More Tips for a Happier Kitchen, Pt. I

During my adventures in the kitchen, I discover various tips and shortcuts — usually by accident — that make my cooking easier or more effective. I could probably do a whole blog just on handy cooking tips, except that’s not really my thing and I’m sure someone else is already doing a good job of it.

Applewood smoked bacon from the clearance aisle

For now, here are some recent epiphanies that I hope will benefit your cooking, too!

Flavor & the Passing of Time
I was preparing an Italian roasted green pepper salad the other day when I was reminded of a simple truth in cooking. That often, when ingredients are allowed to sit idly integrating together, the flavors meld and the sum is greater than the individual components. More

Advertisements

Top 10 Simple Things that Will Make a Huge Difference in Your Cooking

Here’s my Top 10 really easy things you can do in your life and your cooking that will make a huge difference in your food. Trust me.

• 1. Cook Seasonally — Curb your desire for tomatoes from Peru in January. Find creative ways to cook kale instead. It will transform your cooking, you’ll feel inspired to be in rhythm with the seasons. And it’s REALLY good for the earth. Think of all the gas it took to get that waxy apple from New Zealand to your table in August.

• 2. Use the Best Ingredients Possible — Don’t skimp on what goes into your food. Make sure your fish or meat is fresh, spend a little extra for good quality butter and salt, shop at farmer’s markets for your produce… If you’ve got a little piece of land (you don’t need much), try growing some of your favorite veggies and fruits.

* 3. Exercise Portion Size Control — Don’t serve too much food to your guests, or yourself. You should leave them satisfied, wanting more. Don’t have friends for a barbecue and make a pound of salmon for each person. A quarter pound will do.

• 4. Don’t Be Afraid to Season Your Food — Salt is your friend. You could oversalt your homemade dinner, and you’d still be eating less salt than if you had a Lean Cuisine or Stouffers dinner, much less your favorite menu items from Claim Jumper or Chili’s. (Do you actually eat at those places???) Lightly salt your food while it’s cooking, and choose a nice flaky sea salt to sprinkle over the dish before serving.

• 5. Do As Much Prep As You Can Before You Begin — Chop your onions, make your sauces, pre-cook anything you can prior to beginning to cook and assemble your dish. It’s what restaurants do. It saves time at the end and makes cooking more fun. Check out the “Mise En Place” post in the Archives for more.

• 6. Read — When I was in graduate school studying writing, I never learned as much about how to write from professors and courses as I did from reading great writers. Same goes for cooking. Let yourself be inspired by cookbooks, even if you don’t make what’s in them. There’s nothing better than a Saturday afternoon spent with a good cookbook. Subscribe to a cooking magazine or two (Saveur and Cooks Illustrated would be my picks). Read my blog often!

• 7. Shop Often — In Paris as a kid, I marveled at how people stopped at three or four different stores between the Metro stop and their homes — the charcuterie, the boulangerie, the fromagerie — to purchase stuff for dinner. Back home, I was used to going to Vons once every two weeks. I’ve adopted the French model. I shop at least three or four times a week, at farmer’s markets, fish markets, Mexican carnicerias, Japanese markets… Costco is not conducive to spontaneous, inspired cooking.

• 8. Let Your Inner Artist Out — Think of the plate as your canvas. Food should be as beautiful as it is delicious. Consider ways to add color to a dish — a shaving of carrots, some blanched greens, some wispy chives, a sprinkling of edible flowers. If the plate looks dull when you’ve plated the food, try a drizzle of green olive oil or a zig zag of black kecap manis. (*see Archives for more about kecap manis.)

• 9. Support Your Local Farmers — Even if you live in a city, there are farmers just beyond its outskirts. Meet them at farmer’s markets, get to know the guy who is producing your food. If people are making cheese or bread or wine near you, buy stuff from them. Or, learn to produce your own goods. So far, I garden, cure my own meats, brine my own olives and get eggs from my own chickens. My family makes wine. Cheese is my next frontier.

• 10. The Most Important Tip — Have Fun — I once asked the great French chef, Jacques Pepin, what his most important tip to the home cook was. He said, “Open a bottle of wine. And have fun.” The simplest wisdom is sometimes the best.

Spaghetti, 101 (My Fave Five)

Carbonara

Has there ever been a more perfect, versatile food than spaghetti? Layer-upon-layer of flavors emerging from within coiled strands of toothsome semolina goodness… In Italy, spaghetti is ubiquitous, dressed in myriad creative ways far beyond that ol’ American standard of greasy meatballs and heavy tomato sauce obscuring overcooked noodles. In Italy, it’s the noodle they celebrate more than the sauce. As Mario Batali says, the sauce is the “condiment.” Scroll down a bit and you’ll find recipes for five of my favorite “condiments” — easy, wonderful dishes you can make in as little as 10 minutes!

Meanwhile, here’s three of the best tips you’ll ever get about cooking spaghetti (or any pasta, for that matter):  1.) Salt your water generously before you start cooking the pasta. I typically throw in a heaping tablespoon. 2.) ALWAYS save the pasta water you have cooked the spaghetti in. Very rarely should you actually drain the spaghetti — lift it out instead with tongs and drop it in the sauce. You’ll use the water to moderate the sauciness of your pasta. 3.) DO NOT add olive oil to your pasta water. This is a waste of oil and money. The way to keep your pasta from sticking together is to stir it the first couple minutes it’s in the water, and then once or twice while it’s cooking.

