Breakaway Cook

The Beginner's Checklist To Becoming An Outrageously Good Cook

.

I‘ve said it before, and I’ll say it forevermore: it’s EASY to become a great cook nowadays. In stark contrast to just a few generations ago, today most of us can cruise out our doors and find quality raw ingredients, we have access to the world’s great cuisines just by visiting some ethnic markets, and we can order just about anything on earth with the click of a button and a credit card. The earth continues to radically shrink, and home cooks continue to be the beneficiaries of it.

The flip side: it’s also easier than ever to buy packaged crap and frozen just-heat-up crap, to get take-out crap, and to eat crappy meals in restaurants. It’s almost as if the “work” of feeding ourselves has been outsourced to those that can do it the cheapest and who can make it the most convenient.

What’s missing in all this convenience, however, is the concept of “taking ownership” of what you put into your body. Huge food processing companies have figured out ever-more profitable ways of manipulating a few basic –and heavily subsidized — staples like corn, wheat, and soy, tarting them up in increasingly bizarre ways with increasingly bizarre ingredients no one can pronounce, let alone understand, adding way too much salt and fat, and packaging it all in consumer-friendly designs, colors, and materials to entice us to just outsource the whole business of eating to them.

This is nuts on so many levels one doesn’t know where to begin, other than the beginning: feed yourself! It’s easy if you follow these three superbasic guidelines:

1) It’s not about the gear! Some of the most inventive, knowledgeable cooks I know have the crappiest kitchens. Good cooks can make a lot happen with very little (check out Mark Bittman’s bad kitchen). That said, quality stuff is, of course, nice, and will last longer than crappy gear. But don’t rush out and buy a set of something. Avoid sets like the plague. Just buy what you need, and nothing more.  Cast iron is my favorite, and it happens to be the cheapest. See also this post on cooking well in a minimally equipped kitchen.

2) Use good salt, and pepper, wisely. Undersalting, and using crappy salt (that is to say, iodized table salt) are major obstacles to good cooking. Get yourself some kosher salt, some good sea salt, and some good whole black peppercorns; “good” doesn’t necessarily mean expensive. And for the breakaway leap into salts as culinary nirvana, begin to adapt flavored salts into your cooking. For lots of juicy details, check out my essay, “On the Massive Importance of Salt.”

3) Be fearless. Don’t be afraid of making mistakes! A good friend recently told me, “the best cooks are those that make the most mistakes.” It’s true — there’s no better way to learn. It’s also the best way to get to know your own palate. By varying and playing with levels of salt, sweet, herbaceousness, acid/tart, and umami, you begin to learn what lights up YOUR taste buds. No one else’s matters! Play and learn. You get to practice three times a day for the rest of your life — you WILL get this right. And the quicker you make your mistakes, the tastier and healthier your food will be for the rest of your life. Start simple, and start now. Today.

Comment using your facebook account:

Supertasty, Superquick Daikon Salad


..ff

I love this salad. You get the daikon ribbons just by using a vegetable peeler — they come off in wonderful little strips. You then rinse them in cold water, which really improves their taste (I think it rids them of that property that many people find unpleasant: that bitter, superradishy taste). Blot dry in a tea towel.

That’s the base — you can then add whatever. Here I’ve added pomegranate arils — is there ANY dish that isn’t improved with pomegranate arils? — avocado, some orange bell pepper strips, and some cooked edamame I had in the fridge. Dressing of choice is a combo of some neutral oil (walnut oil is one of my faves, as is avocado oil) plus a tiny drizzle of sesame oil. And a squeeze of lemon (or yuzu, or other citrus of choice) for tang. Dust with s&p. Inhale, feel great. Top off with a cup of matcha for the full antioxidant high!

Comment using your facebook account:

Top 10 Food Trends for 2010: All Breakaway Related!

.

Imagine my surprise when the folks at The Food Channel published their “top 10 food trends” for the year, and almost all of them were directly related to breakaway cooking! I’m borrowing their graphics here, and adding my own commentary; you can see their original posting here.

.

.

I’ve never considered cooking from scratch to be a trend — considering it was the ONLY way to cook throughout 99.9999 percent of human history — but hooray anyway! Using great raw ingredients in very simple ways is the very heart of breakaway cooking. Nothing very fancy, and never anything fussy, just simple honest food, prepared with a global perspective in mind.

.

.

It appears that, finally, Americans are getting more comfortable experimenting in their own kitchens. Hooray again! I’ve said it a million times, and let me say it again: it’s all about YOUR palate, not someone else’s. You can, and should, tweak away in any way you see fit. You’re the one eating the results. Every culture has a kind of culinary canon, but that doesn’t mean you have to follow it. Ignore what doesn’t resonate, and dive into that that does. Canonical dishes became canonical because they tend to work, and lots of people like and reproduce them, but seriously: experiment! The food tradition police aren’t watching!

.

.

More and better stuff in grocery stores, especially in the produce aisles. I would add to this: more ethnic markets! Don’t forget: for things like fresh spices, fresh herbs, rice, and of course global flavor blasts, ethnic markets are far superior to, and vastly cheaper than, the megastores like Safeway. If you think about it, this isn’t surprising: the majority of people who shop in ethnic markets (think Mexican, Korean, Middle Eastern, Japanese, Chinese, Southeast Asian, and Indian) actually cook a ton at home, and actually USE spices! This means turnover is higher, which means their supplies are ipso factor fresher and better. Take full advantage of these markets, people!

