The Art of Speed and Substitution
Instead of giving readers a long string of recipes this column, I have decided to share some of my personally gained expertise regarding cooking with you.
One of the great problems with todays fast world is that too many people see cooking as complicated, and a time-consuming chore. The is a general misunderstanding of terminology (in many ways cookings own fault for sticking with French terminology), the ways food is prepared, and a fear of experimentation that can cut corners and lead to your own unique-styled dishes. There is also a greater cultural diversity with dishes combined with some concern about breaking away from the ‘normal’. Mum may have been a good cook, but she sure as hell wasn’t a healthy cook – good old-fashioned English-Style cooking is NOT healthy, with all the goodness being cooked out of vegetables, meats and poultry being overcooked, unhealthy fats used for frying and baking etc.
I have spent almost my entire life studying food and its preparation. At school I read a number of books on food preparation, and used to invent my own recipes instead of doing my maths homework – perhaps a reason for me not doing well in maths…oh let’s be realistic. I loathed maths. The fact that I didn’t get my credentials in cooking until late in life was due more to bad experiences when I left school than to not having the inclination. The way to get into cooking in those days was to start in some place like a hospital kitchen, but I had this image in my mind that if I got stuck in that rut, the only food I would ever cook would be insipid, bland food, or end up in a el-cheapo café, so I bowed out. I did start pastry cooking with a cakeshop in Campsie, but the 5.00am start at 16-years of age soon put me off. The fact that all I seemed to do there was wash dishes didn’t help things along. In some ways, this was to my advantage, as by the time I decided to go to TAFE to do my chef’s creds, I already had a huge amount of personal experience with preparing food, and had sampled a wide variety of cuisines. I did dare to question the way food preparation and cooking was taught at TAFE (trust a mature-ager to stir the pot). I wanted to know why, in an Australian institution like TAFE we were still taught French-styled cooking with its heavy emphasis on rich fatty sauces, delicate food preparation (like parsley having to be chopped so finely it was almost a powder), defined sizes for chopping, French names that meant nothing (I bet YOU don’t know what a voloute is – and that you probably don’t care), and a lot of cuts of meat, fish and game that people really have little interest in trying, let alone preparing. My argument was that this was Australia in the 21’st century, with one of the most diverse cuisine cultures anywhere in the world. Anybody who watches “Food Safari” on SBS will know how staggering the variety is. Also, that we were becoming more and more health conscious with our cooking, which meant that French cooking really had little relevance to our local eating habits, or to our health. Naturally, my arguments fell on deaf ears, but I did at least bring the subject up, and though the tutor agreed with me – that is how cooking is taught. C’est la vie.
So, to help take some of the mystique out of cooking, and as a guide on how to do things quickly and tastefully I offer the following hints and advice.
MELDINGS: Some things just naturally go together, so when deciding on what to put with what, knowing this can help to put dishes together.
WITH BEEF use mustards, strong peppery spices like paprika, five-spice, tumeric, start anise etc. When cooking, use cheaper cuts for stewing or casseroling – but only when cooking is long and slow to break the meat down. For quick stewing and stir-frying use better cuts, as they remain tender with quick cooking. Don’t be like your father and use cheap steak for barbeques – use better cuts and cook quickly over high heat. Don’t put meat into a wok until the oil is smoking, and stir it quickly from the bottom of the wok to the sides, then back down to get it to cook through. If adding a sauce that needs to be thickened, cook the meat three-quarters of the way through, then let it finish cooking in the sauce.
WITH LAMB use rosemary or mint, and some of the milder spices and pastes. Lamb is not as strong as beef, so requires softer flavours. Try rolling lamb fillets in dukkah for a great, crunchy coating.. Lamb is always better if not quite cooked through, leaving it a little pink. Lamb fillets are expensive, but worth the money as they are always tender, have little waste on them, and can be eaten hot or cold in a salad. The same goes for backstrap. I find chops not only very fatty, but not good value for money as they have little meat on them – likewise for cutlets. Lamb stir-fries well, but buy and cut it yourself, as ready-cut stir fry meat is usually cheaper cuts that are tough. Tandoori pastes taste great with lamb, in fact lamb goes well in Indian cooking – full stop. Unfortunately as much as we love it, the lamb roast is not as good as it used to be. We sell all our really top quality lamb overseas, leaving ourselves with the cheaper, older cuts. Two out of three lamb shoulders for roasting is as tough as shoe leather – a great shame for those who love it.
WITH POULTRY use things like oregano, parsley, coriander and mild spices. Serve with peaches, pawpaw or mango. Use fresh coconut shavings. Chicken breast are great with rubs and pastes – cut diagonal slits in the top of the breast and push the rub or paste into it before cooking. They are also fantastic when slit open and stuffed with things like pancetta, proscuitto, fetta, goat’s cheese, sun-dried tomatoes, roasted capsicums, baby spinach etc. Make sure you sew the slit shut with toothpicks to keep the filling in. Stir fry chicken quickly, and use any types of Asian sauces. Don’t bother measuring things like Chinese cooking wine, soy sauce, honey etc. It only takes a few seconds to taste it and see what you need to adjust. Add a tablespoon of cornflour to a couple of tablespoons of water or stock, then add to a wok to quickly thicken sauces. DON’T add cornflour directly to a pan – it will form lumps and taste yucky. Don’t be afraid to experiment with spices – but remember that only in Indian cooking is a huge variety of spices usually used in one dish. Learn to make your own curry pastes in a mortar and pestle or a food processor. Make a quantity and freeze what you don’t use. They are so much more authentic and aromatic than commercially prepared pastes. The same applies to Asian cooking. DON’T be afraid to adjust recipes to your own taste – if you like a green curry that is full of the tang of lime, add extra zest and juice, and maybe one or two more kaffir lime leaves than the recipe suggests – or add the same things to pep up a dull, commercial green curry paste. For red curries, add more chillies if you like it hotter, or more paprika, or cool it down with yoghurt. MAKE a quick raita (Indian accompaniment) with Greek yoghurt, diced cucumber and chopped mint.
WITH FISH use dill, parsley, chilli, lemongrass, limes and lemons. Use strong tasting rubs to flavour – do the same as with chicken to push the flavours into the fish. Cook quickly – 2-3 minutes per side. Overcooked fish will just fall to pieces when you try to take it out of the pan. Keep the skin on salmon, as it gets lovely and crisp when fried quickly at a high heat. I know it is time consuming, but run your fingers all over the fish flesh and remove ALL bones before cooking. There is nothing more off-putting than fine bones in your mouth. Fish boning tweezers can be bought quite cheaply from a kitchen supplier, or keep a small pair of cheap pliers just for the purpose. To steam fish either wrap in baking paper with your choice of herbs, ginger (cut into slivers) chillies (deseeded and cut into slithers) and citrus zest OR use banana leaves if you want to be a bit more exotic. Steam for 8-10 minutes in a bamboo steamer over a wok.
ALL THINGS FRUIT & VEGETABLE: Vegetables are staple foods full of vitamins and minerals – DON’T cook the life out of them. If serving vegetables as accompaniments or in salads, blanch for 2-3 minutes in boiling water, then dip straight into cold water to keep the colour. If you need to reheat them, USE THE MICROWAVE for 30 seconds. TO SKIN tomatoes and peaches, remove the stalk at the top, then cut a cross-shape into the skin at the bottom. Dip into boiling water for 30-60 seconds, then remove and drop into cold water. Skins should peel straight off. To DESEED tomatoes, cut in half horizontally and use a teaspoon to remove seeds. CUCUMBERS are best if cut in half along their length, then use a teaspoon to remove the seeds before chopping. This takes the bitterness out of them. Lebanese cucumbers are better than traditional thick cucumbers. The heat in CHILLIES is dependent on their size, and their seeds and membrane. The smaller the chilli, the hotter it usually is. To drastically reduce the heat, cut in half and scrape out the seeds and membrane – WEAR gloves when you do this – or keep your hands away from your face for a while after deseeding and chopping. Green chillies are usually milder than red. CAPSICUMS are a member of the chilli family. To roast capsicums, you can do one of two things – (A) Remove the seeds and membranes, cut into flattish slices and place under a high griller until they are blackened and blistered OR (B) rub with oil and place in a very hot oven until they are blackened and blistered. Remove and place into a plastic bag – laid flat – while still hot. Seal the bag and leaved for 15-20 minutes. When you remove the capsicum from the bag, the skin should peel off. LET your imagination go when adding fruit to salads – you can add anything from melons, pawpaws, mango, grapes, peaches, nectarines, apricots, kiwi fruit to strawberries, blueberries, apples, grapefruit or orange segments. TO MAKE AN EASY DRESSING when adding citrus to a salad, cut the segments from between the membranes and add to the salad. Squeeze the remaining juice from the remaining membrane into a bowl, then add 1-2 tablespoons of olive oil, whisk and add to salad. You can now buy ready-roasted cashews and peanuts to add to salads, but if you do need to ROAST cashews, peanuts or pine nuts to add to a salad, place spread on a tray in a moderate oven for about 5 minutes. You can ALSO ROAST THEM in a microwave using about 5-6 x 20 second bursts at HIGH.
