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Ten simple ways to revolutionise your cooking life in the new year

(Photo: Unsplash)

Now that we’re two years deep into the pandemic, it’s time to turn a corner and build on our cooking strengths. Here are 10 ways to hone your kitchen skills as we enter another year of who knows what.

The lockdown in all its levels, the curfews, the booze bans, the fears of all that has happened since March 2020 have worn us all down while making us resilient and skilled at finding ways to occupy minds and hands. In the early weeks and months, we all found ourselves trying new things in the kitchen and social media lit up with all that we were achieving. But there are some essential kitchen skill sets worth having or finding out about.

1. Learn how to make a béchamel in your sleep

A béchamel may be easy to get right, but it’s just as easy to mess it up. Follow these rules to turn out a lump-free, silky-smooth béchamel every time.

  • Use equal quantities of flour and butter.
  • Use hot (but not boiled) milk, not cold.
  • Add the milk a little at a time, not all at once.
  • Stir constantly to avoid lumps and to ensure a silky-smooth sauce.
  • Take your time: the taste of the flour needs to be cooked out slowly, over a low heat, while stirring constantly.
  • When cooking your roux, do it slowly on a low heat, as a béchamel must be blond, not brown.

How: Bring one litre of full-cream milk just to the boil with two bay leaves in it (but don’t let it boil). Keep it to one side. In another pot, melt four tablespoons of butter and (off the heat) stir in four tablespoons of plain flour to make a roux. Cook it on a very low heat, stirring all the while, then stir a little of the hot milk into the roux at a time, never stopping stirring, until the milk is all incorporated and you have a thick white sauce. Season with a little salt and pepper to taste, and grate a little nutmeg in. The process should take about 15 minutes. Remove the bay leaves.

Your béchamel can be adapted into many other sauces.

(Photo: Unsplash)

2. Devise your own masalas and rubs

Unless you live in Durban, where the sari-swathed aunty in her little spice shop in a corner of a mall will mix you the family heirloom masalas with a dexterity that runs deep in her veins, it’s worth having a go at blending your own. Try this tandoori spice mix: 

2 Tbsp coriander seeds
1 Tbsp cumin seeds
1 Tbsp powdered ginger (or 1 tsp if also using fresh ginger)
1 Tbsp fenugreek
2 Tbsp red chilli flakes
2 tsp garlic powder
1 tsp nutmeg (when ground)
½ tsp mace (when ground)
1 tsp cloves (when ground)
1 tsp cinnamon (when ground)
1 tsp ground black pepper
1 tsp black mustard seeds
1 tsp cardamom seeds
½ tsp ground turmeric
Red food colouring (optional)

Toast the hard spices and seeds in a dry pan till it starts to smoke. Allow to cool. Grind cooled spices to a fine powder. Add any spices that were pre-ground (including red food colouring if using), and grind together. Store in a tightly closed container.

3. Master the pasta

Ignore the instructions on the pasta packet. They are usually basic and presume that you already know the tricks of the trade.

  • Use a very big pot filled with plenty of water.
  • The water must be boiling furiously when you put the pasta in – all of the pasta, immediately, making sure that no bits of it are sticking out above the water.
  • The pasta must be swirled around with a wooden spoon, immediately, so that the water separates every piece of pasta from every other piece. If not, the pasta will clump. We hate clumped pasta.
  • Do not time your pasta. It is not about timing, it is ready when it is al dente, to the tooth, not too soft, not too chewy, but just right. As long as it takes to achieve that is precisely how long it takes to cook pasta. It is an art to be mastered; every time you do it, it will be better.
  • The cooked pasta must be drained, but do not run water through it, and do retain a few tablespoonfuls of the pasta water. This pasta water adds to the consistency and quality of your pasta sauce when you stir it in just before serving.
  • Put the drained pasta back into the empty pasta pot, pour in the sauce and the bit of pasta water you’ve retained. Toss it with a pasta fork and serve. Piling up a mound of naked pasta on a plate and pouring the sauce in the middle is really not the way to go.
  • Finally, use less sauce, not more. It’s a pasta dish, not a noodle soup.
(Photo: Unsplash)

4. Get the hang of Asian sauces and dips

Stock your pantry with light soy sauce, dark soy, sweet soy (such as kecap manis), yuzu, ponzu, oyster sauce, rice vinegar, sake (rice wine), mirin (much like sake but lower in alcohol and sweeter), pickled ginger, white miso, brown miso, palm sugar (it comes in half-moon hard lumps that you bash up), sambal oelek, white and black sesame seeds, sesame oil, stinky fish sauce, and more.

