Monday, June 21, 2010
Economy (by Andrew)
"I had three pieces of limestone on my desk, but I was terrified to find that they required to be dusted daily, when the furniture of my mind was all undusted still, and threw them out the window in disgust."
--Henry David Thoreau, Walden ("Economy")
I can't believe I used to chop fresh garlic.
Over the past few years, I have spent a ton of time cooking food, researching recipes and techniques, and studying my Cooks Illustrated, Bon Appetit, Flay, Bourdain, Moonen, and Pepin. It's a great hobby. But the most valuable things I've learned have nothing to do with knife skills, wine pairings, or duck confit. No, the most important lesson I've learned is this: if I want any time at all to spend with Erin and Sonia, then I have to determine which techniques, recipe steps, and ingredients are a galactic waste of time.
Frankly, I don't cook for a living, so I have to keep a constant eye on when a recipe's extra time or difficulty level presents a diminishing return. If I can't execute a technique well, or if a rough chop will suffice instead of a brunoise or julienne, then I will always cut the corner. Here are the corners I cut and the time-savers I use:
(1) Garlic. For years, I chopped fresh garlic for use in guacamole (and other things). Why? Because Alton Brown did it in his recipe, and he must be right. Well, Mr. Brown is usually right, but he also cooks for a living so he can afford to take additional steps. But while chopping garlic seems easy, it involves several distinct steps: (A) smash garlic to remove paper; (B) chop garlic to a dice, mince or paste (the latter of which requires oil); (C) hand wash cutting board; (D) wash knife; (E) wash hands. And don't forget (F) -- buy fresh garlic! Either garlic powder or preserved minced garlic are perfectly acceptable for sauces, meats, and especially guacamole. And they involve zero steps and no cleanup.
(2) Use One Dish, If At All Possible. If Not, Use Two At Most. Most of these tips make very little difference by themselves. The garlic steps I mentioned above take probably 60 seconds, max, for several cloves. But there is a cumulative effect for all of this. For example, if you sear your meat in one dish and then braise it in another, you have doubled your cleanup time. And a searing pan is more difficult to clean. Just drain the fat after cooking meat and keep using the same pot -- that actually is a necessary step, unless you plan on making a roux from the fat. And sometimes...there's no need to sear at all. Cooks Illustrated proved that it doesn't help "hold in the flavor" and it may in fact do the opposite in some cases.
(3) Lasagna Is Always The Answer. Let's face it, meat and cheese are always the answer. There are many good lasagna recipes that don't even require the use of a kitchen knife. Don't like tomato sauce? Make a mushroom lasagna (Ina Garten's recipe is great). 90% of a lasagna's prep time is in the oven, and the other 10% is fool proof. Don't like Italian at all? Make a quiche -- once again, you're just baking something in a single baking dish, with a ton of cheese. There are tons of interesting "casseroles" out there from various cultures -- and they don't have the stigma of being 70's-era Brady Bunch Casseroles.
(4) Never Make Your Own Marinara If You're Just Going to Dump It on Barilla Pasta. Okay, we get it. Your grandma is Italian, or you went to Italy for a week, so you know Italian food more than me, blah blah blah. I'll certainly stipulate for the record that Ragu and many other sauces on the market are sugary swill-gravy. But I've made marinara before, and it just makes me angry at having to clean a sink full of dishes and chop a ton of vegetables. If (A) you weren't born in Sicily, and (B) you aren't Mario Batali, and (C) you don't plan on doing anything interesting with your pasta anyways, why don't you go buy Trader Joe's marinara sauce and chill out with a glass of wine the rest of the afternoon. If you want to feel all chef-y, dice up some onions or carrots or add a little red wine. If you really truly hate store-bought marinara, buy a jar from Francesca's. And stop being a poseur.
(5) Keep Your Station Clean! You know what the best thing about eating at a restaurant is? Not having to do any dishes. And while Erin tells me she loves my cooking, I'm certain she gets that pit-in-your-stomach feeling whenever I make an especially complex recipe with a ton of dishes. For many recipes, there is down-time built in, which can be used to keep your station clean. This seems like the opposite of economy, but really it is about the best use of time, cleanliness, and organization. It is infinitely easier and quicker to rinse a pan under hot water immediately after use than it is to scrub a cool pan that has been sitting on the counter with now-caked-on rice or sauce. Sometimes, economy is best measured for the entire family unit, over the course of the entire evening. Plus, keeping your station clean is a very classical French concept, so you will feel hip and nouveau-something-or-other while you harness your Chi.
(6) Ready, Set, Rice. I don't care if this makes me a lazy cheater, but I swear by Uncle Ben's Ready Rice. It's heated in the microwave, in the very package you bought it in, in 90 seconds flat. Seeds of Change is also a great brand (actually, better than UB's), and there are multiple varieties of pilafs, brown rice, quinoa, and basmati. Trader Joe's also has several varieties. Why use even one pan when you can use none?
(7) IQF 4 EVA. If you live in the midwestern 'burbs like me, and you don't have a fishmonger near your house, you've probably noticed a severe lack of quality fish in your supermarket. Nothing is worse than the fishy stiffs you get at the end of a Sunday afternoon at the local Jewel. There is an option for the rest of us -- individually quick-frozen fish. This means, essentially, that the fish was frozen while it was still fresh, and sealed separate from the rest of the package. Sam's and Costco both seem to carry some IQF fish varieties. In the fish hierarchy:
Fish You Caught > Fresh Fish in a Coastal, Metropolitan City Market > IQF Fish > nearly everything else
Chances are you're not getting fish in the first two classes, so you really ought to stop buying in #4. I do continue to go to Whole Foods for special occasions, but the prices are obscene for every day use, so I expressly exclude them in the hierarchy. The best thing about IQF is that it can be bought once during the weekend shopping trip and cooked much later -- thus removing the real need to purchase fish the same day you're going to cook it. I just saved you a shopping trip.
(8) Don't Fry This At Home. Look, I love fried food too. I love French Fries, and pan-fried pork cutlets, and onion rings. There are so many celebrity chef books and shows that show off fried dishes, and it is all very tempting to do at home. Just don't do it. There is no cleaning which is more difficult than cleaning and freshly oiled stove top/granite counter/hardwood floor/microwave/everything else in a 5 foot radius. If there is a cranny to be found, peanut oil will find it. When I go to restaurants, I get my fried food fix (like the Queen Mother of all fried foods, the schnitzel) and know I get my money's worth on kitchen cleanup alone.
(9) Your Pizza Dough Sucks. If aliens visited Earth, and we told them that there are half a dozen good pizza joints close to home, which will actually deliver the pizza to your door, yet we make homemade pizza anyways -- they'd think we were crazy. I love making homemade pizza, but if it ain't easy, it ain't worth it. One huge time saver is to use store-bought pizza dough (in the vegetable section at Trader Joe's) or to buy pizza dough from your local pizzeria. They make it in bulk, and they make it for a living, so they're better at it than you are.
(10) Thank You For Not Smoking. I love smoking brisket, and I love fire...but I hate tending a smoker box for 12 hours while smoking brisket, while ensuring that the temperature stays between 210 and 230 degrees the entire time. Say goodbye to your entire afternoon and evening. The reality, however, is that most of the smoke flavor is infused in the first couple hours. A quick fix is to use HEAVY smoke for two or three hours, and then throw it in the perfectly-tuned oven at 220 degrees. Want it extra moist? Wrap it in foil. You'll never win a BBQ contest this way, but let's face it -- that wasn't going to happen anyways because those guys treat smoking like a religion.