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Feature Fri Jan 30 2009
I've been dedicating more time to cooking lately. The weather has made me a bit of a shut-in and a more strategic traveler, carefully planning my outings so that I can stop by a grocery store on my way home from work in order to get a few things for my kitchen experiments, which lately have been all soup. So far I've been pleased with the results (a nice lentil, a pureed potato and red pepper) but I'm always looking for shortcuts.
Knowing how to quickly improvise ingredients and their preparation is a hallmark of a good chef. Anyone can follow a recipe, but there's something impressive about watching someone improvise buttermilk (1 tablespoon of vinegar plus milk to make 1 cup), or speed up the cooling process for a cake (stick it in the freezer).
Along with the Drive-Thru staff, I've compiled a list of our favorite cooking shortcuts for a range of foods.
Instead of using a mortar and pestle to grind spices, have an extra coffee grinder on hand (reserved specifically for that use!).
Using a tea ball or tied-up coffee filter when a recipe asks for a bouquet garni of herbs.
Wash and prep heartier vegetables, like carrots and celery, as soon as you get home from the grocery store, rather than doing it each time you need to use that ingredient. A few minutes on the front end will help you get dinner on the table faster the rest of the week.
Here's a tip for slicing jalapenos: Cut a thin slice off the tip of the pepper. Place the cut side on the cutting board and hold the stem of the pepper. Cut from the edge of the stem down, following the curve of the pepper. You should be left with a stem and seeds that can easily be discarded. This actually works with almost any kind of pepper, actually.
In Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything book, he suggests always boiling potatoes with the skins on. This keeps the potatoes from taking on so much water while they're cooking, and the skins just peel right off after they're done. No more time wasted on peeling...unless you're into that kind of thing. It's become my new favorite shortcut.
Put garlic in the freezer for 15 minutes before peeling. It makes it easier to work with (removes any potential sliminess), makes the peel come off easier, and keeps it from releasing as much essence into the air.
For garlic peeling, you can also slightly smash the garlic with a can--hard enough to crack the peel (and since you're chopping it anyway, it's OK to smash it).
Throwing unpeeled garlic cloves into a microwave for a few seconds can warm up the shell for easier peeling.
Have a dish of vinegar out when chopping onions. The vinegar binds with the onion essence to prevent it from binding with the water in your eyes, where otherwise it forms hydrochloric acid (the familiar sting).
For the love of God, use your food processor to make pie crust. It's far quicker than a pastry cutter and, as far as I can taste, doesn't sacrifice quality.
This isn't really a shortcut, but it's something I've recently embraced, and I'm on a campaign to encourage more people to do it: Butter doesn't have to be refrigerated! Leave a stick on your counter in a covered dish, and your toast experiences will be far, far more enjoyable.
FOR FURTHER READING
Chef Secrets: Insider Techniques from Today's Culinary Mastersby Francine Maroukian.