Notes on: The Elements of Cooking

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Reason #4589283 I love Portland so much: the library system.

There are about 20 locations to serve the Multnomah county area, and I luckily ended up about a mile away from one. I’ve been putting books on hold like crazy. It has been feeding my book hoarding tendencies like never before.

One of the books that I’ve had checked out for several weeks (and renewed) is Michael Ruhlman’s The Elements of Cooking: Translating the Chef’s Craft for Every Kitchen. It was one of those books I wasn’t necessarily set out to find, but it found me as I was browsing through the cookbooks section.

The first section is “Notes on Cooking: From Stock to Finesse”. He goes over the groundwork rules of preparing the best possible stocks imaginable (veal, chicken, beef, fish, and veggie), emphasizing the freshness and a long simmer of low heat. Personally, as much as I know I should learn how to make my own homemade stock at some point, it honestly sounds like a painintheyouknowhat. Maybe when I’m retired. Or somehow am inspired to start my own recipes for homemade soup creations for a future cookbook. Yeah, it would have to be one of the two.

The seasoning and techniques discussed for sauces leads into one of the most important ingredients any chef or baker knows does wonders: salt. Salting food is an art. With the bad rap salt has received over the years from epidemics of high blood pressure and over reliance on heavily processed foods, it is a necessary ingredient in our diets to a certain degree. It is “the thing that keeps you from starving“.  Some rules:

  • salt food early: the bigger the food is, the more salt it needs, and the more time with the salt it needs
  • vegetables with large watery cells are enhanced by early salting ie. onions, eggplant, peppers
  • use kosher or sea salt, but make sure it is not iodized
  • taste your food as you go through your cooking adventures to appropriately season as needed
  • salt meat as early as possible, right after you get it; supposedly it inhibits the growth of bacteria
  • heavily salted water: for boiling green veggies and anything else that will not absorb a ton of water
  • moderately salted water: rehydrating foods, pasta, rice, and beans
  • learn your own salt levels in cooking

And then the egg. The simple, wondrous, beauteous egg. He makes some key points about how they are the all-purpose nutrient packed food. They can be used in any meal, any time of day, and cooked or baked in any imaginable way. He gives proper techniques on poaching, frying, hard-cooking, and baking with eggs (although highly suggests poaching). Some more egg rules:

  • gentle heat when cooking, having a slight liquidy element to them
  • if using raw eggs for any reason, be sure to go organic
  • you will fail it more often than it fails you
  • the more capable you are with an egg, the more capable a cook you will become

“The egg as a tool… it can enrich, thicken, emulsify, leaven, clarify, and even color.” – Michael Ruhlman

And last but not least, heat. “The ability to control the temperature of food involves a set of kitchen skills and food knowledge that, more than anything else, defines the excellence of the cook”. Just as important as the heat you cook with, the temperature within which food is stored, the temperature it is when it begins cooking, the temperature of the vessel into which the food is placed, the temperature of which it is removed from heat, how long it sits after cooking, and the serving temperature. All aspects of temperature that had never crossed my mind until he mentioned them.

He also notes the proper technique of thawing food (under a thin steam of cold water to maintain the low temperature) to be sure to inhibit microbial growth.

The top five tool essentials he recommends for the kitchen is also fascinating. Knowing that if you were stranded on a desert island with a limited arsenal, you could survive.

  1. chef’s knife
  2. large cutting board
  3. large saute pan
  4. flat-edged wooden spoon
  5. large (nonreactive) heat proof bowl (ie. Pyrex)

In addition, there is an extensive explanation about high-end chef technique and preparation books that I am excited to eventually look into.

And the most importantly, what every chef needs to possess for successful food execution: finesse. “Every cook’s finest challenge and path to the ultimate rewards”. We all want that, don’t we? So let’s learn about it.

Finesse. We’ve probably come across the term many times in life to describe an action that an individual executes extremely well. With elegance, perhaps. I wasn’t quite certain of the exact terms myself.

fi-nesse (fe nes’) n. refinement and delicacy of performance, execution or artisanship.

It seems that finesse appropriate fits into the idea that paying attention to the small things, the small details, matters. It always shows in the final product. Whether it’s an art project, a writing assignment (blogging!), making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, every small execution counts. It’s not so much the ingredients and the actual tools you have to make something with, or how expensive those things are, it’s how you make it. It’s being knowledgable enough to know the proper cooking temperatures, using the right fats, selecting the most complimentary herbs. It’s what you do with what you have.

“In the pursuit of finesse, okay is not okay.” – Michael Rhulman

Striving for finesse in our everyday lives may be what makes some of us perfectionists, idealists, in the way that we have high expectations for ourselves. I know that sometimes this can work against me, but I must say that the continued practice of paying attention to the small things in life can have its payoffs. It’s the extra effort you put into things but may seemingly go unnoticed. Regardless, it fills us. And that’s what matters most.

The bulk of the rest of this book is an alphabetical dictionary of critical cooking definitions that every cook should be familiar with. Here are a few of my favorites, and ones I didn’t know until after reading this. They’re also a lot of fun to try pronouncing out loud! I dare you to try it.

Á la minute [ah lah mee-NEWT]: denotes right before serving and implies a quick preparation.

allumette [ahl-yu-MET]: an elegant vegetable cut for its shape, “matchstick”, officially 1/8 in. square and about 2 inches long (ie. french fries)

Avant garde cuisine: a style of cooking popularized in the early years of the twenty-first century by Spanish chef Ferran Adrià, characterized by classical pairings that are deconstructed, the use of foams, alginate, agar, gelatin, sous vide, and unconventional serving methods. Sometimes referred to as “molecular gastronomy”.

Bain-marie [BEHN-mah-ree]: a hot water bath, used to keep sauces and other preparations warm during service.

Blind bake: to bake a pastry shell or pie crust before it’s filled. Usually pie weights are used to prevent the crust from buckling up.

Coulis: a sauce with thick smooth consistency, most commonly used to refer to fruit sauces.

Crème anglaise [krem ahn-GLEZ]: vanilla sauce, custard sauce, or simply anglaise is the dessert workhorse sauce. Can be treated like a mother sauce and seasoned with brown butter, sweet spices, or distilled spirits. Used as a base for many desserts ie. hot with a soufflé, over an apple tart, or cold berries. Frozen, it turns into vanilla ice cream.

Eau de vie [OH de VEE]: a destillation of fermented fresh fruit; a clear, powerfully flavored spirit. They are not aged like wines, and are meant to convey the flavor of the fruit.

Forestière [FOR-est-ee-air]: in classical French cuisine, denotes that mushrooms are the main component in the dish or is the main garnish.

Génoise [jzen-WAHZ]: a cake made using the foaming method, with whole eggs gently heated over hot water so sugar dissolves. Eggs reach their full volume when whipped. Dry ingredients are folded into the foamed egg-sugar mixture. Butter is added to enrich and flavor the cake and also shorten the gluten created into the initial mixing.

Verjus [ver-JZOO]: the juice of unripe grapes; an acidic, fruity liquid that can be used much like vinegar, from seasoning sauces to making vinaigrettes and even sorbet.

I hope you enjoyed learning about a few key Elements of Cooking! I’d highly recommend to check this book out if you already like what you see.

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