Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Basic Cooking Skills

Because I don't feel like writing about science, or whining, it's time for something completely different:


Certainly, one can survive without the ability to cook. But good food makes life more enjoyable, and doing it yourself is a whole lot cheaper. Cooking for Engineers is one of my favorite cooking websites, though I am a fan of Alton Brown for beginners, and his omelet tricks. Food can also be a great way to convince potential partners you're worth keeping. Here's my thoughts on the basic techniques to master to impress others.

Roasting is versatile, and can be applied to almost everything, from chicken to squash with fantastic results. Chicken is more challenging, due to the uneven geometry. I've discovered three tricks to getting wonderful roast chicken. First, I split the chicken in half at the breast bone, cooking it interior cavity down. The skin ends up crispier, and the breast meat cooks faster, so the dark meat doesn't end up overdone. Second, I put my salt-and-herb rub *under* the skin. Yes, this involves a lot of touching raw chicken to separate the skin from the meat, but you get crispier skin and more flavorful meat, so just wash your hands thoroughly when you're done. Third, lemons. Cut a lemon in half, squeeze a bit over everything, and stick it under the bird during roasting. It keeps the meat moister, and unless you hate lemon, is quite tasty.

My standard roasting rub/mix ( I put this on almost anything):

1/2 part cayenne/ chili powder
1 part thyme, whatever form I have it around in
1 part ground or cracked black pepper
1 part rosemary (optional)
Lemon zest (if using whole lemons) or lemon juice
2-4 parts kosher salt (more salt for meat, less for veggies)
Olive oil to coat everything lightly
400-425 degree oven, and thermometer for doneness(meat) or unit brown crusty bits form (squash, potatoes, etc)

Simple Salad Dressing
Almost always tastier than the store bought kind, I'll often pull the flavor of everything else into my salad dressing, but the base starts out the same:

Equal parts olive oil and balsamic vinegar
Spoonful of jam or honey (both sweetens and thickens)
Pinch of kosher salt
~1 teaspoon of mustard (helps emulsify)
Spice/herb mix

Taste it as you go, and adjust accordingly. Remember, though, it's much easier to add than remove, so add in small increments.

"Wait, what?!" I hear you cry. "That's not a basic technique!" Oh, but it is. It's just one that requires more patience, and more frequent maintenance.

You don't *actually* have to use a specific type of rice, but short grain white rices work best. Orzo or large pearl couscous can also be done this way.

Step 1: Measure amount the amount of rice according to the normal instructions. Put in largeish pan, so that you have a one-grain deep layer of rice, roughly. Add enough olive oil to coat things, and basically toast the rice for 2-3 minutes, stirring regularly.

Step 2: Add liquid, preferably pre warmed, and enough to cover the rice. Stir. If you're doing something fancy like dried mushrooms, now is a good time to add those. Hold off on salt until the end, though.  Simmer on low to medium (some bubbling, but not too enthusiastic).

Step 3: Let the rice cook until at least half of the initial liquid is absorbed, stirring intermittently. Add more liquid. Repeat until rice is tender upon tasting. Add salt to taste, and whatever other flavors you want (store bought Italian herb mixes work nicely).

Step 4 (optional, but recommend): Grate a hard cheese, like parmesan or asiago, on top.

Step 5: Eat!

Acceptable liquids include chicken broth/stock, white wine, water you've used to rehydrate mushrooms, vegetable stock, ham broth. Unacceptable liquids include lighter fluid, molasses, oils of any kind, and the tears of small children (too salty). Seriously, feel free to experiment!

With these three things, you can but together a full meal to impress your girlfriend, boyfriend, potential in-laws, Great-Aunt Kathy, or pretty much anyone who is unaware that you can cook.

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