Friday, August 31, 2012

Back to Basics, Part 1: Sauté


Photo by Daniel Castro
When many of us think of “classical French cooking”, we think of a busy professional kitchen with trained chefs using fancy copper pots to cook dishes whose names we can’t pronounce with ingredients of which we’ve never heard.  But in reality, French cooking can be boiled (pun intended…) down to six basic cooking methods, all of which are attainable by any home cook as long as you understand them.  And once you do, you can use the methods to cook any number of foods, even without a recipe.                                               
My goal is to introduce you to these six cooking methods: sautéing, roasting, poaching, braising, frying and grilling.  I’ll do this over the course of several issues of The Aztec, so this week we’ll start with what I consider one of the easiest and most versatile methods: sautéing. 

The sauté method is a dry heat method of cooking done on the stovetop, meaning that you use very little fat (like vegetable or olive oil, butter or rendered fat such as bacon fat) in the bottom of a shallow sauté pan (commonly known as a frying pan).  This method is also quite hot and quick, so you cannot expect that sautéing will tenderize your protein.  This means you should use tender, thin cuts of meat, poultry, fish, or shellfish (known as “portion cuts”, meaning they are the size of a portion).   Or if you like, you can sauté thick slices of vegetables. 

One characteristic of sautéing is that, due to the high heat, quick cooking and low amount of liquid, you can achieve a beautiful golden brown exterior and juicy interior.  And the best part is that you can make a delicious, flavorful sauce right in the pan after your protein is finished cooking!  All you need for your sauce is some kind of acidic deglazing liquid (such as wine, beer or juice), a little bit of flour for thickening, and a base (such as stock or vegetable puree).  You can also add aromatics (like onion and garlic), finishing ingredients (like butter, cream or pureed vegetables), or garnishing ingredients (like fresh herbs).

 Here’s the basic sauté procedure:

1.       Prepare your food by marinating, seasoning with salt and pepper, or even dredging in a very small amount of flour which will create a very light crust upon cooking. 

2.      Place your food “presentation side” down in the searing hot pan (over medium-high heat) that has 1-2 Tablespoons of hot oil in it.  Cook until golden brown.

3.      Flip your food and cook on the other side until you reach your desired doneness, based on the temperature of the meat or by cutting it open to look on the inside. 

4.      Remove your food from the cooking pan and set aside to rest.

5.      Add any aromatics you are using for your sauce and cook over medium-low heat until soft.  Deglaze your pan (which means loosen the flavorful browned bits, called “fond”) using your acidic liquid.  Allow this liquid to reduce through simmering until your pan is nearly dry.

6.      Sprinkle a little flour over your aromatics and stir to mix in.  Add your base liquid (like stock) and whisk to dissolve the flour.  Allow this liquid to come to a simmer and cook it, uncovered and stirring occasionally, until the sauce reaches your desired thickness.

7.      Finish with butter or cream if desired and garnish.  Serve with your sautéed food items.

Tips:
  • When sautéing, try to use a pan that is not too large for the amount of food you’re cooking or your food will burn.  Never overcrowd your pan, either, as you will trap moisture and steam your food as opposed to creating a delicious crispy crust.
  • If you’re cooking something very thick like a large chicken breast or thick steak, you may want to transfer your entire pan (but only if it’s oven proof!) into a 350°F/175°C oven after you’ve flipped the meat to the second side in order to cook it more evenly and efficiently.
  • If, while you’re cooking your meat, you notice that the bottom of the pan is burning, turn down the heat.  You want to make sure you don’t burn the fond or your sauce will have a bitter taste.
  • Don't start cooking until you're sure your pan is hot enough!  You won't get that beautiful brown coating if you start with fat that is too cold.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Vegetables!

I’ve only been in Mexico City for abit over two months, but I’ve already discovered how fantastic it is that thevegetables are inexpensive (particularly at the open-air markets), plentifuland delicious.  I love opening myrefrigerator and having a plethora of vegetables from which to choose and createmy family’s evening meal.  But what to dowith all of them?!?  There’s nothingworse than a “vegetable rut”, particularly when that means the kids refuse toeat them, you are not getting the nutrition you need, and veggies are rottingaway in your fridge!

