Category Archives: From the Caterer’s Kitchen

My mama haz teh smarts.

From The Caterer’s Kitchen: Understanding Food Terminology

dice

I’ve been wanting to get back to this series for a couple of weeks now, but kept putting off this particular post. Why? I suppose it is because the topic is immense — there is just so much to know when it comes to food terminology. There are so many terms to learn and techniques to master, especially if you are new to the world of food. I thought I might never be able to stop writing.

Because the vast possibilities in the topic, it’s just too much to tackle all at once — it has to be broken up over several days to really do it justice. So I am offering a very small part today, and will revisit the topic of cooking terminology with more tips next time.

While there is so much techniques to learn, in my opinion, how to chop is the most fundamental piece. Even if you never turn on your stove or oven, you can still make hundreds of dishes just by combining various chopped items. The cutting techniques I use most often are the chiffonade, dicing, and mincing.

Chiffonade

I’ve shown you a chiffonade before, but wanted to demonstrate it here because it is such a useful technique. Any leafy greens or herbs can be sliced in this way. You simply stack them leaves like so:

stacked leaves

Then roll them up:

rolled leaves

and slice into little ribbons.

Slicing leaves

Use wider slices for salad greens or side dishes, narrower ones for coleslaw or stir fries, and skinny ones for herbs or garnishes. If your leaves are especially large, cut them in half along the stem line after you’ve done your chiffonade.

Dice

Dicing is beautiful. It’s equally simple, too – just slice your produce vertically, and then horizontally:

dice cuke

Et voila — you are done. Dicing, obviously, has a multitude of uses: salsa, salads, garnishes, or anywhere you want your food to look good. Dice food into smaller or larger pieces, depending on the use — small pieces in something like bruschetta, or larger dice for use in soups. Diced food cooks faster, and also looks nicer than a rough chop. If the appearance of your dish is important, it is worth doing a good dice.

Mincing

Mincing is like a much smaller, finer dice, but with a little less care taken. Usually, this is for ingredients that you want to use to flavor the dish overall, but that you don’t want to be the star of the dish or taste in quantity. Think of using slivers of garlic or onion in Chinese food, where they are primary ingredients, versus the subtlety of minced garlic or onion in a soup or casserole.

mince

Minces are cut in the same way as dices, just smaller. As a reminder, here’s a photo of dice and mince together:

dice and mince

Mincing is also good for potent leafy herbs — if I’m making a salad with fresh parsley or oregano, but don’t want them to be the most evident flavors in it, mincing them works really well to make them more subtle accents rather than having them take over the dish.

So there you have it:  my top three cutting techniques. Because they are fundamental, knowing these will get you pretty far in the kitchen. But as I said, this is such a huge topic that it will require several more posts to even scratch the surface. Drop a line in the comments if there is something in particular that you want me to tackle first.

In The Caterer’s Kitchen

Collards & Cabbage | Paleo + Life

Collards & Cabbage

The silver lining of this trip, which was for such a sad purpose, was being able to see my mother and stepfather again. They came out to visit us in late May for my graduation, and I didn’t expect another visit before 2015.

My mom is a nurturer — as I’ve mentioned, she has been a nurse for decades — and she is also one of those folks who shows her affection with food. If she takes the time to make a nice meal when you visit, you know you matter.

Mom's Ribs | Paleo + Life

Mom’s Ribs

It’s always a joy to be in my mama’s kitchen. Mostly because I don’t have to do anything; I can just hang out and know that there is a delicious meal coming. Although I adore cooking and getting creative in the kitchen, sometimes it is nice not to be in charge of that.

While I was there, I was also taking notes and getting ideas for future blog posts — the collards and cabbage, for example, is a great side dish that is perfectly Paleo. I will have to snag that recipe from her soon. As for the ribs, well — those may remain a family secret for a while longer, though I suppose I can get some tips for those of you looking to up your skills in that area.
But I’m so grateful I got a chance to catch my mom in action again. She’s a professional, and it is a pleasure to watch her do her thing.

From the Caterer’s Kitchen: How to Measure

Utensils | Paleo + Life

 

For those just tuning in, From the Caterer’s Kitchen is an occasional series of kitchen tips, tricks and advice from my mother, a professional caterer for over 30 years. Interested? Start here.

As I’ve mentioned before, my grandmother was a fabulous cook. Holidays weren’t holidays unless we left her place with big smiles, rounded bellies and plates piled high with leftovers.

I rarely recall seeing her measure anything. She always seemed to just know when the food was done. She’d add a pinch of this, a smidgen of that, until it tasted right. My mother cooks in the same bold way,  though her professional training allows her to flex back and forth between confident improvisation and precise recipes. As a novice cook, however, this kind of confidence was a mystery to me. I didn’t understand how you could just “know.”

But as I gathered more experience, and learned to ‘taste’ in my head, I’ve begun to cook by instinct, too. By playing around with different ingredients, and making more than a few spectacular mistakes (crunchy pasta casserole, I’m looking at you), I learned where I can improvise and where I need to follow the rules. Measuring is one of those areas where a few simple rules can make a big difference.

Use the right tools.
Measuring cups for liquids are different from those for solids — do not mix them up. Measuring spoons can be used for either liquid or dry ingredients.

When measuring liquids, hold the cup at eye level.
For the most accurate reading, make sure your eye and the measuring line are on a level. It is easy to end up with too much or too little liquid and a ruined dish if not.

