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I launched a series of Q and A sessions focused on how to understand cooking. It’s a step often skipped; skills are much better utilized if you can wrap your head around them first.

In conjunction with Sparkpeople.com, WKIO began a series of questions and answers featuring a variety of experts on maintenance, science and the life skllls that make a difference. We kick this off with a selection of questions for me from Sparkepeople.com’s At Goal and Maintaining group.

Kristza asked: “I would like to hear of cooking techniques that make food look or taste great, but without unhealthy amounts of sugar and fat.”

Wow, some big topics! I could easily write a book on these, but here are some basics.

In the question thread, I wrote on pairing flavors. When I say flavor, I mean anything I use to embellish a dish, not for food ingredients itself: herbs, spices, condiments, nuts or nut butters, fruit, leftover vegetables, vinegar, oils, strong flavored cheese used in small amounts. The dish itself – the chicken, grain or vegetable – is carefully measured for proper macronutrient ratios). The dish is where I work; the flavor is where I play.

I have a whole system developed for wrapping someone’s head around flavor, but let’s stick with the basics for right now.

  1. Be non-literal when reading recipes beyond substitution. If you see “water,” think “liquid” and try grabbing coffee, tea, diet soda, fruit juice, etc. If butter is going to be melted into a dish, think “healthy oil.”
  2. Free association is your friend: Let your mind wander when looking for a starting point. I’ll look at chicken and sometimes float to Thailand, other times Eastern North Carolina. Once I have one flavor as a starting point, I move to point 3.
  3. When first deciding to combine flavors, I work with a rule-of-threes. One flavor, a contrasting flavor, and a third flavor for “glue” (sometimes this adds nuance, other times a third flavor is needed for the other two to play nicely together).

ruleofthreeWith practice, the rule of threes becomes a rule of six or nine … and anything above nine is often too busy by my standards. I like my food to taste like a graceful boxer hits, a flurry of flavors that float in and out of your attention – you notice a nice texture, a burst of citrus, followed by a sudden herb, some sweetness and finally a building heat and lingers after your swallow. Creole cooks tend to season so you have no idea what 30 spices went into one dish, but you know that one flavor is incredible. The rule of threes will give structure to finding what combinations speak to you.

For low saturated fat and sugar examples, balsamic vinegar (especially infused with fruit flavors), roasted garlic and my two all-stars. My secret weapon is vanilla extract, even in spicy dishes. Picante (or hot) flavors usually need something sweet afterward (read: fattening dessert). A hint of vanilla tames the spice, and negates that need for something sweet to cool off. Often a little vanilla negates the need for sugar/sugar substitutes altogether.

As for food looking good, the question to ask is “what looks new and interesting to you?” Plating the dish in new ways, or preparing the ingredients differently, requires work and experimentation, and obviously, none of us have time to do that every day. But here are a few starting points.

Pretentious author terms make AWESOME cooking techniques | Deconstruction is a quaint term now, but it really just means dividing a dish into its components and changing them. In cooking, that can mean adjusting the size of an ingredient.

plating imageIf literary terms turn you off, let’s turn to visual designer. Designers use the term dominant image often, selecting one visual element to be the most prominent. You can start think of a dish’s dominant image, you can change things around by selecting another ingredient to be dominant. Think of a traditional Cobb salad, and the lettuce is usually hidden. But what if the salad’s dominant image a wedge, with the cobb salad toppings fanned beneath it? That’s the key question: What if?

  1. There are entirely too many tricks with sauces and knife techniques than I could list or detail here, but when I was learning cooking I found one to be most useful for making salads interesting: the chiffonade cut. Stack a few leaves of, say, spinach, and roll them into a tight tube (keep firm pressure while turning). Then cut the roll width wise and separate the leaves into ribbons. This technique tenderizes tougher salad greens, and provides volume and air to a salad.
  2. Garnishing gets a bad name in health food. Long criticized for sneaking calories into a dish, what most nutritionists miss is that if you account for the calories, garnishing is a powerful way to boost a dish’s flavor – and make it look much better. Don’t be afraid to swoosh, drizzle or pool sauce underneath the food, not on top.
  3. Lastly, with plating: One of the biggest – and simplest – differences between home cooking and restaurant dishes is thinking a plate is divided into invisible sections, and laying everything out horizontally. But remember you can stack ingredients on top of each other, or have them parallel into each other on a dish.

I’m interested in a reasonable balance. For example in weight loss phase my favorite dinner was a can of tuna with steamed vegetables and rye bread, very low in fat and calories – adding a thin layer of margarine to the bread made it so much more enjoyable. 🙂

In your example you provided, I would add sliced ginger and garlic to the water used to steam the water, or even replace the water with an herbal tea. To find a balanced fat that doesn’t encourage overeating, I’d roast garlic (cut off the top third of a head, drizzle the cut ends with oil, wrap it in aluminum foil and bake at 375 until it smells golden) and spread it on the bread with black pepper. The tuna could use a few crushed peanuts, cilantro and garlic powder.

Those are some basic starting points for plating and flavor pairing. When I first began cooking, I chuckled when people told me to “have fun with it.” My reaction was the same to hearing people say “it’s harder to maintain” – what does that actually mean? Food was always a source of frustration to me even while binging. It became something I tightly controlled like many dieters: before I could even enjoy cooking, I needed to wrap my head around how people who have fun with food think about it. I had no idea how. If any of you ever felt the same, hopefully this helps.

