Breakaway Cook

The Beginner's Checklist To Becoming An Outrageously Good Cook

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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.

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Jumpstarting Your Ruts

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We’re saying our goodbyes to Amsterdam, surely among the most livable places I’ve ever been. There’s nothing like a month in a new place to “reset” the brain’s habitual patterns, to see the world in a totally new way.

I had quite a bit of free time to read in Amsterdam, which is my definition of pure luxury. Two books, both on the wild and woolly frontiers of contemporary neuroscience, really stood out: Rapt, by Winifred Gallagher, and The Brain That Changes Itself, by Norman Doidge. There is so much interesting news coming out of neuroscience that it makes one’s head spin (or, actually, remap!), but one common finding in both books is the brain’s ability disrupt old patterns by creating new ones, through sheer repetition. This is something that everyone knows intuitively: do something enough times, and it becomes second nature.

Think of your brain as a snowy hill, to use the metaphor of Doidge. There are lots of ways to go down the hill, but the more you follow the same path, the deeper those tracks become, and the stronger the tendency to take the same route every time. Deep ruts make it hard to go any other way after a while. If the rut is a good habit (brushing and flossing before bed, for example, or exercising regularly), that’s good — you reinforce your good habit every day. But if the rut is bad — and you can name your own bad habits here — or it’s something you want to change, it can take a monumental effort to get out of that rut. The answer, says Gallagher and Doidge, is to not try to break old unwanted habits, but simply to form new ones, which will supercede the old ones through sheer use. Plastic brains can consciously form new habits/tracks, and THEY will become dominant over time.  It’s a self-enforcing mechanism.

As I was reading I couldn’t help but think about cooking, and ruts. Forming good habits in the kitchen (keeping knives sharp, keeping your work area uncluttered and very clean, using equipment you really like, regular shopping at good markets/having good ingredients around, etc.) makes you want to cook. They are conscious nudges, habits that just make it easier. Cooking, once it becomes enjoyable and stress-free, automatically replaces bad habits like eating heavily processed foods (often because you’re too ravenous to do anything else), outsourcing your palate to industrial food concerns, eating on the run, in the car, grabbing whatever purely as fuel to brute one’s way through the chaotic and perhaps neurotic day.

DECIDING to eat better, to cook better, is, of course, the necessary beginning, but it’s the conscious use of attention to change your daily habits that counts most. It might start with deciding to have something tasty and healthy for breakfast, even if it means getting up a few minutes earlier and retraining yourself to feel hunger in the morning (if, for example, you never eat breakfast). Or it might mean prepping  something simple the night before to have for lunch the next day, something wholesome and good. Dinners, too, can be very simple affairs, starting with some good salads and some new good ways to cook vegetables.

It took me a long time for me to figure this out, but once I did, it just kept reinforcing itself. The secret to cooking well is to do it often.  And to tweak it to your own particular taste, not that of cookbook authors, tv chefs, or anyone else!

If anyone has good “nudges” that make you want to cook more, please speak up!

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(The photo is a baba ganoush (cooked and then pureed eggplant, with spices) made for us by my friend (and very talented cook) Basile at his lovely home in Amsterdam. It had a sublimely creamy texture, with plenty of smoke from the garnish of smoked paprika. )

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Demystifying Knives — You Only Need Two!

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The other day I stressed the importance of developing really good knife skills. Now, by “really good” I don’t mean training for a career in food carving; I merely mean getting supercomfortable with the knives you have and use on a regular basis so that you can get meals on the table with just minutes of prep time.

For too many years, I kind of made do with crappy knives. I guess I believed that great cooking was within reach even if all you had was a butterknife. I still think that’s true for certain situations — you find yourself in a borrowed cabin, say, and you’re determined to make a good dinner — but, ever since I’ve used good knives, and kept them sharp, I’m sold on the pure beauty and joy that they can bring to everyday life.