Level your dry measures.
After scooping up your dry ingredients, use the flat side of a butter knife to scrape off the excess and leave a smooth, flat surface. This is a favorite job for little kitchen assistants, by the way.

The sifter is your friend. 
You know how your hair can seem shorter on a humid day, because your curls are tighter? Well, flours do a similar thing. When flour has been sitting around, just hanging out, it tends to clump up, forming little lumps and nuggets. This means the scoop of flour you thought was 1/4 cup may be closer to 1/3 of a cup. In gluten-free/paleo baking, it’s particularly important to get these right. Some flours are more absorbent than others, and all have different characteristics than wheat flour does.
Use the sifter to get rid of these annoying bumps in your flour. Then when you put it into the cup, rather than dipping the measuring cup into the flour, use a spoon to scoop the sifted flour into the measuring cup. Then level it off, as above.

If you need to be precise, measure by weight.

I confess: this is more of a “do as I say, not as I do.” I don’t tend to do much baking, so I rarely ever encounter this concern.  But among professional bakers, weight (pounds, grams, kilos, and the like) is considered much more accurate than volume (cups, tablespoons, etc.). Kitchen scales can be quite inexpensive, but I recommend you spend a wee bit more to get an accurate one. Don’t forget to zero out your scale with your measuring implement on it, so that you are only weighing the amount of ingredients, not the ingredients plus the container.

Well there you have it. Five simple tips to improve your measurement accuracy. Drop a line in the comments if there’s something you think I should add, or anything I’ve forgotten.

From the Caterer’s Kitchen: The Difference Between Baking and Cooking

For those just tuning in, From the Caterer’s Kitchen is an occasional series of kitchen tips, tricks and advice from my mother, a professional caterer for over 30 years. Interested? Start here.

Broadly speaking, this is an easy one. Cooking takes place atop the stove; baking is what happens in the oven beneath it. Assuming, of course, you have a combination range and oven, rather than my dream kitchen set up of separate double wall ovens and range (along with an apron-front sink and a pantry big enough to hold a Costco’s worth of shopping… but I digress).

However, there is more to consider than those two differences. The easiest-to-understand explanation I’ve found, again, comes from On Cooking (for real: if you are at all serious about cooking, get yourself a copy. This book is fabulous). I rely heavily on these authors’ genius.

Both cooking and baking involve transforming food with heat. That heat can be transferred to the food either by a wet method (water or steam), a dry method (air or fat), or a combination of the two.
While cooking can be accomplished by any of these three, baking relies on the dry method: food surrounded by hot air in a closed space. This dry heat dries out the food and caramelizes it, giving baked foods their characteristic brown color.

Note that baking and roasting are the exact same thing. (This puzzled me for years.) I always assumed the difference was because roasting sounds wild and macho, like you’re standing around in your caveman loincloth cooking a whole pig on a spit, whereas baking is rather more precise and delicate. At any rate, it’s just an oddity of language that we tend to say roasting when talking about meat, and baking when we talk about bread or other dishes. I have noticed this is changing — it’s common to see a reference to roasted vegetables on a menu these days — but this division is still fairly prevalent.

Baking also requires much more care, I have found. Improvising is easy when the food is right in front of you on the stove: you can salvage a dish really quickly if you just need to add pepper or a bit of butter. If you’re making a casserole or a loaf of bread, however, that’s simply not possible. You need to start with a good recipe to be successful, and not deviate from it very much, unless you have an exceptional sense of how much seasoning is appropriate, or the best ratio of wet ingredients to dry ones in a baked good.

This need for care makes baking a tougher nut to crack for the new cook. Many times I thought I could get away with a loose recipe for something baked and I discovered to my everlasting disappointment that it didn’t quite take off. If you like to experiment, by all means, do — it’s the best way to learn, after all — just be prepared for the fact that not everything turns out to be edible in the end.

From the Caterer’s Kitchen: Top 10 Cooking Tips

Pearlie

I’d like to introduce y’all to my number one kitchen inspiration: my mom. It is a cliche to say it, but it’s true: most everything I know about cooking I learned from this lady. I am merely the padawan to her Jedi Master. My brother and I used to joke that Mom could go into the kitchen with only a bag of flour and a jug of milk, and come out with a ten-course meal. I still think that’s true.

While working as a nurse, my mom trained as a chef, opened her own catering business and has continued to operate it for nearly 30 years. She’s cooked for all sorts of people, including some celebs, and has forgotten more about food than I will ever know.

As a teenager, I was perhaps a bit too stubborn to accept her advice and preferred to learn the hard way experiment without the benefit of her wisdom. Despite this, I somehow managed to absorb lots of cooking tips and techniques. I was probably the only kid in my dorm who packed recipes for harissa and risotto along with my bedsheets and backpack.
Now that I’m an adult, I have much more appreciation for Mom’s professional experience. I know that I use things I learned from her every day. So I thought it would be interesting to share some tips and tricks here on the blog, for those of us who did not grow up with a chef in the kitchen.

For today’s installment, I asked Mom to give me the top 10 things she wished she’d known when learning to cook. She writes:

Hi,

Hope this helps. These are the things that I needed to know — would have saved a lot of food.

I’m rather impressed with her list — anyone who masters these things would be very well equipped to handle just about anything in the kitchen. In future posts, we will review each of these points in more detail, but just for today, the list is food for thought.
What about you? Is there anything you would add to this list?

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