Friday, May 28, 2010

Fake Your Way to Gourmet

For the last five years or so, I've been making a concerted effort to learn how to cook. Starting with the basics, I taught myself theories, recipes, methods, nutritional information, history. I'm still not a very good cook (if measured in breadth of abilities), but I've picked up a good working knowledge of the kitchen, and of the few differences between "home cooking" and "gourmet cooking". Most of them come down to work time, quality and diversity of ingredients, and level of theory, which are all fun to work on in your spare time. If you haven't got much spare time, however, you can add small, easy touches of gourmet flare to increase the appeal of your regular fare.

Sorry 'bout that. Saw it coming a mile away, but couldn't stop it.

On with the list!

1. This is the easiest trick: shallots. Instead of the onions called for in any recipe, substitute the same weight in shallots, or half-and-half it. Shallots have a subtler, tamer onion flavor, almost garlicky, and are an easy way to add a classy feel to a simple meal. Granted, they're twice the price of onions (or more), but that has more to do with the low demand/low production than with their delicateness. If you can grow onions, you can grow shallots.

2. More garlic! Whenever a recipe calls for "two cloves", add three or four. Your recipe calls for four cloves? Add six! Don't go too crazy, of course, but you can always at least double the garlic in a recipe.

3. Roast the garlic: almost as a side note to adding more garlic is roasting your garlic. It takes no effort (even less than mincing individual cloves), but does take an hour or so, so if time's a factor, skip to number four. If, however, you have the time but no inclination for work, try it! Take a whole bulb, cut off the top third or quarter (¾s of the cloves should be cut, but don't worry about trying to cut all of them), drizzle with olive oil, and stick it in a 375° preheated oven for an hour. Let cool, squeeze out (the cloves will have taken on a paste-like consistency), et voila! One roasted garlic bulb = 3 to 4 cloves unroasted, so it doesn't go as far, but who cares? Garlic's, like, 2¢ a clove.

4. Garnish with fresh herbs. Few care if you use dried or fresh herbs in the actual cooking, (and a few dried herbs, such as oregano, actually pack more flavor and nutrients into a smaller, easier to store package) but if you want to add a touch of gourmet to any meal, nothing beats garnishing with fresh herbs, like basil or sage. Here's an easy, difficult sounding technique (added bonus: it has a cool French name): - to 'chiffonade' (shif-oh-nahd'). That's where you stack up between 5-15 herb leaves, roll them into a cylinder, and slice 'em thinly with a sharp knife. When unrolled, it turns out you made a bunch of cool-looking ribbons! Adding fresh herbs is an easy way to fresh greens, a fresh flavor, and can make even cheesy enchiladas look suitable for Chez Charlie's.

5. Put down that 'vegetable'/corn/canola/rapeseed oil! A gourmet chef wouldn't be caught dead with that crap, except in their deep fryer, and if you have a deep fryer on your counter right now, you're probably... not... reading this blog. And it's not only those pressed oils' lack of flavor, either; the purported health benefits of cutting out saturated fats from our diets are not only bunkum, it's looking more and more like it's detrimental to our health.

The solution? Lard and butter. Cooking with lard or butter adds a layer of great flavor from the start, the lack of which in vegetable oil must be made up for, usually with more salt. Shallots sauteed in canola oil taste good, yes, because they're shallots. In olive oil, even better. But shallots sauteed in butter, until translucent and lightly brown? Those are heaven. And you know why your refried beans aren't nearly as good as that greasy Mexican joint's refried beans? You're using oil, and they're using lard. The sad fact is, that savory, creamy, melt-in-your-mouth goodness can only be achieved using lard. You can have great vegetarian refried beans (with butter), and passable vegan refried beans (usually using too much salt), but the only perfect refried beans are the ones made with lard.

Much of the satisfaction derived from eating butter- and lard-cooked foods is the effect of 'mouth feel'. See, it turns out, mouth feel is the fifth flavor* we Americans usually don't think about, but that, biologically, we desire at every meal, over and above all the others, at a deeply primitive level, mainly because it's the surest indicator to our brains of high amounts of essential amino acids.

Don't be afraid of fats! They're not just good, they're good for you! Your brain, especially, requires a steady intake of fat to rebuild and repair itself. As an added bonus, thanks to the presence of an actual flavor, butter and lard go farther than vegetable oils. You could probably cut the amount of fat called for in any recipe in half, as long as the original recipe calls for vegetable oil and you're replacing it with lard or butter.

You vegans and vegetarians out there, I know, you want my head on a platter. Wait, no, you're vegetarians, that's the opposite of what you want, but I agree, I've been focusing on animal-based fats. Sadly, that's because there're only two plant-based fats that come anywhere near lard and butter in consistency and flavor, and one of them, palm oil, is pretty bad for you. The other one? Coconut oil/butter will replace animal butter really well, and adds a nice mouthfeel.

So those are the easiest tricks of gourmet cooking, at least that I know. I left out a few of mine, because I wanted a nice list of five items (hint: balsamic vinegar is delicious in almost anything), but I don't really know enough to make a list of ten. One thing I have learned, and that maybe should be my Number One (except I really like that butter/lard angle): salt is a necessary component of all your meals, but for God's sake, don't make it the main flavor! Salt is like C-4: a little can do a lot of work for you, but any more than a little and you're standing in a pile of rubble that used to be your meal. It's also so omnipresent in any processed food that if you've eaten anything out of a box in the last week, you're all set. Salt is the perfect preservative (for the food industry): cheap, plentiful, goes with anything. The only thing that's turned out to be better than salt (for the food industry) is high fructose corn syrup.

*The other four being salt, sweet, bitter, and sour. Ayurvedic cooking says there are six essential flavors, all of which are necessary at each meal for true fulfillment.

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