25 May 2008

Sauce interview, Pt 5

OK, last two questions (for now!) …

Any favorite or little-known-but-fantastic-and-easy tips for using spices and ready-made sauces you want to share?

Any words of encouragement for people who, for one reason or another – lack of experience, bad luck in the past, intimidated by TV chefs, whatever – still may lack the confidence to try out things in the kitchen?

Finally, not a question, but thanks so much for imparting all this information and enthusiasm for healthy, natural, delicious, peaceful foods. Much appreciated, and I hope we can do it again sometime.

Any favorite or little-known-but-fantastic-and-easy tips for using spices and ready-made sauces you want to share?
The microwave, of course!

Whenever I'm in a severe rush, I'm never embarrassed to use the microwave. Heck, sometimes I use it even when I'm not in a hurry. There's nothing wrong with setting a pot of rice to cook in the rice cooker, chopping up a bunch of root vegetables (yams, potatoes, what have you), tossing them with some oil, and your spice blend (Mrs. Dash, curry powder, garam masala, whatever), and letting it rip in the microwave for a while. As for sauces, I tend to save those for occasions when a large pot of soup or stew is coming up flat for some reason. Suppose you've just made a fairly large vegetable stew. At the end, you taste for seasoning, and you notice that it's all well cooked and such, but it's severely lacking in flavours. This is when you start experimenting (quickly) with your ready made sauces. Grab a few small bowls, and ladle a bit of stew into them. Line up your sauces, and try each bowl with a different one. Once you've found the combination you like, start pitching it into the pot! It will taste fine soon enough!

The reason I use sauces in this manner, is because they've already been processed in such a way that the flavours are already well developed. Spice blends, on the other hand, are in a sort of suspended animation, and are waiting to release their stuff. This is why I suggest the dry cooking in the microwave: the fast cooking speed is hot enough to pull out the flavour of the spices quickly. Don't be afraid of substituting a different sauce for a different purpose. For example, if all this time, you've only had sweet potatoes with cinnamon, sugar, and a dash of nutmeg, why not give them a shot of barbecue sauce, and see where the adventure takes you? If you've only used soy sauce (or tamari) in stir fry dishes, why not try soy sauce over steamed vegetables? Start thinking outside of the box. These ready made sauces are meant specifically to work with a wide range of foods. Chances are, you'll hit on something new that you like.

Any words of encouragement for people who, for one reason or another – lack of experience, bad luck in the past, intimidated by TV chefs, whatever – still may lack the confidence to try out things in the kitchen?
Don't look at the intimidating ones, but think of the most popular ones. Julia Child. Martin Yan (Yan Can Cook!). Graham Kerr. Rachel Ray. What did all these people have in common? For one thing, their shows are filmed live. You could see when they made mistakes, and have accidents. For another thing, they stressed that you try to have a knowledge of what you're doing, rather than have a strict adherence to specific amounts and rules.

I don't think I've ever seen Julia Child measure food in her show. She just knew what it looked like in the dish, because she knew that it's not going to make a huge difference if she got a little more or a little less in the pan. She can always adjust later, as needed. Look at Rachel Ray. She doesn't pull out measuring spoons; she tells you to "eyeball" it. The reason that these TV cooks are popular is because they're showing you how to prepare food in the way that most people do in their own homes. Even though they're all following recipes, they still don't bother being all that retentive about it, because that's how you learn. I remember being in the kitchen with my mother. The two of us would be keeping up a steady stream of chatter while working on the food. Sometimes, we'd make a fairly big mistake ("oops! I forgot to chop the onions, mom." "Well, leave it out then."), and in the end, it wasn't that huge a deal.

One such time was this Friday night that we were rushing to get dinner ready. We had more people than we thought we would, and were rushing, because they were set to arrive soon. Usually, in a proper daal, you have to chop up some onions, some garlic, some tomato, cilantro, curry leaves, and set up a series of five or six spices. Everything needs to be there to give an authentic feeling. That evening, we hadn't the time to bother with all that. Instead, in her panic, my mother toasted some cumin seeds in hot oil, and added the lot of the cooked beans when she heard them pop. She didn't even bother adding salt. Similarly on my side, I didn't have time to make my cabbage, which involves onions, carrots, cabbage, and two or three spices, along with curry leaves. Instead, I just did the grated cabbage, grated carrot, some chopped onions, lemon juice, and some curry leaves raw, and tossed it all together.

This is all because the two of us didn't do anything in advance. Before leaving the kitchen, we set the rice cooker to get going, and ran to greet the guests. It was as if the food was high gourmet. Everyone had third helpings, and was raving about the food! There were other times when the mistakes would give us either over salted (meaning, you have to double the quantity of food, and add a bit of lemon), over cooked (add water, call it a soup), undercooked (sprinkle on just enough water to dampen, microwave until cooked through), or bland (liberally add in any sort of Chile sauce you can handle; Cholula is the best, because it has heat and lots of spices), or burned (gently pour out just exactly what's not burned, and don't scrape the bottom; soak the pot in water and soap; reseason the salvaged part to your liking, using some sort of BBQ sauce or such, which goes well with a smoky taste, then call it cajun).

