to taste, rinsed (some are packed in vinegar, some packed in salty brine. PAY ATTENTION TO THIS AS IT WILL MAKE A DIFFERENCE. it does not matter which just keep it in mind while making the sauce)
1/2 lemon sliced thin
juice of 1/2 a lemon
Olive Oil as needed
Kosher Salt and Black Pepper to taste

Cutting Board
Plastic bag, or wax paper
Something heavy and flat that will not break or bend, either a meat hammer or fry pan
plate for dredging the flour
fry pan big enough to hold the chicken breasts, you can also do it stages if you do not have one

Written Instructions:
  • Place the chicken cutlet between two pices of wax paper or in a ziploc bag and smack it with your blunt object until they have flattened out a bit more. The goal is to make them flat and even. Start at the edges and smack in an outward motion to almost stretch the chicken breast out to the egdes. Repeat until all the cutlets are flattened.
  • Dredge the chicken breasts through the seasoned flour until they are evenly coated. shake off the excess.
  • Pour some Olive Oil into a pan that has been heating over Medium heat. Carefully add the chicken so that it lies in one layer across the bottom. Pan fry for 3 or 4 minutes until the first side is browned. Repeat on second side and remove from pan and set aside somewhere to keep warm.
  • Add the butter to the pan, quickly swirling and add the garlic. Cook for 30 seconds.
  • Deglaze the pan with the white wine, using a rubber scraper or wooden spoon to scrape up the browned bits stuck to the bottom of the pan.
  • Add the vegetable broth, butter, and lemon slices.
  • Add a few capers and taste the sauce to check the acidity level. If the sace seems to acidic add some butter or a pinch of sugar or something sweet.
  • Add as many capers as you like being careful not to make the sauce too acidic.
  • Add the chicken back to the pan, and baste with the sauce. Ensure that the chicken feels firm to the touch(cooked) and that if pricked the juices run clear.
  • Serve with Angel hair pasta, or mashed Potatoes, or something starchy.
  • Make it happen in your tum tum

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Spring Time Asparagus with Lemon and Friends

Spring has sprung and to food related places everywhere that means Asparagus is back. Yes there are plenty of delightful ingredients that have sprung as well but lets not be the types to bring that up right now. Lemons are still on the workbench, and they do wonderful things to asparagus. Most notably brightening their already fresh flavor. Steamed Asparagus with a just squeeze of lemon on it has been known to make grown men weak at the knees. Granted these men typically are either very old, have knee problems or both.

Moving on to the dish in question. Asparagus is roasted with garlic, spring onions, lemon juice and olive oil to create a muted but bright flavor. It is easy to make and looks far more impressive that it is. On to the pictures.

Raw Asparagus, washed, trimmed and ready for the dance

The shy dance partners lined up against the wall hoping for Asparagus to pick them

A fight has broken out among the hopefuls and they have become barely recognizable

Happy day. Asparagus has chosen all of them to play twister

The aftermath of them getting baked together

General Notes:
Prep Time: 20 to 30 minutes depending on your knife skills
Servings: 4 as a side

1 pound Asparagus, trimmed and peeled (peeled if they are hugely fat)
Juice of 1 lemon and as much zest as you like
3 or 4 garlic cloves, roughly chopped as not to burn up in oven
2 spring onions or 1 leek, roughly chopped as not to burn up in oven
Olive Oil as needed
Kosher Salt and Black Pepper to taste

Cutting Board
Hands or very dexterous feet
Roasting pan or cookie sheet
Oven preheated to 350 degrees
small mixing bowl, or cereal bowl

Written Instructions:
  • Rinse and trim your Asparagus. The Asparagus can be trimmed a couple ways, the woody ends can be broken off at their bending point individually or one can be broken and the rest cut at that point. Okay the breaking point is found by holding the asparagus in your hands or feet near the thick end and bending it out until it breaks.
  • Combine the other ingredients in a small bowl. The mixture should be pretty loose
  • Toss the Asparagus with the mixture on the roasting pan and put into the oven
  • Roast the Asparagus for 10 to 15 minutes or until the Asparagus and mixture have browned slightly and the Asparagus gives slightly to pressure.
  • Remove from oven and make it happen in your tum tum.