I like to cook, and I cook a lot. My late mother was a good cook of Italian food. The Baltimore woman who considers me her second son is an excellent cook of Italian food. My late father-in-law was an accomplished French chef in New York City. So I’ve had culinary influences. I’ve interviewed chefs and professional foodies. So here, in time for the holiday cooking and baking season, are 32 things I’ve learned dans la cuisine, if you know what I mean:
1. For better results without greasy splatter, slow-bake bacon at a low temperature in the oven instead of cooking in a skillet. (If you must cook bacon in a skillet, always wear a shirt.)
2. In preparing a chicken for roasting, loosen the skin, then slip tabs of butter under the skin in the breast area.
3. When making a frittata, use a cast-iron skillet. When the frittata is just about done, slip it under the broiler for 40 seconds for a nice finish.
4. Leeks are amazing. Use the white parts in soup or sautee them in butter as a side dish. Save the green parts in the freezer for future soup stock.
5. Same with onion skins. Save some in the freezer for stock.
6. After you’ve made a big pot of chicken or vegetable stock, pour and strain the batch through a colander in the sink. Make sure you put another pot under the colander first. Otherwise, your flavorful stock will go down the drain. Been there, done that. Don’t let this happen to you.
7. Everyone is entitled to a decadent dish. Pick one and make it once a year. Mine is spaghetti alla carbonara.
8. For fluffy and moist scrambled eggs, cook them in a double boiler with a generous tab of butter and blend in a small glob of cream cheese.
9. Get your knives professionally sharpened once in a while. It’ll make preparing meat and vegetables a pleasure. Don’t be afraid. Just keep paper towels, bandages and a tourniquet nearby.
10. Slip a slightly damp towel under the cutting board to keep it from slipping on your countertop.
11. Invest in a meat hammer. A little pounding tenderizes chicken breasts and makes their thickness uniform, so, when sauteing, both ends finish at the same time.
12. Don’t crowd food in a skillet. They’ll get steamy and soggy instead of crispy and brown. Five chicken thighs cook better together than six.
13. Julia Child’s recipe for coq au vin is absolutely perfect if you follow it absolutely perfectly.
14. For spaghetti, salt the boiling water just seconds before adding the pasta. Do not add oil. If you do, your marinara won’t stick to the noodles.
15. In preparing lasagna, cook the pasta at a slow boil, remove each piece to a large bowl of iced water, then to clean kitchen towels for drying. This makes lasagna assembly expeditious.
16. Items worth keeping in the pantry because they come in handy for all sorts of quick meals: Cans of cannellini beans, kidney beans and chickpeas; a box of orzo; diced tomatoes.
17. To thicken a soup, add a purée of cannellini beans from a can.
18. If you have some breakfast cereal you’re sick of looking at, crumble it and use it in a bake with sliced apples, honey, butter and brown sugar.
19. “London Broil rocks,” a friend says, and I agree. Just make sure you marinate it for two days.
20. Do not refrigerate tomatoes unless you’re making a summer sandwich with mayo that you plan to eat over the sink. Otherwise, do not refrigerate; it kills off flavor and aroma, and that’s been scientifically proven.
21. Codfish is an underrated, reasonably priced all-purpose, white meat fish. You can bake it or fry it. You can use it as the foundation of a hearty seafood chowder. I also mix it with crabmeat for the Crab Corn Coddie, perfected by Chef Nancy Longo of Pierpoint restaurant. (Email me for the recipe: firstname.lastname@example.org).
22. Look for fresh (not canned) sardines in a local seafood market. Fire up a grill. Toss the sardines in olive oil and a little kosher salt. They grill fast and crispy, and the taste is fantastic.
23. Baking is fun but requires precision. Pastry recipes are unforgiving. Veer off course at great risk.
24. Take care of your wooden cutting board with Boos Block Mystery Oil.
25. A 16-inch cast iron pizza pan works great and doubles nicely as a stovetop griddle.
26. Rice flour is a good substitute in pancakes, waffles or crepes when you need to go gluten-free.
27. Grill lean meats at a low temperature. If you see the edges curl up, lower the heat.
28. If you must buy spaghetti sauce by the jar, two things: Always add some of your own herbs and spices for a more flavorful sauce, and save some of the jars for storing leftovers.
29. Invest in a digital thermometer. It takes all the guesswork out of roasting and grilling and gives you more confidence as a carnivorous cook.
30. Extra virgin olive oil is wasted in most cooking. Save it for salads and pizza.
31. Kitchen shears come in handy for opening frozen food packages, clipping herbs, cutting a chicken into parts and dividing up next-day pizza to avoid fights.
32. For great meatballs, remove the casing from a few mild Italian sausages and add to the beef mixture. Also, mix some milk with the breadcrumbs, and chill the gently rolled balls before baking them. (If you must fry them in a skillet, always wear a shirt.)