• Boost your enthusiasm for time in the kitchen

  • I guess I've always had strong feelings about food and its preparation.
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  • I guess I've always had strong feelings about food and its preparation.
    Simple case in point: I shudder at the sight of a waiter ladling a bit of vinaigrette over salad greens without first giving the dressing a thorough whisk or shake. Some would call that obsessive. But anyone who knows how quickly oil separates from the vinegar and seasonings understands my attitude.
    In college, I had a roommate who considered cooking the sort of drudgery that needed to be gotten out of the way in the swiftest possible manner. She'd crank up the burner and rapidly scald her meal into a state of being cooked — the term being used loosely, of course. Unable to watch, I'd sit in the living room cringing at the sound and smell of tender, young onions being tortured on HIGH and a potentially fluffy omelet blackened to a degree even Paul Prudhomme would find unpalatable.
    Then she'd eat: standing over the sink, staring off into space, one foot tapping impatiently as she shovelled the food from saucer to mouth in five or six bites. One more meal behind her.
    Luckily, I had another roommate, Kay, who shared my passion for food. We'd spend hours talking about it, reminiscing over family favorites, plotting menus, even figuring out exactly what we craved for lunch. She'd take her chorizo with a Maalox to accommodate both her fragile stomach and strong hankering for the spicy sausage.
    Of course, anyone who reads cookbooks like novels most likely has just as much appreciation for fine food and cooking as I do. In the late James Beard's "Delights and Prejudices," he shared his own passion for food with readers. Even the lowly hamburger, he observed, can be a delicate morsel if the beef is good, contains an appropriate amount of fat and is cooked properly so it retains its juices. Beard felt that most hamburgers are grilled over excessively high heat, leaving the meat charred and tough on the outside, dry and flavorless on the inside.
    He loved the way his mother would prepare them, seasoned with generous amounts of fresh garlic, and also found it a treat to mix in coarsely grated cheddar, shallots, Worcestershire, mustard and Maggi Seasoning. Then he'd saute it in butter and serve it on a good bun with a tasty relish.
    Such feelings for cuisine can't be taught if the pupil lacks soul for the subject. But I do believe some things can be taught. Here, in no particular order, are a few tips and thoughts to get you headed in that direction.
    BROWN YOUR MEAT: When a recipe calls for browned meat — be it for a taco, stew or pot roast — use a very hot pan and really get in there and brown it! The browned juices that are created contain a fabulous amount of flavor that simply can't be duplicated in any other way, with any kind of seasoning or artificial flavoring.
    DEGLAZE! DEGLAZE! DEGLAZE!: Once you've browned your meat, deglazing the pan is essential to get the most flavor into a dish. It's the simple act of adding a splash of liquid (be it brandy, sherry or broth) to the pan while it's still hot and loosening those cooked-on bits of flavor so they can be absorbed into the sauce. Even if you're merely browning ground beef for tacos, add a splash of broth or water after the meat is well-browned and vigorously scrape the bottom of the pan. Then, simply cook a little longer to evaporate the liquid and concentrate the flavor.
    SUPERIOR BAKED POTATOES: Food scientist and cookbook author, Harold McGee ("On Food and Cooking," and "The Curious Cook") determined that potatoes coated with oil before baking reach an internal temperature of 200 degrees 10 minutes faster than their unoiled counterparts. The oil also helps raise the skin temperature well above the boiling point, which drives moisture from the skin. So oiling the skins results in a fluffier interior and crunchier exterior.
    GRILL CHEFS DO IT WITH FEELING: It takes practice, but the feel of cooked meat really is an accurate indicator of doneness. Grill chefs do it all the time. To "get the feel," practice by lightly pressing a piece of uncooked meat to experience what really rare feels like; the flesh becomes progressively tighter and more resistant as it cooks.
    ONION SAUTE: This one drives me crazy and isn't even a cook's fault. Time and again, I encounter recipes that instruct you to saute onions (or other chopped vegetables) in a pan full of oil THEN drain off the fat. That's draining off a huge amount of vegetable flavor, as well. Instead, remove extraneous fat first, then saute veggies in the small amount of fat you are willing to leave behind.
    DRY THOSE LEAVES: If you use wet lettuce in tossed green salads, dressings won't cling properly and you'll have a watered-down, weak-flavored creation.
    SHAKE IT!: Like I said before, oil rises to the top of a vinaigrette dressing quicker than you can say "Holy Caesar salad, Batman!" So if not whisking or shaking the mixture immediately before adding it to salads, you're adding mostly oil and leaving all the zest and flavor behind.
    SEASONING: Rubbing dried herbs between your hands before adding them to a dish improves their flavoring abilities. Herbs lose their distinctive flavor when cooked over a long period, so add some extra just before serving.
    Here are a few more recipes, as shared by James Beard in his wonderful book, "Delights and Prejudices." The first is Beard's rendition of one of my favorite mushroom offerings, duxelles.
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