May 30, 2012

The At Home Cook Series, Installment #12: Interpreting Savory & Baking Recipes

Recipes. Does this word excite you, making your taste buds salivate with anticipation at the promise of a delectable feast created from a list of fresh, quality ingredients? Or does it terrify you? Do you have trouble interpreting complicated recipes? If the former, you are probably one of the few who does not view tackling a new or difficult recipe as a daunting task. It also means you need to look at the fact of why the word recipe excites you. I'm in this category and it may simply mean I need to get out more and taken a second look at my social life. There are the latter however, who would like to take on more challenging recipes but sometimes get overwhelmed, especially if they require the use of more advanced techniques. They stick to easier recipes and miss out on enjoying some great dishes or favorites at home, sure that those more difficult methods and techniques will end in disaster. If this sometimes describes you, know two things; A. You are not alone and B. Practice makes perfect and you can learn.

In The At Home Cook Series, we have covered all the steps necessary to get you ready to tackle a complex recipe:
  • Mise en Place, a French phrase that literally means "putting in place" referring to 'set up' in commercial kitchens. It refers to organizing and arranging the ingredients...
  • Knife Skills This seems to be the most intimidating and sometimes, can be the most overlooked aspect facing a good at home chef. Proper knives and proper instruction is safer and the more you practice and get familiar with your knives, the safer you'll be...
  • Searing and Sauteing In this installment, we move to the stove to learn the the skills for great pan cooking on the stove-top, learning how to perfectly caramelize and get that great restaurant crust at home...
  • Mother Sauces For the aspiring saucier, this installment brings us the basics and how to make a roux, and covers what is a requirement for any culinary student attending culinary school. create your own delicious and healthy sauces for your family at home... 
  • Grilling Perfect Steaks takes us through proper techniques for this summer's grill-master, with tips and tricks to make that perfect steak every time...
  • Umami What some call the Fifth Flavor, Umami rich foods are very satisfying and can actually be a healthier way to cook as well. They tend to make salt taste saltier, which means we can lower the amount of sodium in a dish when using Umami rich ingredients.... 
  • Soups and Stocks Ever wonder what was it that made mom's or grandma's soup so good, all the time? The secret was in the stock...
  • Menu Planning With a little help with proper menu planning, cooking for your family, a special holiday meal, or even a dinner party of eight, will be a much more pleasurable experience...
  • Dry Aged vs. Wet Aged Steaks What are the differences between dry aged and wet aged? Why has dry aged beef earned the title of the ultimate in tenderness and flavor...
  • How To Properly Season Your Food One of the most important yet overlooked skills the at home chef needs to master is seasoning!
  • Braising If you follow these easy steps to success, you are bound to create a very flavorful and palate appealing masterpiece!
How can you insure a successful outcome of a special meal your family and friends will all enjoy, instead of a trash can filled with wasted ingredients and an unexpected dinner out on the town? Only learning the proper techniques and the methods to gain them, can you truly guarantee success. In this next of my series, it's time to put all that we learned to the test by tackling a complex recipe. To that end, I'm going to give you some pointers on how to more successfully navigate and decipher a recipe.

Step one is to gather your "mise en place." This should include your tools (i.e. measuring spoons, pans, etc.) as well as your ingredients and perhaps, most importantly, your understanding of the steps required in order to complete the recipe. By making "mise en place"step one for every recipe you may choose to tackle, you will answer and overcome most of your recipe difficulties before you begin.

Start one recipe at a time and find the terms and Items you need to make that particular dish. What is your best partner in this investigative endeavor? Well, you could go out and invest in a kitchen companion book, probably a worthwhile investment for you serious cooks. For you once a month warriors or novice cooks, Twitter and the myriad of food sites out there, like this one, give great recipes and techniques to help with honing your culinary skills. Sites like mine usually have articles or video links to the more clinical sites that cater to the more advanced chef. Sites like these often define unfamiliar terms and offer you solutions for equipment you may not have, while also offering tools like converters, which allow you to convert measurements from, or to, metric.

Now, that we have our mise en place in place, how closely do we need to follow the recipe? This is an issue that can be argued from both sides. With savory recipes, the interchange and exchange of ingredients is much more forgiving than it is with baking. I have always stated that I view most recipes as a guide more than a stamped in stone method, especially for the more adventurous chef. With savory recipes, proteins can often be substituted for one another, within reason of course. For instance, you wouldn't replace talapia with lamb, but you could introduce a skinless chicken breast and still achieve the same basic dish and flavor profile. Not so with baking.

When it comes to baking, it is of paramount importance to follow the recipe to the letter. I recently attended a demo done by renown pastry chef Johnny Iuzzini. He explained why his book Dessert Fourplay has its recipes in grams, rather than ounces, tablespoons or say, a cup. His reasoning was spot on. He stated, "With measurements, I can ask all of you to produce a cup of flour. If 5 of us did this, I would bet that each of us would actually come up with a different amount. Grams allows you to make the recipe come out exactly as intended, whether the first time making it, or the 100th." Now most of us are not going to produce a 100th version of a recipe, especially a dessert, unless we are a professional chef working in a commercial kitchen. But baking is as much a science, as a creative endeavor. You have ingredients that must work in concert with each other, in order to have a desired end result. For instance; any recipe where you forget the required leavening: baking powder or soda, yeast, eggs will not turn out. With other cooking, you often have a bit of wiggle room for errors or missteps and some amazing dishes have been created by someone inadvertently messing up on a recipe.

Do keep in mind that when this happens, it is usually pure luck. If you stray too far from the original recipe, when baking, your end result may be an inedible mess. Does this mean you can never delete a single ingredient? Not at all! If you dislike onions, or can't eat nuts, it is perfectly okay to omit or replace them, as they are optional items that won't effect the integrity of the recipe or method. Optional items are often listed as just that, "optional." But for the intermediate chef, it is not always clear which ingredients would cause a disastrous result if they are excluded, so delete or substitute with caution.

Finally don't be afraid to seek out advice and pointers from seasoned cooks and chefs. Most people are very flattered when people seek out their advice, ask for a cooking tips or even a recipe. I have found some of the best food I have ever eaten has been in the homes of family and friends. Granted, with the advantage of moving in the circles of many very talented culinarians who cook professionally, I am fortunate to know many phenomenal cooks who consider cooking a great meal merely an enjoyable hobby.

So, is it worth the aggravation and challenge of tackling an unfamiliar recipe? I say yes! You can produce a great meal in the comfort of your own home, please friends and family with a special treat, all at a fraction of what it costs to eat out. Now I'm not saying don't eat out, you all know I love to go out and dine. But, I also love to cook gourmet meals at home as well. It can be great fun to get the whole family involved and teach your children some valuable skills, along with the importance of following directions. In many cultures, eating good food is a ritual and a way of passing down the family traditions and flavors of your heritage. So dust off those cookbooks and jump in to your own culinary adventure.

Bon Appetite,

Lou
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