You’ll often also need lime juice, always plenty of garlic and ginger, and chilli in one form or another. Experiment with mixing them. Start by using a simple concoction of soy, garlic and ginger, and building it up from there, a dash of this or that at a time, tasting as you go. You’ll get the hang of it and your palate will soon guide you.

(Photo: Unsplash)

5. Make your own flavoured salts

Chilli, garlic, rosemary, oregano, lemon, orange; all of these and more can be used to make your own flavoured salts. Use both fine salt and coarse; the latter gives it texture, the former makes it flow better.

My herb salt is made like this: Blend one cup of coarse salt and one cup of fresh herbs (such as rosemary needles, or oregano or thyme leaves) in a food processor. Spread the mixture out on a baking tray, put it in a warm place and leave for a few hours to dry out. Scrape it around with a spatula now and then to even out the drying. Pour it into a suitable bowl and stir in one cup of fine salt. Store in an airtight jar. Or do the same with finely grated garlic, chillies or citrus zest.

6. Secrets of the perfect risotto

When making a risotto, you need to have all the elements ready and in front of you, before you start cooking, as the cooking of it happens quickly and needs your full focus.

You need: your raw arborio or carnaroli rice; your prepared stock; your liquor (such as wine, sherry, port, liqueur); your main and any secondary ingredients such as herbs, spices, zest, juices, etc; grated Parmesan and any other cheeses you wish to add such as Gorgonzola or Grana Padano.

  • Make your stock first, measure your wine in a jug or have the bottle to hand; chop any vegetables and herbs; grate or crumble your cheese. Have the salt and pepper right there.
  • The rice must first be coated in plenty of olive oil in the pan on a low heat, while you stir gently with a flat-ended wooden spoon.
  • The stirring of a risotto is constant but not violent. The trick is to meld everything together without the rice grains disintegrating. You will see professional chefs apparently stirring risotto very quickly on TV shows; they are pros with lots of practice, and the seeming briskness of their stirring disguises the subtlety of their craft. Rather slow down.
  • Once the rice is coated, add any vegetables, bacon, herbs, etc, that you’re using, then a ladleful of your stock at a time, stirring gently this way and that, then any liquor, until the risotto is al dente but you can still see all the grains of rice in the sauce that has developed. Season to taste, grate your cheese over or stir it in, and you’re away.
(Photo: Unsplash)

7. Make your own compound butters

Parsley and garlic, rosemary and lemon, chilli and lime zest, Beurre Maître d’Hôtel (parsley and lemon juice butter), Café de Paris. You can make a compound butter out of very many things, according to your own taste, the secret being to melt butter and simmer your ingredients in it very gently, then let it cool to room temperature before refrigerating it to set. Then you can foil-wrap and freeze it. Cut a round of it to put on top of grilled steak or chicken, to melt into the hot food as its sauce.

8. Get your chimichurri mojo going

Don’t be shy of whipping up your own chimichurri sauce, or chermoula, or salsa roja. They’re easy to make and very impressive.

For chermoula, blitz the following together to make a green paste: 250g fresh coriander, 3 garlic cloves, 1 Tbsp each ground cumin and paprika, ½ tsp cayenne pepper, juice of one lemon, 2 Tbsp white wine vinegar, one chopped green chilli, 2 or 3 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil, and salt to taste. That’s it, done.

For salsa roja, blitz four ripe tomatoes and one garlic clove till quite smooth. Add one chopped chilli and give it a quick whizz. Pour into a saucepan and add 2 Tbsp olive oil and salt to taste. Bring to a boil and turn off the heat. Stir in one small onion, finely chopped, and a good handful of chopped coriander (cilantro). There’s your salsa roja mojo.