Lots of  cooks have knife sets. Many of you know that I’m not much of a believer in sets of anything, and this most definitely includes knives. Ask a set owner how many of the several dozen knives are used regularly, and the inevitable answer seems to be “two.” I agree with them. I have a few more, mainly because I can’t bear to throw them out, but 95 percent of my prep involves just two knives.  Professional chefs obviously need more than two, but I’m guessing that an overwhelmingly large percentage of us home cooks can cook just about everything we’ve ever wanted to with just two.

Both of the knives shown above are Japanese, but it really doesn’t matter where they’re from. You should have a large (I like six inches) chef’s knife/santoku, and a small paring knife. That’s it. But both should be really good quality. You can probably expect to spend at least $100 on the big one, and $50 on the small one. But they’re the last knives you’ll ever need.

On Sharpening

So how to keep them really sharp?

Lots of people take their knives to a professional to be sharpened; plenty of farmers’ markets these days even have mobile sharpening dudes. I really can’t recommend that route, for the sole reason that the powerful grinders they use really take off a LOT of metal. Go to them often enough and you wind up with knives that look as if they’ve had 30 percent haircuts! Besides, who wants to pack up the knives, schlep them someplace, and pay for this destruction?

I think I’ve tried every method of knife sharpening, including purchasing ceramic knives that allegedly don’t need sharpening at all. In fact, they do, and Kyocera’s solution — to box them up every once in a while and send them to Kyocera for professional sharpening — borders on the absurd; they’re great while they’re sharp though.

The best solution I’ve found is a diamond-surfaced stone, shown above. It has two sides of diamond coating: one rough and one finer. Superdull knives need the rough side, but reasonably not-dull knives work well with the finer side. Three to four strokes on each side of the knife gets them razor sharp.

You’re not quite done yet though — now just glide it up and down a sharpening steel (which would more accurately be called a honing steel, since that’s what we’re doing here) to remove the tiny burrs created by the diamond, and you will have scary-sharp knives.

On Grip

Most cooks grasp the handle of a knife, but my friend Charles Haynes showed me a method that we both believe is superior, and that offers far greater control. Move your entire hand about an inch UP the handle, toward the blade, and grasp the handle where it meets the blade, with your thumb and forefinger, and gently squeeze it. Use your other three fingers to grip the handle, but keep relaxed about it. It’s a lot like “choking up” on a baseball bat. It may sound strange, and perhaps feel awkward at first, but I urge you to try it. You’ll soon see that it becomes like an extension of your hand; it will give you confidence and remove the fear of hurting yourself. Knife slips become far less common because control is radically increased.

It’s also important to use your knives tactilely, not visually. If you rely on the fingers of both hands to do the work, you can proceed literally blindly and not worry about hurting yourself, because when your fingers talk to one another, they don’t miscue.

This is how it’s done, assuming you’re right handed: hold whatever is you’re cutting–be it an onion, a carrot, piece of meat, or whatever—with your left hand by pointing your fingertips toward the middle of your palm. Imagine that you’re imitating a cat, claws drawn—that’s the shape you want for your left hand. Now, holding the knife as described above, tap the flat, broad side of the blade against the first knuckle below your fingertips, to let your left hand “know” where the knife is.  There is virtually no chance of slicing off a fingertip if you do this—it takes the fingertip out of the equation entirely. Feeling the broad side of the blade against your left knuckle, you can now slice and dice with impunity without even looking, since you’re now proceeding by touch (i.e., feeling the blade against your knuckle), not by sight. It never ceases to alarm and amaze my friends and cooking students who watch me do this, and who tend to rely on their eyes to not lop their fingertips off. This “claw” method, along with the “high grip” method of grasping the knife, can be learned in just a few minutes, and will provide a lifetime of vastly increased pleasure and safety in using really sharp knives.

The hands do a lot better when they operate on their own, without much bossing around from the eyes or, especially, the brain. Try focusing your awareness into your hands, and letting them figure out the best way to chop something.

