Tuesday, January 24, 2012

10 Tips to a Tastier and More Efficient Kitchen

I, for one, am sick and tired of notable chefs and cooks selling out and buying into the whole “30 minute meal” phenomenon. I cook 98% of my food from scratch and it rarely takes me more than 30 minutes to prepare a meal, usually much less. I am of the persuasion that you should not substitute quality to get something on the table quicker.

So instead of bringing you ten ways to save time in the kitchen I am bring you a list of simple changes you can make in your kitchen to ensure fresher, more efficient and better tasting food whilst making the kitchen a more enjoyable place. Ultimately some of them will save you time and money, but taste wise you won’t sacrifice a thing!

1) Use fresh herbs.
Garden Raid
Photo owned by Nikki L. (cc)
Most recipes require seasoning of some sort and if not, adding some can make quite a difference. Even if you insist on making casseroles with canned soup adding a pinch of fresh chopped thyme brings it to a different level. Most supermarkets carry fresh herbs these days, but it’s also very easy to grow a small herb garden on your kitchen window.

Currently I have basil, parsley, thyme, oregano, chives, bay leaves and flat-leaf parsley growing. I would have coriander as well, but I always kill it! If you don’t have green fingers, like me, I suggest buying the plants already grown. I love just being able to snip a bit here or there and really enhance my cooking. Before growing them myself I would make sure to always have parsley in my fridge and usually a bit of basil too. Ultimately, growing your own will save you money and time. I am not opposed to dry herbs, except for the extremely tasteless parsley, but fresh makes such a taste difference.

2) Grate your own cheese.

Seriously. This takes maybe thirty seconds longer, but the taste difference is unbeatable. Pre-shredded cheese usually has a flour or starch coating added to it, to separate the pieces. You can often buy one block of cheese for the same price as 3-4 bags of an equal amount of grated cheese. Yes, it will take you a little longer to grate your own, but it’s cheaper, tastier and just plain cheese!

3) Buy free-range eggs

As someone on a budget I often have to make concessions and pass up on the lovely organic food I long to buy. However, one thing I will not concede on is eggs. I know battery chickens have a terrible life, but that in itself is not why I choose free-range. I truly believe they have a superior taste and texture. If you don’t believe me, buy a battery egg and a free-range egg. Crack them both and look at the color difference. The free range will have a lovely yellow yolk and a nice thick white. Now fry them up. Add a little salt. Which tastes better? Honestly now! It is worth the small price difference even in baking.  Be warned that organic eggs are not necessarily free-range.  It just means they are fed organic feed.

4) Get a good knife.
Photo owned by jwalsh (cc)

Yes I did say a knife. If you can afford it and want the whole set, don’t let me stop you, but really all you need is a decent chef’s knife. Some brands to look out for include WusthofGlobal, Sai and Henckel.Personally I love Global as they are contemporary looking and weighted. Chefs knives come in all sizes, so pick one that works for you. Personally I don’t like a big blade and use a 6.5 inch Wusthof knife.

Keep your knife sharp. I give mine a little love every day before using it. Just a few swipes on a steel. If it cuts through a tomato without any pressure you’re all set. Take care of your knife. Never put it in the dishwasher.
Learn how to use it. You don’t need to go to culinary school to have good knife skills. Just buy some cheap vegetables like onions or cabbage and start practicing, it’s all in the wrist. You can even watch some videos here. Ultimately you will save so much time with a good knife and it’s a lot less dangerous than a blunt or poor quality knife. Easy and fun!

5) A stick (immersion) blender is all you really need.

From someone who at one point had everything BUT a stick blender, take it from me, these babies rock! I used to have a beautiful Kitchen Aid (sniff) and a fabulous Cuisinart food processor as well as various other chopping gadgets back in the US. Now I have a stick blender. It chops, it whisks, it purees, it makes smoothies - it rules! I do have a very nice food processor, but I rarely get it out as the stick blender is sufficient for nearly everything I do and a big time saver in terms of the hassle in getting the processor out and put together and then cleaned up again. Now having said all that, if my US KitchenAid worked here in Ireland, I would take it back in a flash, but mainly for the dough hook.

6) Use real garlic.

I know how easy it is to buy the jar of already minced stuff, but don’t, compared to the real stuff it is NASTY! Same goes for ginger. Use the real deal and grate it. And lemon juice too. Buy the lemon. Please.

If you have a garlic press it will take you just as long to crush a clove as it would to open a jar and spoon some garlic flavored goop out. And for goodness sakes, no garlic powder in place of fresh garlic in a recipe ok???

I use my chef's knife to chop my garlic and I keep promising myself a garlic press, so it takes me a good bit longer than using the jar, but if you have a press or other handy garlic chopper you’ve no excuse! Use some caution with fresh garlic. I never trust a recipe that has me add garlic at the same time as the onions. Garlic burns and turns bitter SO easily and burnt or bitter garlic is horrible. I usually sauté onions first and add the garlic for a minute at the end and then follow the recipe as written.

7) Use good chocolate.
Chocolat Bonnat. Bloom.
Photo owned by EverJean (cc)
If you enjoy baking, try not to skimp on chocolate. I used to pass on the organic cocoa powder, but I have yet to find anything remotely comparable. It is top notch and makes your brownies SO much better. I also always have some high quality chocolate bars on hand. This means at least 70% cocoa solids. My favorite at the moment is the Lindt 80% bar or mad Willy’s 100% bar.

8) No substitute for real butter

If your health will allow it, when a recipe calls for butter, use butter. If a recipe calls for margarine, use butter. Forget the fat, it’s just milk, whereas that other stuff is full of chemicals and tastes dreadful. I’d rather cut back on butter than spray my food with chemicals.

A little butter goes a long way. I would love to sauté everything in butter, but to cut down on saturated fat I usually use extra virgin olive oil and toss in a sliver of butter to get the taste I crave. Add a sliver of butter to cooked sauces for a velvety finish. If you are in the US and can afford the occasional treat, I strongly recommend that you buy a European butter, as the taste and color are far superior. I used to buy the French President butter when we lived over there, but you can now get our own lovely Irish butter here!

9) Alliums are your friend.

Onions and Garlic
Photo owned by John-Morgan (cc)
Onions, shallots, scallions, leeks, chives and garlic are essential in cooking. No matter how much you think you hate them, I can guarantee you that all your favorite restaurant foods are full of them. Most soup bases are full of onions and would be tasteless without them. 

Try sauteing a few diced shallots before making your normal béchamel or risotto. It adds such a wonderful dimension. Shallots are my favorite in the allium family as they add an almost wine-like presence to food. Leeks are another wonderful vegetable. Just sautéed in a little butter they make the most wonderful accompaniment to any dinner. If you don’t like the strong taste of onions, then leeks might be for you. I use alliums in everything. If I looked at my most frequently purchased grocery, onions would top milk or bread!

10) Try baking your own bread.

I used to be terrified of yeast breads, but now I love them. There is something so incredibly satisfying about kneading your own bread and after awhile it becomes instinctive. If you haven't tried Artisan Bread in Five Minutes yet, you are missing out.  Truly delectable bakery quality bread from your home oven with no kneading or hard work needed.  I make a loaf or rolls every single day and people are always amazed at my bread.  It's so simple and incredibly cheap.  A rustic loaf costs me a few cents to make. 

This is a post I wrote a few years ago on my old blog and for Blissfully Domestic, it has been updated. 

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