With the New Year upon us you may be one of the millions looking to eat better and get healthier. If so, there’s no way around the fact that you will eat better by cooking real food at home. With this in mind, I have some basic tips to share with you in my next few posts that will help you get off to a great start in 2013. We’ll start with a few principles from restaurant kitchens that you can use at home.
Restaurants run on efficiency: without it they would go broke and the food would rot in the walk-in coolers. At home we have the luxury of being more lax, but there are still many things we can take away from a restaurant kitchen and apply at home to make cooking easier.
I have to be honest: I didn’t spend years on the line, slaving away at a hot flattop under the roar of a hood. I spent what I felt was the minimum amount of time I could get away with in a professional kitchen to learn the basics of pastry and about life in a restaurant kitchen. I didn’t particularly relish waking up at 4am for my ten-hour shift, eating one meal a day standing up, or chopping carrots for 3 hours straight. I always wanted to teach home cooks. But I sensed there was a lot to be learned in a restaurant kitchen, more than I could gain in years in my own kitchen. I was right. Here are a few of the most practical tips I can share with you. Regardless of your cooking and eating goals for the New Year, these can all be easily applied at home to make you a better cook.
Create a workstation.
Chefs have designated workstations. Creating a simple station at home is easy. Leave a large chopping block out on your preferred section of countertop; this will be its permanent home. Keep your favorite knife handy; perhaps in a nearby knife block or in a drawer at arm’s reach. Having a permanent station means you always have a place set up and ready to go, whether you are chopping a quick carrot for a packed lunch or prepping six vegetables for a stir-fry. It’s a small step with big mental impact. Every small step incrementally adds up to removing barriers to cooking and making your time in the kitchen efficient. Not having to lug out a large cutting board each time you want to chop something is one such step.
By the way, I prefer wood chopping blocks, big enough that you have adequate space to dice a couple large onions, but not so big you can’t occasionally lug it to the sink for a scrub down. For less messy jobs I just wipe the board clean. I have one big-daddy chopping block (the one I leave out all the time) for all my onions, garlic, and veggies and keep a smaller block on top that I use for fruit and cheese. I have a plastic board stashed in a nearby cupboard for meat and another for pastry items like chocolate. Most chefs prefer wood for the way it feels (it has a nice give and isn’t loud to chop on) and the fact that it’s gentle on the knife. Restaurants use plastic composite boards because they don’t harbor bacteria. For the same reason, I use plastic at home for meat. Don’t ever put wood boards in a dishwasher. Plastics and composites can go in, which is the best bet after cutting raw meat.
Along the same lines as having your handy workstation, I also recommend you set up a salt pot (a covered dish or salt cellar with kosher salt), pepper grinder and extra virgin olive oil by the stove. I keep these things right next to the stove on a rimmed square plate that can be easily cleaned. I also keep a utensil container next to stove with all my wooden spoons, heatproof spatulas and tongs. Having these things handy is efficient-remember, every small step adds up. Saving yourself from opening and closing the cupboard/drawer six times while cooking a meal is worth something. In a great professional kitchen the chefs move with such ease, efficiency and grace it’s as though they’ve had ballet training.
Working clean is a matter of pride for many restaurant chefs. Or so we hope-nothing looks worse to a diner than a filthy kitchen. The great kitchens of the world are often so spotless, even mid-service, that you wonder if they’re actually cooking back there. These chefs have built cleaning into their routine in an efficient manner. They also often have dishwashers (people, not machines) to help them. They stop periodically to sweep and mop, and every night all surfaces are scrubbed and polished.
Luckily we don’t have Gordon Ramsay breathing down our necks in the privacy of our own kitchens. Yet it still pays, efficiency wise (not to mention for your sanity), to work clean. How to define this is up to you-after all, it’s your kitchen. You don’t have to stop mid-meal to clean the stove or sweep. But if you feel dogged by mountains of dishes and a huge cleanup following dinner, it’s time for a change.