.

.

They said it so well I’ll just quote. It’s pure breakaway!

“This is all about flavor delivery. Immigration has come to the plate, and we are now defining a new Global Flavor Curve. Part comfort, part creativity, the latest flavors are coming from the great American melting pot. So, it’s about grandma’s food, but the recipes may be written in Japanese. American food is distinctive in its lack of identity outside of the hamburger—until, that is, you mix in our heritage. This is the year we’ll do it in a big way. The presentation of food, the flavor, and the experimentation is coming into its own in 2010.

It’s really a redefinition of “ethnic” to take it beyond even traditional thinking. Flavors from Africa and Japan and Asia are joining with Mexican and Italian as top-of-mind choices—“Let’s go out for Thai” is as common in many American cities as “I’m craving Mexican.” And, the menu in that Thai restaurant may well offer a side of French fries.

It’s not just about restaurants, of course. The true American ethnic is a merging of flavors at home. We’re taking those old recipes, and we’re applying our own cooking knowledge and available spices to make them “original” all over again. We’re pairing things differently, too—a little from this country, a little from that, and we have a new flavor and texture combination that is distinctly American. It’s a great time to be a spice.”

.

.

Vet your food, folks. If you eat meat, try to find a local farmer/rancher who’ll sell you a little; you really owe to yourself and your family to KNOW where it comes from. Small family ranches will often sell you a whole animal that you can share with some friends if you have a small, inexpensive freezer. And they’ll butcher it, wrap it, label it, and freeze it for you, too. Often for LESS than you’d pay for industrial meat, whose practices you really don’t wanna know about.

Sourcing local veggies and fruit is obviously much easier: you just have to go to your local farmers’ market. There really is no reason to do your main shopping for your food staples at supermarkets (occasionally, of course, convenience and circumstances dictate that we must, but it’s more the exception than the rule for breakaway-style cooking).

.

.

Sort of the same point as #5, but throw in packaging: buying your food from farmers and ranchers you meet in person necessarily means better — that is to say, less — packaging. Just bring your canvas bags!

.

.

To use Pollan’s phrase, “edible food-like substances” are necessarily concerning themselves more with boosting the nutritional values of foods — mainly because they sell better with messages like “more antioxidants!” — but we’re not concerned with that at all, since “nutritional” processed foods are largely still crappy processed foods. Avoid them like the plague. And stock up on the real nutritional superfoods (and breakaway staples) like matcha, pomegranate, blueberries, all leafy greens, wild salmon, turkey, squashes, beans, oats, walnuts, citrus ….

.

.

Well, need we say more! This was the most personally pleasing of the ten for me. Do a search on umami in the upper right corner of this blog to get a glimpse on how often we talk about umami around here. Boosting the umami levels of your home-cooked food will make you a far, far better cook, guaranteed!

.

.

I love trading cooking classes, private dinners, or anything else for services I need and can’t really afford (things like web design, web development, legal advice, accounting advice, etc.). If you grow some of your own food, and have more than you can use, you can even trade that!  Check out Veggie Trader.

.

.

Not sure I quite get what they’re driving at here, except maybe that individual palate is king. And that many, many people these days are doing lots of DIY food projects like pickling, making jerky, making flavored salts, etc. Breakaway projects, all of them!

I’m loving that so many of the above fit so nicely into the approach we’ve been trumpeting here for years. So bravo to you, Food Channel!

Comment using your facebook account:

Bitterly Delicious, Two-Minute Salad

.

Pickings are somewhat slim these days at the local farmers markets, so I was doubly pleased to find one of the most beautiful displays of winter greens I’ve ever seen at the stand of Jesse Kuhn’s Marin Roots farm. He probably had ten kinds of bitter lettuces and chicories, all surreally gorgeous and deliciously bitter.

“Deliciously bitter” may sound like a contradiction, but it’s not (it also sounds better in Japanese: “nigakute oishii” is high praise there). The trick to enjoying these beautiful, healthful salad greens (“salad purples” is more like it) is to introduce a tiny amount of sweetness in the dressing to offset the bitterness. So my two-minute prep of this salad went something like this:

  1. Tear up enough leaves for your salad (Jesse washes his lettuces meticulously, so I often don’t even bother with rinsing and spinning)
  2. Drizzle on your best fruity green unfiltered olive oil, along with a drizzle of something sweet. My favorite sweetener for this use is jaggery syrup (watch for a video on how to make this soon in this space), but you could also use agave, ginger syrup, simple syrup, or maple syrup). A brief squeeze of Meyer lemon or other citrus for acidity.
  3. Toss on pomegranate arils, a few marcona almonds, and flowers, and dust with s&p (yuzu salt or tangerine salt are especially nice).
  4. Declare victory, and get ready for an entirely different — and thoroughly pleasant — salad experience.

You could tart this up a million and one ways — with more fruit, smoked fish, other veggies — but sometimes the simplest salad is the best, provided your ingredients are top-notch.

Does anyone else here like bitter lettuces?

Comment using your facebook account: