how to be a better cook: techniques from a professional kitchen

There are a lot of things I've learned since stepping foot into my culinary classroom a year and a half ago - and then at the places I've worked since then. Here are a few that translate from a professional kitchen into making the home cook's life a little easier.

1. Mise en place.

mise en place

mise en place

Oh, mise en place. That old French saying to have "everything in its' place". Having everything measured and in place before starting means that you won't get partially through a recipe and then realize your butter should be softened or you're out of chicken stock. When I say mise en place, I don't just mean your ingredients. Have all your equipment - pots, pans, foil, parchment paper at your ready.

2. Clean as you go.

It's simple but so elusive. Keep a clean workspace. After you chop an ingredient, wipe down your cutting board. Organize your ingredients. Wash down pots right after using. 

3. Read the recipe fully - twice.

keep a sharp knife

keep a sharp knife

Don't have any nasty surprises, like needing to allow the dough to rest for an hour, midway through the process. Read the recipe and then read it again to fully set up a working plan of attack.

4. The tape method.

Something we use at Milk Bar - always keep a piece of masking tape at the ready next to the recipe's list of ingredients. Mark out things twice - once as you've measured it. And then mark it again as you've added it to the pot. Then you'll never forget if you've already added the salt.

5. Don't overcrowd your pan.

Pretty simple but I'm as guilty of it as you are. You want to get everything done quickly and think you can squeeze in that extra chicken breast - and as a result, nothing is cooked evenly and bits of skin are sticking to the unoiled sides. Be patient, cook in batches or use a larger pan.

6. Get your oil hot.

Turn the stove on. Put your pan on. Walk away for a bit. Let it get crazy hot. Put your oil in. Let your oil get smoking hot. Then add the protein and it will never stick to the pan ever again! Why do we do this? We want the heat to expand the molecules in the pan and the oil to then cover all the microscopic nooks and crannies. The food and the metal of the pan naturally like each other and want to bond, so you need that hot oil to fully even out and slick out that surface before adding anything.

7. Test your oven.

 Do this. Get a sheet pan and place six pieces of evenly spaced bread on it. Bake for 10 minutes at 35o. Pull out the bread and look for where is darker than the others so you're aware of hot spots and unevenness to your oven. Also, get an oven thermometer and ensure that what your oven says is 350 is actually 350.

8. Let your meat rest.

Take your meat out at five degrees (Fahrenheit) under your desired temperature and rest on a rack for five minutes, flipping halfway through. This will allow all the juices running out of the constricting muscle fibers to reabsorb as it relaxes. Flip to ensure they stay near the middle.

9. Sharpen your knives.

Seriously. Buy a whetstone and take your knives to it at least once a month. You're far more likely to hurt yourself with a dull knife and any task is easier with a sharp one. Soak the whetstone and slide the knife's edge at a an angle along the rougher grit side about 10-15 times. Repeat on the fine grit side. Rinse. Check with your knife's manufacturer as to what angle to sharpen at.

10. Season, season, season. 

This is the biggest disparity between home cooks and professionals - season as you go. Add a little salt here and a  little there, tasting everytime, until you hit that perfect brightness of flavor. It should never taste of salt but salt will wake it up and make the flavors come through brighter - and it can't be accomplished with a little salt at the end. 

confetti cookies

Stop what you're doing. Seriously, put it down and grab the butter and the sugar. You need these incredible sour cream confetti cookies in your life. They're everything you'd want in a birthday-cake-turned-cookie, light and pillowy. There's nothing dense nor crunchy about these cookies, they're soft as sugar clouds on your tongue.

If you haven't noticed - the Spoontang Kitchen's actual space looks a little different these days. We moved from Brooklyn to the Upper East Side of Manhattan a little over three weeks ago. I'm slow to unpack, still living half out of boxes and my terrible memory of where I've placed the whisks. So it's a birthday of sorts, even if mine is still half a year away on the other side of summer, it's a time for something new. Something bright. These cookies are exactly what you need for spring, for that time of reset and renewal. Bright and celebratory and impossibly soft. 

recipe adapted from milk bar life. 

6 tbsp butter
1 cup sugar
1 egg
1/2 cup sour cream
1 tbsp vanilla extract
2 cups flour
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp kosher salt
1/4 cup rainbow sprinkles

Preheat oven to 350.

Cream butter and sugar together in mixer until light and fluffy (about 2-3 minutes). Add egg, sour cream, and vanilla. Beat until combined. Sift together flour, baking powder, and salt and add to mixture, beating until well combined. Add sprinkles and beat until throughly distributed. 