One of the simplest ways to work clean while cooking in your home kitchen is to keep a medium bowl on the countertop for your garbage scraps while you’re chopping, slicing and dicing. This saves you from inefficient steps back and forth to the garbage can, and encourages you to keep your work surface clean of scraps (which is safer as well-you don’t want a crowded cutting board). You may also want to keep a damp towel at hand to wipe up your board and nearby surfaces as you go.
For general cleanup and the inevitable pile of dishes, you may want to figure out which cleanup type you are and then assess if it’s working for you. I’m a batch cleanup type. I like to work, putting dirty dishes in the sink as I go, and then stop once it starts to pile up to do a short cleanup and put things away that I’m no longer using. The clean-as-you-go types like to wash more often, as the name suggests, cleaning up as they cook (I find this to be distracting and kind of OCD, but some people swear by it). The cleanup-after types just wait and do it all at the end. Best of all is the spouse who cleans, but I don’t know too many of those. Whatever method you use, if it’s not working or you feel overwhelmed, you may want to switch and try a different method. Either way, if you’re going to cook you need to be comfortable making a mess; not that the cupboards have to be splattered with sauce and every square inch covered in bottles and dishes. But as I tell all my students, ‘you’re not really cooking unless you’ve made some mess!’ Browning meat will involve splattering grease, chopping vegetables will mean a few get on the floor, and baking means flour will reach the far corners of your countertops. But this is why we have brooms and rags. On some level, we all need to come to grips with the fact that cooking involves work and that it’s worthy of our time. Your alternative is microwaving meals that contain 53% of your RDA of sodium and eating out of plastic containers-which won’t lead to a healthier 2013.
Mise en Place.
As I said, restaurants run on efficiency, and mise en place is the #1 guiding principle. Literally translated from French it means “everything in its place”. In a restaurant it means having all your prep work done and ready before service and all your tools and pans handy for cooking. If a restaurant had to stop and chop an onion, garlic and crush tomatoes every time you order pasta, they would never make it through the first night. All that preparation gets done earlier in the day, and the components for each dish are ready and waiting in plastic deli or stainless containers-lined up in easy reach for the chef on the line. This is an important concept for home cooking as well if you want to cook more efficiently and with less stress. Certain dishes like stir-fries absolutely require an organized mise en place. You need to chop all your vegetables and prepare your sauce before you start your 3-minute stir-fry. If you stop to chop garlic while your peppers are cooking not only will you burn your peppers but you won’t be able to stir while you fry! Sure, you can make some exceptions to chopping and measuring everything before you start cooking, like creaming butter and sugar while you measure dry ingredients for cookies. But if you push it too much, thinking you’re saving time, you can easily end up over-whipping cream or burning caramel sauce.
Mise en place for a quick vegetable curry
I have lots of little bowls and dishes for mise en place at home. I often take a stack to a cooking class to show my students how to stay organized while cooking at home. For a complicated dish with many ingredients I can line up the bowls in the order the ingredients go into the pan. A great source for a variety of different stainless steel prep dishes is Patel Handicrafts on Devon (2600 W. Devon Avenue). They also sell stainless steel trays that are great for piling stacks of vegetables for a stir-fry, or for holding all your little prep bowls to take to the stove.
Prep bowls for mise en place
At a minimum you always want to read a recipe through from start to finish and make a basic game plan in your head (e.g. I’ll start browning the roast while I chop the onions….then I’ll measure the broth and wine and chop mushrooms while the onions sauté). The idea is to work efficiently while minimizing stress and unwanted surprises. In general the less experience you have the more you should prepare in advance and the less multi-tasking you should attempt to do, until you hone your cooking intuition. Go easy on yourself so that cooking is an enjoyable thing to do.
My next posts to help you with your 2013 goals are about organizing your fridge and pantry and how to meal plan for the week. Happy New Year!