On Slicing

Most people use a knife like a hammer—they bring the knife straight down on a piece of food, and rarely use a sawing motion. I find that the combination of sawing and hammering is the best; it lets the sharpness of the knife do most of the work. There is also a palpable pleasure in feeling, through the fingers of your right hand, the feeling of really sharp metal glide through something.

Your left hand is the guide. If you want really thin slices of something, you barely, almost imperceptibly, move it. If you want thicker slices, you’ll move it more.

One last, if obvious, point: don’t use your precious knives for ANYTHING other than preparing food. Don’t open packages, don’t use as a screwdriver, don’t cut Styrofoam, don’t cut thread.

Anyone have any tips I haven’t covered?

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Three Little Tricks that Make Cooking Easier and Better

 

Over the years, I’ve discovered, through sheer trial and error, a few realizations that have really helped make me a better, more productive, and more interesting home cook. I would like to go over everything I’ve discovered over time, but one of the great things about the blog format is that it’s nice to present ideas in little snippets for easier overal digestion. So with that in mind, here are three little tricks, or habits, I’ve developed that have really helped me. Maybe they’ll help you, too. Thinking like this begets more cooking, and better eating.

1.  Upgrade your relationship with salt. Throw out the iodized table salt and replace it with kosher. Purchase some sea salts with varying textures and colors/origins, and get to know them. Then find some sel gris (coarse gray salt from the coast of Brittany, France) and begin to make flavored salts. Most of the salt that most people consume is consumed via processed foods, which are loaded — and then some — with salt. The breakaway cooking style may appear at first glance to place an undue emphasis on salt. But because processed foods play little or no role in the cooking and eating habits of breakway cooks, overall salt intake is probably much lower than those with average, conventional diets.

Salt is the most important ingredient in every cuisine on earth, and for good reason: it makes food taste good, and our bodies must take in adequate salt replenishment just to survive.  Surely it’s a good thing to control and tweak our own intake to our own preferences, as opposed to consuming huge quantities of salt through processed foods and then needing to “watch our salt” intake. Using better and more interesting salts also lends visual and textural interest to your food, in addition to making it taste a whole lot better.     

2.  Make way more than you think you’ll need for any particular meal. The reason? It’s just as easy to cook a pound (or more) of something than it is to cook a half-pound (or less) of something, be it meat, vegetable, pasta, salad, whatever. What to do with the extra? This is a good problem to have!  Simply eat it for lunch the day, or use it as a component for a future meal, or give it away to someone. It’s awfully convenient to have a tupperware full of cooked chicken, which can be used in all sorts of ways: in a stir-fry, an omelet, fried rice, in a sandwich, in a pasta dish, on pizza . . . and dozens more. It will save you a huge amount of prep time and cook time. Same with baking bread: make enough for three or four loaves, instead of just one, and refrigerate the dough — then it’s just a matter of shaping a loaf and throwing it in the oven. Same with salad:  washing and spinning a bunch of greens — enough for two or three or four salads — and storing the ready-to-go greens in a bag in your fridge means instant salad. Nice for the times when you just can’t deal with the hassle of putting it together. 

3.   Keep a bunch of different liquids in your fridge. So much of good cooking involves liquid: boiling, braising, simmering, sauteing, poaching . . . most cooks typically use water and stock for this type of cooking, but using different liquids adds layered complexity and flavor to foods without extra work or fuss. The more liquids you have lying around the kitchen, the better! I almost always have on hand the following:

  • fresh carrot juice (by far my favorite; I think of carrot juice as a stock)
  • white wine, dry and not so dry
  • red wine
  • sake
  • apple juice
  • boxed organic chicken stock (homemade is obviously better, but not by that much, and the convenience factor is a massive plus)
  • boxed organic beef stock (as above)
  • maple syrup
  • pomegranate molasses
  • ginger syrup
  • date syrup
  • plum syrup
  • I’m interested in hearing more supersimple tips — cooking philosophies, even — from YOU. What epiphanies have made you a better cook?

     

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