Saturday, May 17, 2008

Dinner: Bought, cooked, served

The problem with making real food for dinner is that real food seems complicated. You can't just pick up any old tomato, because sometimes you'll get one that's been sitting on the shelf just a bit too long; or maybe the asparagus isn't in season, or you haven't quite got the knack for sorting string beans. And then when you get it home, it's a question of how to prepare it--which food gets cooked first, how do you peel a tomato, is it okay to leave the skin on a potato? Either you've bought too much or not enough of one thing, and while you're pitching a fit worrying about whether the meal will taste good, the sauce is burning and you wonder how it is I persuaded you to try cooking your own dinner.

The fact is, though, making real food for dinner is not that complicated. I learned to cook by the seat of my pants, which I would argue is more suitable to real-life cooking than culinary school techniques. All the same, it does take an effort--it doesn't have to be much effort, but you do have to be willing to take your health into your own hands rather than leave it in the hands of a for-profit corporation. With that in mind, let's cook! The following lists contains 10 tips to simplify shopping, cooking, and storing real food.


1. Produce and/or meat - Use your senses. Don't just look at the color. Pick it up, test its weight--is it light, or heavy? Does it smell right? If you tap it, is it hard, or soft? Turn it over, check all sides of it--are there dark spots, indicating bruising? Is there a cut where the juice is leaking out? This doesn't have to take a long time. With a little practice, you can do all this within a split second of just picking it up, giving a quick once-over, and make a decision.

2. Know what's in season - You could make "Asparagus with Hollandaise Sauce" for Christmas. But you might not be able to find asparagus in December, and if you do, it'll be of questionable quality. There's a season for everything, during which they taste better than most. Knowing what's in season can help you plan your menu so that you can take advantage of the best food at the best prices.

3. List everything - Making a list and checking it twice isn't just for Santa Claus. It helps you not forget the one critical ingredient to your chili, keeps you on task so that you don't get sidetracked by that wonderful deal on Belgian endives (which you don't know what to do with), and gets you in and out of the store faster. If you're in a rush at the end of the day, this will save you from a lot of muttering, "What did I want to get again?" Do this the night before, or, if you have a long train ride, on the way home, and you'll save yourself a whole ton of time, and possibly money.


4. Know what you want, or planning - In science, we start every experiment with a brief note as to why we're doing it, what we hope to find, and our hypothesis for the outcome. Cooking is much the same thing (a parallel I will continue to make). Starting with the idea that you want scrambled eggs and changing your mind halfway through may lead to something brilliant, but only if you're a trained chef. Know what it is you want to make, and make sure you have all of the ingredients--before you start.

5. Mis en place, everything in its place - Mis en place is French (of course) for putting everything in its place. Basically, you get all of the ingredients ready. If the recipe calls for a cup of chopped onions, chop up onions to fill that cup. If the recipe calls for peeled tomatoes, peel the tomatoes (or, my secret, use the canned version). If you're just starting out, this can seem like an extra hassle, but it saves you a lot of time and trouble when you start cooking, because everything will be right there. Once you get used to it, you quickly learn which foods can be bunched together and which ones have to remain separate.

6. Know thyself - At least, know thine own equipment. And then realize that recipes are written for the average, so make your own adjustments where needed. Our oven has a propensity to burn everything if given half an excuse, so I usually set the temperature and the timer to a few degrees and a few minutes less than what's given. Pay attention to how long things take (water to boil, chopping onions), so you can figure out what can be multitasked.

7. Food safety - No cooking post would be complete without a note on food safety: keep veggies and meats separate, milk and cheeses refrigerated, and don't, whatever else you do, use a can that looks like it's about to explode. Use common sense to stay safe. Food is, after all, a living thing, and some living things are more deadly than others.

8. Clean as you go - If you've got everything laid out and you're just waiting for the onions to start sizzling, start putting stuff away, washing what dishes you're finished with, etc. Two advantages to this: one, you won't have to do it after your dinner, and two, it looks really impressive if the kitchen is spanking clean in spite of having cooked up a storm.


9. Leftovers are your friends - I don't know why people are allergic to leftovers. I routinely cook extra food so that there will be leftovers, which get eaten when we're both too exhausted to cook. Make extra, and tuck them into a Tupperware or similar storage device, and you can eat two meals for the effort of one.

10. Proper storage - The colder, the better. If you plan on eating the food within a few days, then it'll be okay in the refrigerator. But for longer storage, put it in the freezer. Be sure to use an airtight container, because otherwise you'll come back to freezer-burned food that will taste funny. Freezer burn, incidentally, is not because the food "gets frostbite", but because the water sublimates from it, leaving it dehydrated. It's a very slow version of what happens when food gets freeze-dried.

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