Our good friends over at Merriam Webster define cooking as:
Cook (intransitive verb): to prepare food for eating especially
by means of heat
I think the important thing that we’re going to be keeping in mind is the ‘heat’ part of that definition. If all you’re doing is mixing and stacking things then in my opinion that’s not cooking, that’s just assembly. To truly cook something you must transform it, usually via heat such as roasting, baking, etc. and that’s what The Skills will be concentrating on. Are there any exceptions to this rule? Well of course but in this context they are pretty limited. Certain seafood recipes (Spanish ceviche for instance) rely on citric acids to chemically ‘cook’ the shrimp or fish. Since this newsletter is aimed at improving basic skills we will probably steer clear of those recipes. Besides, we have to save something for the next newsletter, right?
Back during my ill-fated days at University the profs always used to drill into us, “Tell them what you are going to tell them. Then tell them. Then tell them what you told them.” So in that spirit let me dive into the course syllabus, the list of things we’ll be covering. Eric and I have come up with a set of three broad skills which each break down into multiple sub-skills all of which combine in various sequences to create this thing we call ‘cooking’. Once we have the three core skills down (you will use all three in most recipes) we’ll then take the core skills and focus in-depth on six different food-specific areas.
- The Knife - Knife skills, chopping, breaking things down.
- The Spoon - Putting things together with other things.
- The Flame - Heat and how it is managed.
- Sauces - Food Network Nation has moved away from sauces lately but there’s great skills here.
- Meats - The cuts and how to prepare/handle them. Also we’ll talk about sustainability.
- Seafoods - How to deal with the swimmers, the tasty, tasty swimmers.
- Vegetables - Strong emphasis here on eating lower on the food chain.
- Pastas - Roll your own, add a sauce and that’s dinner.
- Breads - No cook worth his/her salt should ever shy away from breads.
So that’s our syllabus in a hundred words or less. Each of those topics will cover multiple newsletters and we expect to be done shortly before the holidays. All that we’re asking of you, dear reader, is to read through these emails, pick up the lessons that we’re teaching and apply them. Use them week to week, month to month throughout 2012. On those occasions where needed, go back and refer to earlier newsletters. I guess the best way to look at this is as a new year’s resolution to become a better cook. Eric and I will help you become that.
In addition to the content, in each newsletter we will reference a textbook. These are topic-specific books that we feel really illuminate the lessons we are writing about. In fact in some cases our lessons were learned from these very cookbooks. Feel free to purchase them from the links provided (this is the only form of revenue our newsletters are generating) or swing by your local retailer to pick up a copy of the mentioned books. They really will be the cream of the crop.
But before we get into actual skills there is one that is so basic we need to cover it in this opening newsletter. Mise en place (pronounced ‘miz a plaz.’ That last part is like plaza without the ‘a’ at the end), tasty little mouthful, yes? This concept originates from the turn of the century and most likely came from the work of Auguste Escoffier who originated the concept of an organized, brigade-style kitchen system. Literally it means, “everything in its place” but realistically it is the practice of prepping everything prior to the actual cooking.
In the minds of most cooks this concept means having all of the recipe ingredients out and pre-measured. Yes, it does mean that, but we take it a step further and apply mise en place to everything about cooking. The chef and kitchen must be just as prepared as the ingredients. For the chef this means a thorough understanding of what she is about to create and how she going to do it. She must be confident of success for all dishes that she is tackling. In the case of truly challenging dishes like a coq au vin, croissants, or perfect breads then the chef must have already done the research into techniques and procedures. Vision is required at this stage to ‘see’ the completed dish or meal in her head. We know, we’re starting to sound awfully zen-like at this point, but trust us; we promise we won’t be singing “Kumbaya” around the campfire anytime soon. The number one kitchen utensil is the cook herself. The mise en place should apply to her every bit as much as it applies to the ingredients.
Oh, and the kitchen? Well, clean and uncluttered at a bare minimum. We prefer clear, clean countertops to work on, cutting boards and knives all in their places with nothing stacked in the sink. Inevitably whatever specific tool/gadget we need is buried at the bottom of that sink someplace. Those of you with little ones around the house, make sure they are accounted for and no pets are underfoot. Put on some good music in the background (Lee prefers classic rock and new alternative while Eric prefers both classic and hard rock) crack a good beer or bottle of wine and gather your friends around. Settle in and get comfortable, get ready for something amazing. At that point both the chef and the kitchen are mise en place.
To help out here’s an easy mise en place checklist that you can use to get an idea of how to successfully use this concept in your kitchen tonight!
- Hands clean
- Has vision of final dish
- Read through the recipe
- Google’ed any unfamiliar words or ingredients
- Wiki’ed any unfamiliar techniques
- Has a full grasp of the timeline
- Pots/pans ready
- Specialty utensils and tools ready
- Oven pre-heated if needed
- Recipe Ingredients
- All ingredients chopped/cleaned, ready to go into the recipe
- Pre-measured all spices and sauces
- Good music on
- Friends/family around for support
- Libations poured
First, don’t ignore the last group on that checklist, they can make all the difference in the world! Just give it a try and tell us it doesn’t! Second, if you don’t have a set we recommend glass prep bowls to put your spices and smaller ingredients in, something like this Luminarc set from Amazon. The nice thing about glass bowls is that they won’t react with the food you put into them and offer easy cleanup.
Well that about wraps this first issue. We hope this gives you an idea of how we’re going to be proceeding from here. Check the Social Skillet webpage for additional information and or questions. There’s several links on the right hand of this page that should help you out. From here on out we’ll be sending these newsletters out each Monday before the end of the workday, so don’t forget to tell your email client that we aren’t spam! We promise not to abuse the trust, heck we hate spam more than anyone out there.
Next Monday we’ll dive into the heart of the beast with our first issue focusing on knives and knife skills. The first thing that happens to all ingredients in the kitchen is physical breakdown and knife skills play an important part of that. See you then!
- Lee & Eric