On a silpat-lined baking tray, scoop dough into 1 tbsp size balls. You can even them out or leave them relatively unformed, as I did. Bake at 350 for 7-9 minutes for small cookies and 10-11 minutes for larger cookies. Remove when tops begin to take on a golden brown color. Cookie should still be soft to the touch. Allow to cool completely before attempting to remove from silpat.

pommes persillade (potatoes with parsley + garlic)

I won't lie to you - I miss culinary school sometimes. The dashing from the 6 train, cappuccino in hand and the other holding onto my bag of tricks. Waiting for the impossibly slow elevator to the 14th floor, where you turned right into the women's locker room and slipped from one world into another by donning your checkered pants and chef's whites. The Institute of Culinary Education was such an experience for me, I still, and will always, draw on techniques learned there. 

This is one of them. November 2014 was the start of Module 2 of our Career Culinary class. This is where the core techniques are introduced. Pommes Persillade was one of our first experiences in Mod 2, learning to saute during Dry Heat Cooking Techniques. Sauteing is the foundation pommes persillade is built on, getting your pan and oil hot. Tossing the food in the pan so all sides are cooked. Not letting the garlic burn. It's deceptively simple and achingly delicious when you've achieved that golden brown crispy exterior, the soft fluffy potatoes therein contrasting with the bright herbal of parsley and the sharp tang of garlic. It's a perfect side dish, coming together in about twenty minutes from start to finish.

3 russet potatoes
1 heaping tbsp of parsley, chiffonaded
1 clove garlic, minced
salt
1 oz canola oil

Peel the potatoes and slice as evenly as you can into 1/2 inch rectangles. Slice the rectangles by 1/2 inch so you have a perfect 1/2 inch wide and 1/2 inch high baton. Slice into 1/2 inch cubes. 

Add potatoes to pot of water. Salt. Bring to a boil. Test potatoes for doneness. Once a knife can penetrate them easily, remove potatoes from water and spread on a paper towel. Allow to rest until cold.

Once cold, heat a 10" saute pan over med-high heat. Add oil. Once hot, add potatoes. Flip often, until all sides are brown and crunchy. Add parsley and garlic and toss. Cook 1-2 minutes longer, tossing regularly, until garlic is fragrant. Serve.

limoncello olive oil cake with preserved lemon buttercream

Lemon has always been my favorite. Sure, there are dalliances with mango and almond, pistachio and miso - but in the end it's lemon's bright clean flavor that I always seek out. Lemon sorbets, lemon curd, lemon shaker pie. Here, we're celebrating limoncello (which I keep on hand next to ice and cream for a crema di limoncello, basically a lemon-flavored orangsicle on (citrus) acid.

This is a play on a French yogurt cake. I read somewhere, once upon a time, that this is the first cake French children learn to make and I understand why. It's incredibly moist and forgiving, airy and none-too-sweet. Here, I've added lemon zest and limoncello to bring out that bold flavor and paired it with my favorite buttercream - Italian meringue. 

Buttercreams are not made equally. I can't stand the sickly sweet mixture of American buttercream, frequently seen on store-bought cupcakes. No, this buttercream is glossy and airy as a cloud, with the gentle backdrop of rich butter and high notes of gently sweet simple syrup. If angels sing, they sing about Italian buttercream.  

DSC_6273.jpg

limoncello olive oil cake

1 cup + 2 tbsp flour
1/2 cup cake flour
2 tsp baking powder
1 cup plain yogurt
1 cup sugar
3 large eggs
1 oz limoncello
2 tsp lemon zest
1/2 cup olive oil
1/2 tsp salt

Heat oven to 350. Grease and flour an 11" cake pan. Combine eggs, olive oil, sugar, limoncello, and lemon zest in a mixer and beat until combined. Sift dry ingredients together and slowly add to mixer on medium-low speed, working in batches.  Once fully incorporated, pour the mixture into the prepared cake pan. Tap slightly to even mixture and release any trapped air.


Bake 40 minutes or until cake tester comes out clean. Allow to cool for approximately ten minutes before flipping onto cooling rack. Place in freezer for one hour before icing.

preserved lemon italian buttercream

4 egg whites
1.25 cups sugar
1/4 cup water
1 cup cubed and room temperature butter
1 tbsp preserved lemon syrup (or 1 tsp lemon extract + 1/4 tsp salt)

In a stand mixer, beat egg whites until they hold soft peaks. Combine water and sugar in a small saucepan and bring to a boil, dissolving completely. Bring syrup to 235 degrees and remove from heat. Slowly pour into the mixer, keeping the mixer on  low speed (to prevent scrambling eggs). Continue to mix until glossy and bowl has cooled. Add butter one cube at a time, beating to incorporate. Add lemon syrup and food coloring if desired. 

black sesame encrusted seared ahi tuna with ponzu reduction

I don't remember my first raw fish. I remember some but not the first. Gentle breezes laced with salt air, the sun on my back, wind blowing through palm trees sounding like an echo of  the ocean. There are thick slices of tuna and salmon haunting vinegared rice and covered with toasted nori. I eat them in gulps my classmates nudge me. Ew, that's raw fish, they say, and I suddenly swallow, uneasy. But the taste remains, that fresh, clean taste. Pure and unadorned. 

