I'm not a chef. I've only worked one job in a kitchen... well, it was more of a garage, and all I did was chop fruit and vegetables for a salad bar. When I started at The Chopping Block I could hold a knife properly, but that was about it.
If you had asked me to gauge my cooking abilities at that time, I would have confidently told you I was pretty good in the kitchen. I could prepare dishes of greater complexity than most of the people I knew and had even been asked by friends, and a couple of girlfriends, to teach them how to cook. All of this fed my ego quite nicely.
The truth is, you're really only as good as the people around you and here, surrounded by professional chefs, I can now tell you with confidence that I'd be lucky to cook my way out of a paper bag... you know what I mean.
In order to help advance my skills, I asked my co-workers here at The Chopping Block to give me five things everyone should know how to cook. I thought I'd share their answers here this month instead of tackling another dense wine blog, so here are the most popular answers, ranked by frequency.
This is the most approachable of the Mother Sauces, and its children can be found in nearly every refrigerator in America in the form of marinara, ketchup, catsup, and BBQ sauce. In the words of our Owner/Chef Shelley Young, “Tomato sauce highlights all the flavor profiles and how to utilize each one. It highlights herbs and spices and how those are used in wet, dry and fresh applications.“
So, yeah, you can get by just fine going to the store and buying pre-made variations of this essential sauce, or you could learn how to make it for yourself and elevate your cooking to new levels of greatness with very little effort.
A vinaigrette sounds simple enough: you're essentially just mixing oil and acid, but the possibilities are endless. First, what are you using it for? Salad dressing, sauce, or marinade? Do you want it to be sweet, savory, spicy, zesty, citrusy or whatever? All it takes is a couple of additional ingredients and you've totally changed the flavor. If you want to keep it from breaking you can stabilize the emulsification with honey, egg, mayonnaise, or mustard. Do you enjoy binge-watching food TV and tearing through your kitchen like a mad scientist during commercial breaks? This is your chance to let your genius shine.
I expected steak was going to be the primary protein everyone answered with, but to my surprise, it was chicken. I didn't get it until Chef Sam Goldbroch explained, “Everyone is so afraid of getting sick from under-cooked chicken that they overcook it until it's dry and flavorless.” It's essentially the same as those horrible people who request their steak well done and then ask for a bottle of ketchup to add moisture back into the lump of carbon they ordered.
Taking it one step further, Sam said when he wants to check out a new restaurant he usually orders the chicken, because if they can cook it properly, it shows they know what they're doing.
If you've taken our Sushi Workshop, you know how important rice can be, but it's also one of the things chefs tell me they've seen messed up the most. Few things can ruin a dish faster than improperly cooked rice. If you have problems getting it right, don't feel bad, I heard a lot of embarrassing stories about young chefs messing up what seemed to be a such a simple dish. One chef even confessed to an unflattering nickname, which I can't repeat here, he earned for the difficulty he experienced in cooking rice. If you're one of these unfortunate souls, a rice cooker is a great investment.
There is a memorable part of Marco Pierre White's Devil in the Kitchen where he discusses eggs, and everyone's inability to cook them, saying, “Yet the majority of people still crack an egg and drop it into searingly hot oil or fat and continue to cook it on high heat. You need to insert earplugs to reduce the horrific volume of the sizzle. And the result, once served up in a pool of oil, is an inedible destruction of that great ingredient—the egg. Maybe that’s how you like it, in which case carry on serving your disgusting food.”
So, maybe it shouldn't be surprising that nearly every chef I asked gave eggs in their answer. One chef told me she used to have prospective cooks make her an egg before she'd allow them to work in her kitchen. Another chef listed eggs twice, because everybody should know how to make en egg, but you also need to know how to make Eggs Benedict “to get laid.”
There are a lot of great resources out there to teach you how to make each of these things, but there's one class here at The Chopping Block that covers all topics: Culinary Boot Camp! We've condensed a two-year culinary school experience into a 40 hour, one-week class. It covers knife skills, butchery, stocks, and all the Mother Sauces. If you've taken a cooking class with us before, Culinary Boot Camp is more serious than most of our classes, the students usually refrain from enjoying a glass of wine during class, but they definitely need a bottle of something right after. If you're interested in learning more, we'll be running this class twice during the summer, and seats are still available!