Here are a few tips to help you getout of that rut and get the delicious veggies back on the plate!

What’s my go-to method forpractically any vegetable? ROASTING!  If you’ve already triedit, you know what I’m talking about.  Andif you haven’t, well jump on this wagon because you’ll never turn back:

Any vegetable (or a medley!) + Olive Oil + Pepper + Salt(preferably Kosher or sea salt),
roasted in a 450°F/230°C oven for about 20 minutes (or lessfor thinner/less durable veggies)
= delicious, caramelized perfection that everyone (even my3-year-old) LOVES

Keep in mind:
·        As always, cut your vegetables asuniformly as possible so they cook evenly.
·        If you’re using a medley ofvegetables, either cut the sturdier vegetables into slightly smaller piecesthan the delicate vegetables or start cooking those sturdier vegetables earlyand add the more delicate vegetables later.
·        Don’t use too much salt…a littlegoes a long way, particularly when you’re using the coarser salts.

Some other great ideas for using upvegetables:
·        Meatloaf: For every 2 lbs/1kg ofmeat (mix types if possible!), sauté 1 Cup total of your choice of vegetablesalong with a chopped onion and garlic. Mix cooked vegetables with meat and your choice of complimentaryspices/herbs/liquid, eggs and breadcrumbs (or panade) and bake.
·        Macaroni and Cheese: Add up to threeCups of cooked vegetables to your favorite cheese sauce and a pound of cookedpasta.
·        Fried Rice: First cook small amountsof ginger/garlic/scallions in vegetable oil. If using meat, add to the aromatics, cook until done then remove and setaside.  Add your choice of vegetables (asmuch as you want, cut into bite-sized pieces) to the pan, cook untiltender.  Add cold, cooked rice (hot,fresh rice doesn’t work…this is a great way to use leftovers!) and toss with cookedvegetables. Make a hole in the center of your mixture, add a little morevegetable oil and scramble 1-2 eggs. Once scrambled, mix egg into rice and vegetables.  Add meat back in and stir until hot again,season with soy sauce and salt/pepper.
·        Spaghetti Sauce: Cook your choice ofvegetables slowly in olive oil (or in the rendered fat of your choice of meat)along with onions until very sweet and completely tender.  Add desired dried herbs, cook a littlelonger, then add tomato paste and cook until sweet-smelling.  Add canned or fresh chopped tomatoes andallow to simmer until desired consistency achieved.  Add fresh herbs at the end.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Welcome to "The Global Fork"!

I started this blog just about three years ago exactly...back then I had a brand new baby girl and had not even attended Culinary School.  I'd never even worked in a restaurant.  But my husband suggested I start writing down my thoughts, observations, and musings about food, entertaining, cooking and dining.  Back then I had no idea what I would be using my Culinary degree for, nor where life would take us.

Fast forward three years...we have two beautiful children (E & C), I have a degree from the Culinary Institute of America and have held several jobs in the Culinary industry (both in restaurants and at a food magazine), K works for the State Department, we're living in Mexico City, and the world, quite literally, is our oyster.  (Mmm...oysters...oh, sorry...back on topic...)  The next 20 years (at least) promises to deliver many many overseas moves, countless new experiences and, much to my delight, many culinary adventures.  I still don't know exactly what I want to do with my degree, but I'm delighted that the one thing that hasn't changed is that I want to work with food every day of my life if possible, and help bring good food to people's tables in some way or another.  (This might sound a bit "non-committal" to some, but you must be realistic as a spouse of a Foreign Service Officer, anticipating being in a new environment every 2-3 years...)

I anticipate that each new country we move to will bring about opportunities for me whether it be catering in some manner, working in a restaurant (probably more likely when the kids are older), or some sort of food writing gig.  I am lucky that here in Mexico City, I have such an opportunity writing for the post newsletter.  It's nothing flashy, just a simple food column published weekly, but I am excited and honored to do it and hope I can deliver a little something worthwhile to the readers each week.  So in honor of the many changes and our new and exciting future, I introduce to you "The Global Fork" where I'll be sharing my experiences and adventures, some cooking tips and recipes, hopefully answering some reader questions, and basically sharing my day to day life with you.  Thanks for reading.