Ahi tuna is one of those few fish, like swordfish, that's really more of a hearty meat than others like cod. The bright pink flesh is sliced into half-inch or inch thick steaks and carefully wrapped in paper, ready for you to slip in your canvas bag and take home. How do you honor a fish both mild in flavor and robust enough for any cooking technique? The sheer heartiness of it provides an answer as tuna stands up well to a simple sear, so close to being left raw. I like to coat mine in sesame seeds to provide a crunchy contrast.

Every good meal deserves a good sauce. Here, I'm drawn toward the flavors of my childhood in Hawaii. Soy sauce mixed with a fruit acid (lime here) and the taste of Chinese black vinegar thick with five spice and a dusting of star anise. Reduce this over a low heat until au sec and nappe (nearly dry and when you coat the back of a spoon, you can draw your finger through it and the line stays.) .

1 5-6 oz ahi tuna steak
1/2 cup black sesame seeds
1/2 cup soy sauce
2 tbsp lime juice
2 tbsp Chinese black vinegar
1 oz canola oil

On a plate, spread out the sesame seeds. Flip tuna steak around until evenly coated. In a 10" saute pan heat oil until nearly smoking. Add the fish and sear for approximately two minutes on either side. Remove. 

In a small saucepan, combine soy sauce, lime juice, and vinegar. Reduce until sauce has thickened, about halfway. Drizzle tuna with sauce. Serve.

salmon with dill and buerre blanc

I always feel inordinately healthy when I eat salmon. It's one of those rare foods with so many touted benefits that you'll feel like a superhero the moment it touches your tongue. Added to that is the fact that salmon is, in fact, delicious. It's rich and buttery, with a substantial flavor that nothing else in the world truly mimics (arctic char, I'm looking at you). 

What I like about this dish is that it's one of those 25 minute weekday wonders. With very little prep work, simply mincing some shallots and dill, you can have it together and everything in the dishwasher in well under an hour. The key to making this dish successful is having the patience to allow your pan to get truly hot (no one wants a limp or torn skin) and to whisk that sauce thoroughly to ensure it's pulled together. These are easily enough done provided you know to look out for them.  But when you do, you'll have this rich, crispy skin with soft layers inside, drizzled by a sauce equal parts acidic and bright from lemon and wine and thick with silky butter, all tied together and elevated with the herbal note of the dill. 

1 salmon filet
2 tbsp chopped dill
1 tbsp lemon juice
1 oz champagne wine vinegar or white wine
2 oz butter
2 tbsp minced shallot
1 tsp herbes de provence
salt & pepper to taste
canola oil

Preheat oven to 350. Heat a 10-inch saute pan over high heat. Add oil, get oil to smoking hot (about 2-3 minutes). Sprinkle fish with salt, pepper, and herbes de provence. Add fish skin-side down, laying the fish away from you so the oil doesn't splash back. Allow to cook until the skin is crispy and releases naturally from the pan (about 2-3 minutes). Flip fish. Cook on meat side until a crust develops and it releases naturally from the pan. Put entire pan in oven. Cook 5-6 minutes or until thermometer registers 125 degrees Fahrenheit in the center of the filet. 

In a small saute pan, add vinegar or wine and shallots and cook over high heat until mostly evaporated (au sec). Remove from heat and add butter, whisking quickly to form an emulsion. Add dill and lemon, whisk in to stabilize emulsion. 

Remove fish from oven and place on plate, drizzle with beurre blanc and top with dill. Serve.

grilled shallots and fennel over juniper with dill

I've always known I was Scandinavian but I knew it in the way most Americans know their own blood - at the peripheral. Fuzzy. But as I'm drawn more and more to the New Nordic style of cooking, I've grown more interested in learning the details of my family's history. 

The most fascinating thing is the notation of several members as Lapps, or Laplanders. Today, these are the Sami, Scandinavia's indigenous peoples, of the most northern regions of Sweden, Norway, Finland, and Russia. They're commonly known as the reindeer herders, although a large portion settled down to fish and agriculture. In the 1800s, facing increasing pressure to assimilate or be punished, large amounts of Sami emigrated to the United States, mainly to the midwest - Iowa, Illinois, Michigan, and Minnesota - as my own did. Vague stories and plattar pans were passed down, woman to woman. Whispers of a Native ancestry I always brushed off - but with a kernel of truth behind them, just a different location. 