Chimichurri is even easier: you don’t even blend it. Combine the following in a bowl or jug and stir: 1 cup parsley, very finely chopped; four fat cloves garlic, finely minced; 3 Tbs fresh oregano leaves, picked from their stems and finely chopped; 2 Tbsp red wine vinegar; ½ cup extra virgin olive oil; coarse salt and black pepper to taste. Do not blend. Mojo, achieved.

Raw home-made chopped green Chimichurri or Chimichurri sauce made of parsley, garlic, oregano, hot pepper, olive oil, vinegar..

9. Make your own stocks

Many of us know how to make a stock from scratch but the question is: do we?

When we cook with meat, fowl or fish, there are usually offcuts. Freeze them for use in a stock later, or make a stock immediately and then freeze that. It’s a good idea to freeze them in portions of, say, 250g each, to help you apportion them into future recipes.

Be in the habit of buying fresh carrots, onions, leeks, celery and garlic so that you always have the basics to hand when you decide to make a stock.

For lamb, mutton or beef stocks, retain any unwanted bones, tissue and fat offcuts. Roast them (with whole or halved onions) to get maximum flavour in your stock.

For chicken stocks, the spines have plenty of flavour potential. I always have several in my freezer waiting for the next chicken stock. When you spatchcock a chicken, cut out the spine as the first step. I’ve even been known to use a cooked roast chicken carcass in a stock.

For fish stocks, retain prawn heads, any other crustacea shells, any unwanted fish heads, tails etc. Keep the vegetable components lighter for a fish stock than for a meat stock. It’s the fish that you want to shine.

Use tomato paste in all of your stocks to add depth of flavour.

(Photo: Unsplash)

10. Be resourceful with what you’ve got

Use a wok lid as a braai smoker; use the brine from a jar of olives as a marinade ingredient; use the syrups from preserved fruit jars in sauces and marinades.

And not every-thing has to be about Panko crumbs. They’re great, but you can fry (or even microwave) a store-bought poppadom in a minute, then crumble it finely to use for coating fish and chicken, or anything else that needs a crumb. Or blitz some Weet-Bix, cornflakes or Rice Krispies with spices, nuts or seeds to make a crumb.

Use biltong dust (sold in biltong shops) mixed with lemon or orange zest as a coating for chicken or a steak, or stir some into a pasta sauce.

Go over to that cupboard over there, fling the doors open wide, and examine everything in there. You might surprise yourself with the ideas you come up with. Happy cooking. Happy 2022. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.

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  • Thank you for these ! It reminded me of the first time I tasted the wonderful Maitre d’Hotel butter – at the Beacon Island Hotel (at that time still a hotel) in the 1980s.
    They also had the biggest breakfast spread I have ever seen – counters filled with wonderful food along the entire passage leading to the dining room. Those were the days ….

  • Thank you for a great article. I will try some of these improvements.

    A question please: Why is there no reference to butter in the risotto. I understand the stirring in of cold butter at the end, just before stirring in the grana, to be essential (for most risotto’s – e.g. not seafood). The “violent” stirring I’ve read about is to quickly incorporate the cold butter (cooled in the fridge in small cubes) so as not to create an oily mess.

    A nice Sri Lanka curry masala:
    Remember 4;3;2;1 in tablespoons – and 3;2;1 in teaspoons:
    4 = coriander seeds
    3 = cumin seeds
    2 = black peppercorns
    1 = black mustard seeds

    3 = cloves
    2 = cardamom seeds
    1 = fennel seeds (heaped)

    Roast, grind, preserve.

    *Sri Lankan curry gets heat from pepper, not chilis
    I use this as base for anything, even sprinkle on braai meat. Use three tablespoons in a stew for 4 people..

    • Adding butter, although most often done, is not obligatory for risotto. The choice and quantity of fat (butter, oil or both) in addition to the cheese will depend on the type of cheese and/or what the other ingredients are that you’re using. Also, adding butter, hot or cold, at the beginning, during or at the end is a matter of technique and finishing for the specific risotto you are building. You shouldn’t feel that all risottos need a cold knob of butter and rapid frisking at the end, for that is not true.