The same goes for CHOCOLATE. Place in a heatproof bowl and microwave in 30-second bursts at HIGH until it has melted. REMEMBER that chocolate will retain its shape in a microwave, so you need to stir it after each burst to see how much it has melted. To melt traditionally, place chocolate in a glass bowl and place over a small saucepan of simmering water until it melts. DON’T allow steam to get into it, or any water, as it will sieze. IF CHOCOLATE DOES SIEZE, add small amounts of cream or butter to it until it returns to normal. DON’T use cheap brandy to flavour chocolate, as it often contains water, and again the chocolate will seize.
YOU CAN FREEZE left over pastry, grated cheese and eggwhites (though not the yolks). If a recipe requires just egg yolks, either freeze the whites till later, or use them to make meringues. If you don’t use a full knob of mozzarella, grate the remainder into a freezer bag and freeze.
TO SKIN GARLIC, place cloves on a chopping board and place the flat of a large kitchen knife on top of it. Hit sharply with your hand. The skin will pull away from the flattened flesh. There is NO NEED to skin fresh, young ginger.
To make your own SELF-RAISING FLOUR add 1½ teaspoons baking powder and ½ teaspoon salt to every cup of plain flour. CASTER SUGAR is used in baking as it is finer than table sugar, and dissolves quicker. RAW, DEMERARA & MUSCAVADO sugar have varying degrees of molasses left in them. Substitute one for another if you like a more treacle flavour in your baking. BAKING IS A SCIENCE, and cake baking and bread dough cooking are the only areas of cooking where the quantities and temperatures MUST be accurate for the end product to look like it should. Don’t guess, and don’t cut corners. IF A CAKE HAS A PEAKED HILL IN THE CENTRE when you remove it from the oven, the oven temperature was too high. If it is sunken, the temperature was too low, or it was not cooked for long enough. ALWAYS check your oven temperature with a thermometer when you first start to use it, so that you can adjust the temperature up or down accordingly. At home, I need to add 10 degrees to my oven temperature for it to be accurate. THE PUSH TEST is still the best way of judging if a cake is cooked. If it springs back when two fingers are pressed lightly onto the centre of the cake, it is cooked.
LITE CREAM cannot be whipped – the fat has been removed, so there is nothing to give it thickness. THICKENED CREAM can be substituted for pouring cream in many recipes. GRAVOX is as good as real gravy – but I never told you that. To make a cheats custard tart, buy a large sweet pie flan from your supermarket, and a packet of egg custard. Blind bake the flan (Place some baking paper in the flan – still frozen – and fill with rice or dried legumes. Bake for 10 minutes, then remove the paper and rice and bake for a further 10-15 minutes until golden), then make up the custard according to the packet instructions. Pour into the flan, sprinkle some nutmeg over it and chill until set. Tell everyone you spent hours making it.
SEA SALT flakes are the best for everything. CRACKED BLACK PEPPER should be on your work bench, and your table. VANILLA essence is a cheap substitute and should be avoided at all costs. Use only vanilla extract (halve what they recommend for essence) or vanilla bean paste. If you only use the seeds from a vanilla pod, place the pod in a jar of sugar to make vanilla sugar. This is great is coffee, and in all types of baking. Buy WHOLE nutmegs and grate as needed. Store all spices in glass jars, NOT in plastic. Gelatine leaves are best for cooking that requires gelatine. Use TITANIUM strength and soak in cold water for 5 minutes before adding to hot liquids. AGAR AGAR is a natural gelatine substitute, but you need to use a lot more than regular gelatine to get things to set. You can also buy powdered gelatine from supermarkets – use according to instructions. ARROWROOT can be substituted for cornflour. There are two types of rice paper – depending on what you are doing. There is a square white rice paper, bought from health food stores, that is used for things like nougat, macaroons and panforte. It is crisp and edible. The other is from supermarkets and Asian grocers, and used to make spring rolls. ROSEWATER is available from chemists and health food stores. Gold and silver leaf are edible, and available from many craft stores, or artist suppliers. Roses and lavender flowers are edible, however if you aren’t growing and picking them from your own garden, be careful. If they are bought from a florist, there is a high risk that they have been sprayed with insecticide. Places like ‘Herbies’ at Rozelle sell dried flowers that can be eaten.
OILS are a world of their own. Use whatever you prefer, however oils like canola and camellia tea oil have high smoke points – this means they can be raised to a very high temperature without burning. This makes them great for things like stir frying.
I could go on forever, but hope this gives you some help as you enter into the world of food cooking and food prep. Please contact me if you need any info on any cooking products or techniques.