I like to cook a half pound of spaghetti — you can feed 2-4 people (or 10-12 yoga students), depending on how hungry they are. So all of the following recipes are based on cooking a half pound. You could double it to serve more, or to have tasty leftovers in the fridge. (I’m a big tasty leftover guy, myself…) Don’t forget, you’ll want to save the pasta water for several of these recipes.

(Note: Because of ingredients such as butter and pork, several of these recipes will NOT be starlet- or skinny-yoga-student friendly. If you are serving a starlet or skinny yoga student, substitute quinoa for the spaghetti, expeller-pressed sunflower oil for the butter and tempeh for the pork.)


Spaghetti with Butter, Pepper and Parmesan

This is the simplest and perhaps most wonderful of all. You can also substitute 1/4 cup good fruity extra virgin olive oil for the butter if you’d like a lighter, more healthy pasta. But remember, don’t be afraid of butter. And the better quality the butter, salt and cheese, the better the final results. I use Italian butter from the same Parma cows that make Parmesan, Maldon salt and aged Parmesan Reggiano.

1/2 lb spaghetti
1/2 stick butter (1/4 cup)
flaky sea salt and pepper
freshly grated good Parmesan Reggiano cheese

Cook pasta to al dente. Drain briefly in a collander (do not rinse!) Return pasta to cooking pot, toss with butter until all butter is melted. Sprinkle with salt and pepper, toss again, and plate. Top with generous amount of grated Parmesan Reggiano and serve. (You could also sprinkle some chopped Italian parsley over the top for a hint of freshness.)

Spaghetti Carbonara

This is the traditional preparation, which is a whole different animal than the gummy cream-based version you’ve come to know at Olive Garden’s all-you-can-eat pasta bar.

1/2 lb spaghetti
3 oz pancetta (or bacon)
2 tbsp olive oil
1/2 cup grated Parmesan Reggiano, plus extra for grating
1 whole egg and one egg yolk
flaky sea salt and pepper

While pasta water is heating, cook pancetta or bacon to crisp in a pan with olive oil, remove to drain on paper towels and reserve fat in the pan. Cook spaghetti to al dente. Remove with tongs to the pan with the pancetta or bacon fat, bringing a couple tablespoons of pasta water with you. Add pancetta or bacon, broken up into pieces, and heat briefly over high heat, stirring. Remove from heat. Add egg and extra egg yolk and 1/2 cup of Parmesan, and toss to mix. Divide among plates and top with more grated Parmesan, salt and freshly ground pepper.

Spaghetti with Sauteed Greens

This starlet-approved crowd pleaser is perfect for those spontaneous after-yoga-class dinner parties.

1/2 lb spaghetti
1 bunch swiss chard, tuscan black kale or beet greens
3 cloves garlic
1/4 cup olive oil plus extra for drizzling
1 tsp crushed red pepper
flaky sea salt and pepper
Parmesan Reggiano

Cook spaghetti to al dente. While spaghetti is cooking, chop your greens roughly into large pieces. Smash garlic cloves with back of a knife, break up and cook over medium heat in olive oil. As garlic begins to turn golden, add crushed red pepper and toss. Add greens and sauté for five minutes, with a dash of salt, until greens are cooked. Drain pasta, adding 1/4 cup of the pasta water to your greens. Add pasta and cook over high heat for about a minute, or until sauce thickens and binds to pasta. Remove from heat and divide among plates.

Spaghetti with Fresh Clams

You could also use the more familiar linguini in this preparation, which will NOT remind you of the version your grandma in Jersey used to make when you were a kid.

1/2 lb spaghetti
1 lb fresh clams in their shell, scrubbed
3 cloves garlic, crushed with the back of a knife
1 small Spanish chorizo (see La Española Meats under “Links” to order)
1/2 cup wine
1/4 cup olive oil
1/4 cup chopped Italian parsley
flaky sea salt and pepper
Parmesan Reggiano

Cook the spaghetti to al dente. While it’s cooking, slice up the chorizo and cook slices in olive oil over medium heat. Break up crushed garlic and add to pan. Add clams and wine, turn heat to medium high and cover. Cook for about 5 minutes, or until all the clams have opened. (Discard any that do not open.) Remove cover and simmer over low heat. When spaghetti is done, transfer from pot to the pan with tongs. Add a little pasta water if needed. Turn heat to high and cook, tossing, for one minute. Remove from heat. Toss in parsley and season to taste with salt and pepper. Plate the pasta, dividing the clams evenly, and top with some freshly grated Parmesan.

Spaghetti with Tomatoes and Sausage

The simplicity of tomato and pork. You could use turkey or chicken Italian sausage for this if you wanted to. Use colored heirloom tomatoes — green zebra, for example, or golden pineapple — for a vibrant, alternate colored sauce.

1/2 lb spaghetti
1 sweet Italian sausage (or hot if you prefer)
1/4 cup olive oil
3 garlic cloves, smashed with the back of a knife
2 very ripe large tomatoes
flaky sea salt
crushed red pepper
Pecorino Romano

Cook spaghetti to al dente. While pasta is cooking, puree tomatoes in a blender. Remove sausage from casing. Heat olive oil in a pan over medium heat, and cook garlic for 1 minute. Add sausage, breaking up with the back of a wooden spoon as it cooks. Once sausage and garlic have begun to turn golden, add tomato puree and season with salt. Cook over medium heat until sauce thickens. When spaghetti is done, transfer from water to sauce pan, and turn heat to high. Cook for a minute or two, tossing, until the pasta is coated. Dish onto plates, sprinkle with a bit of crushed red pepper and salt to taste, and top with grated Pecorino Romano.