These things happen to everyone, because that's the nature of the beast. The important thing is to avoid panicking, and work with it. I can't remember how many times I'd mix up the sugar for the salt, and sprinkle some in, and get very odd looks from my mother at the dinner table. We'd salvage it by adding some sour (tamarind, lemon, lime, what have you), and a bit of extra heat (cayenne, black pepper, ground chilly), and the actual salt itself. There's a reason that in my own home now, I refuse to use anything else but Turbinado sugar, and Kosher salt! Can't confuse those two, right? Here's a couple of ways to avoid disaster:

1. Until you're highly adept in the kitchen, don't let the dial go on anything higher than medium to start. That is, when you heat up oil, or pop spices, or do anything else that involves a naked pan + whatever you're adding, start at medium heat. This way, you'll understand how the pot reacts to the amount of oil you have in there. I generally start at medium when I'm in an unfamiliar kitchen for the same reason: I don't know how their cookware and stoves do things until I've gotten the hang of it. Sometimes, if the pots are very thin, and the stove is very hot, I'll mentally re-calibrate the dial. Medium is the new high, and so on.

2. Once your stove is above low heat, don't leave the room. I'm seriously not joking on this one. The reason is that the boiling point of water is 100ºC. Since water resists change in temperature very well, you can more or less count on the food in the pot staying at this temperature for the most part. However, once water has left, there is no compelling reason for the pot to remain at 100º. Instead, you'll see the temperature climb extremely rapidly, to the burning point. Soon, your smoke detector is screaming, and your family is coughing.

Just stay put. If the phone rings, or doorbell rings, and your stove is on high, turn the heat off, and handle those other things. It's better to come back to it, and pick up where you left off, rather than leave things a smoking mess. If you are an experienced cook, and are simmering a large pot of food over the lowest heat setting (such as when cooking beans, or making a Chile), feel free to cover the lid of the pot, and set a timer for about 30 minutes or so.

I use the timer in my microwave (press timer, set the amount of time you need it to time, then press timer again). I can then sit down with a book, or surf the internet for a while. I won't watch TV, because the sound of the TV will drown out the sound of the timer. When my timer goes off, I'll check on the food, and keep cooking, or set the timer for a bit longer, and relax. The point is that you don't have to babysit the kitchen the entire time you're cooking, if it's a long, slow-cooking food, but when you're in a hurry, be there to pay attention to what's going on.

3. Use the built in timer for your oven. With the oven, we often forget that it's there, because it's enclosed, and doesn't really make itself known too much. Instead of risking that, just read the manual of your stove, and figure out how to set the timer. If you have lost your manual, type into Google "how to set oven timer for ________" with the brand name of your oven. Something is bound to show up!

4. Clearly label, in BIG letters, your spices. A simple piece of white paper, taped onto the jar, will do the trick. Why? Because sometimes, you can't find your glasses. Sometimes, you're in a rush, and don't look too closely at the white powdered spice (which is baking soda, not powder, or sugar, not salt), and you sprinkle some in, thinking that you'll be fine. The food comes out, and everyone looks confused.

5. Try to keep your spices and sauces in roughly the same place every time. Don't let people take it out of that spot, if you can help it. If you use ketchup in everything, it'll be a good idea to have it in the same spot in your fridge every time you need it, so that you don't have to go searching for it. Similarly, with your other spices, if you keep them in easy reach, you'll remember to use them, and you'll know where to find them. I don't let people take my salt or pepper out of the kitchen. Instead, I measure out enough for that meal, and keep it in a separate container on the table. This way, I won't have to go searching for my salt box the next time I need it. It'll be right there, where it's always sitting.

6. Before flipping on the stove, try to have most of everything waiting for you. That is, if the recipe calls for crushed garlic, a bag of green peas, some Mrs. Dash, and some oil, try to have those things all in one spot, relatively close by. In fact, open the bag of peas, crush the garlic, and have the jar of Mrs. Dash open before flipping on the stove. You'll thank yourself later when you're not fumbling around. These guidelines should give you an insurance policy against mess-ups in the future. It won't prevent them completely, but it'll certainly help avoid major disasters. Trust me when I say that even the most experienced chefs have disasters. We just make it work for us.

Finally, not a question, but thanks so much for imparting all this information and enthusiasm for healthy, natural, delicious, peaceful foods. Much appreciated, and I hope we can do it again sometime.
For sure! This was pretty much what I'm very much suited to, right? Glad you enjoyed it as much as I did.