The Sami have their own cuisine, similar to Swedish and Norwegian, focusing on berries, fish, and primarily reindeer. Cloudberries and whitefish, cod and blood sausage. Mountain sorrel. I want to bring this out in my own food, put my own past on a plate.

This is a vegetable dish inspired by the vegetables themselves. Here, we use the grill to transform the shallot from an accompaniment to the star of the show, accented by that clean, floral taste of dill ever present in Scandinavian cooking. This is a Scandinavian dish made in midsummer when the days are long and the sun is ever-present. High and bright, the warmth upon your back. Something they may have had ages ago. Cooking doesn't change much. Century to century and on.

6-8 shallots, peeled and halved
1 head fennel, sliced with core removed
1 head fennel fronds, minced
1 tbsp dill, minced
2 tbsp juniper berries
2 tbsp canola oil
salt to taste

scatter the juniper berries within wood chips and turn grill to medium-high. toss shallots, dill, fennel, and fronds with oil and salt (if using a grill pan, toss juniper in as well and simply remove before serving). place in a foil packet and toss on grill. grill 15-20 minutes, until shallots are soft and fragrant and browning has occurred. remove and sprinkle with additional fronds and dill. serve. 

service.

I had thought the morning shift buzzed loudly and ran like a machine. I was wrong.

It's the night shift where the kitchen shines. The change happens gradually. The din picks up at 2.30 when the line cooks arrive. A pressure hits around 4, when the a.m. shift leaves and front of house arrives. The diners come promptly at 5 o'clock. 

I said I wasn't on the line. I was also wrong there. 

 

"You're going to be plating desserts. I'll show you the station at 5.30." A nervous tangle of snakes rises in the pit of my stomach. I wipe my hands on my apron at 5.30 and head to the station. It looks like a battle station. There are pint containers stacked neatly. Bottles. As it's an open kitchen, I'm behind a glass countertop, directly facing customers. Two lowboys filled with ice creams and cakes are at my feet. And the ticket machine, the ever-present ticket machine, is at my left hand.

This is where the dots of sauce go. This is where you place the cake, the garnish, the drizzle. The lights dim and I cut cauliflower florets while waiting, my ears pricked, for the ever present sound for the ticket machine. 

I stumble, like everyone does at first. I try to send out the vegan tart with meringue dots. Come back, fix it. I struggle with getting that perfect scoop of ice cream until I learn to start taking the containers out right away when the order comes in and scooping last. Slowly, I get better. I start taking desserts two at a time. Dot ice creams with carrots that look like flower petals. Torch meringues. Draw perfect circles with sauce bottles. 

Plating is an art, one that exceptional care must be taken with. This is the final product, the ultimate event, for everyone who touched each component of the dish. This is what the customer sees and it must be perfect and beautiful. Do honor to it, to everyone, with your hands.

At 11.30, I pack up my knives and venture out to the busy Lower East Side. 

I'll be back tomorrow. 

fire to order.

There are little things that betray a kitchen worker. I open my bag and find six Sharpies. 

The first six weeks are the hardest. I find a rhythm in movement, like a dance. Slice scallions. Perfectly on the bias. Fill a pint with them. We need three quarts of pickled sunchokes. I find a poetry in terms I'd never come across a year ago. Half-sheet, nine pan, cambro. Cooks and chefs are pursuers of excellence, of a demanding perfection that plays dangerously well into my organized Virgo mind. Do not do it if it won't be perfect. Throw it out.  Save it for family. Do it again. There is a continual competition with our own selves to be better, faster, more precise. Your knife cannot be sharp enough, your hands steady enough. 

There are two main shifts of kitchen staff - morning prep and night service. I come in with the morning prep shift, leaving the house at 7.20 and fully set up at my station (do you have your cutting board? your pint and quart containers?) by 8 am. There is a quiet buzz beyond the a.m. playlist. We flit back and forth, up and down countless stairs hauling 8-quart containers of hot sauce and broccoli, cauliflower and pickling liquids. Yell corner! and hot pan!. There is a special soundtrack to a kitchen. 

Here, we honor vegetables in a way. Transform them. That's why I'm here and not anywhere else. To learn how to transform and elevate fennel and cauliflower, cabbage and corn. My culinary school education had focused so heavily on meats, chicken especially, that when I graduated I felt somewhat still at a loss in the world of vegetables. 

And I want to know everything. To be an encyclopedia of knowledge on food and cooking. How? I ask. Why? The concepts come easily to me - I've always been a good test-taker, retainer of information. The muscle mastery is harder. Where do I cut? How hard? How can I swing my knife to get those smooth, quick motions? This is practice. It will take years. 

Today marks my first day working a dinner service and while I'm still prep and not on the line, the pressure is there to perform. This is theater. The diners arrive promptly at 5 pm. I'm ready.