All that said, have fun with it! 😛

JeanKnee asked several: “I do not enjoy cooking or food preparation. It’s simply a necessity to me … I am interested in techniques that are quick and simple to employ.”

Bear in mind my idea of “quick and simple” is not the ordinary one – rather than buy bread I’ll almost certainly overeat, instead I buy a bag of flour, and crank out three-four fresh tortillas while everything else is cooking anyway. It give me something to do (some people don’t like the time cooking takes. I don’t mind the time: I HATE the waiting. I’d rather be entertained!).

So in general I tend to prepare several sauces or dish components when I have time, so I can simply throw things together in under five minutes when I’m busy. My prep cooking and my – restaurants often call this ‘pickup’ – are two different things. Home cooks tend to make everything at once.

Even then, I often I lean toward techniques that don’t require me hovering over my stove – long braises, roasting or reducing liquids, all which intensify flavor. I’m less concerned with total cooking time than total active time.

Given that understanding flavor pairing allows for interesting dishes quickly: for an example: my favorite recipe is a sour cherry mostarda I adapted from my first cooking teacher. It’s a sophisticated version of an Italian candied fruit sauce spiked with mustard, take a ton of ingredients and a lot of love to make.

At a time when I lack the time or interest, I spread deli mustard on my turkey and spike it with chopped dried cherries and forgo any cheese on my sandwich. Simply well-stocking your pantry with ample mustards, balsamic glazes and quick throw-in garnishes boosts your versatility. And even fancier recipes can be reduced to their dominant flavors to quickly perk up your usual repertoire.

She added, “I learned from a niece that frying eggs in a fry pan with a little butter and added water and then covering the fry pan with a lid resulted in tasty eggs requiring no flipping and I love the taste and they’re quick and easy to prepare. She was quite young when she taught her auntie this and I continue to use it. Do you have anything like that?”


grill imageOtherwise, the cover the pan technique you shared also works on beef if you cover your skillet with a pot – like a lid, it traps the heat and cooks the top, but if a lid’s too close to the meat you’ll inadvertently steam it.

Also, I’m always seeking ways to make the complicated dishes in reach. So some of the more time-consuming recipes, like stocks, I make without trying by using ice baths at home. My shrimp recipe involves throwing a ton of vegetables – carrot, fennel, leeks, garlic, etc. – in the boiling water to cook, add the shrimp and plunge into the ice water immediately to stop cooking. But I keep the water boiling for a quick stock for a quick soup later (when the water’s boiled down I straining the vegetables out and discard them). Beginnings of a stock without even trying.

It’s a great cooking-as-weight-loss-metaphor: often the things we overlook are what make the difference.

Are there particular tools that you feel no kitchen should be without?”

I’m a buy-a-few-tools-that-are-versatile kind of guy. Garlic presses are lost upon me when you can use your chef knife or mortar to crush garlic. If I buy a tool, I expect mileage out of it.

My essential tools include a silicon spatula in one hand and slotted spatula (also called a fish spatula), to the point it became a joke at my last restaurant job cheffing – both are an extension of my arm and I’m useless without them.

Spatulas allow you to avoid losing half your recipe because your spoon can’t scrape it all and silicon’s easy to clean between dishes, so you spare yourself needing 3000 other spatulas, and a slotted spatula is more flexible, making it my go-to instrument for delicate egg flipping, fish, chicken, etc. Usually I use it for everything (only professional grills need the heavy inflexible heavy spatulas common in my opinion).

poachspoonA mandolin slicer to speed up produce preparation, and a poaching spoon. It looks like a saucer with holes and a handle, but it’s much more useful than just poaching eggs – clarifying butter, removing fat from a sauce, or skimming impurities off a small amount of stock are much easier with it.

I keep several mortar and pestles in my kitchen and one by my oven – keeping it close lets me crush nuts and herbs easily, but often it’s my go-to mixing bowl, or makeshift trash can. I keep a small one only for spices and a larger one for sauces, nuts, marinades and vinaigrettes.

At home, I also like a steamer and a slow cooker, if only to maximize my range burner space when I’m doing heavy cooking. Food scales allow for precision when baking, or when I’m near the top of your maintenance range (thanks, quitting smoking) and need to lean out again.

Lastly, my most useful tool is the cheapest – cheesecloth and some twine. I wrap herbs in them to easily toss them in and out of suaces, lay them over my strainer, wring out spinach. The uses are endless for a few bucks.

What’s your favorite go-to-meal?

My favorite go-to meal are lean pork cutlets I sauté in a pan with olive oil and toss in a combination of fig vinegar and creole seasoning, turning the pan to medium-low so the vinegar reduces and slings to the pork. Once that happens, I remove the pork and heat up green beans and to toss in any remaining vinegar and season with as little salt as possible. If I have some almonds on hand, I’ll crush 3-4 to toss with the beans. I serve the pork over a bed of the beans.

Cottage cheese with black pepper and Mexican hot sauce is a favorite snack.

What are favorite cooking techniques and why?

oilsI mentioned some specific ones earlier, but in general my holy trinity are infusing, roasting and reducing.

To cook with little salt, fat or sugar, you need to maximize the sweetness and richness from existing foods. Roasting teases out the sugars inherent in a food’s chemical makeup (and makes fennel amazing!), where reducing intensifies flavor and often solves the need of adding a heavy thickener.

Infusing is my all-time favorite. When I was dieting, my first teacher gave me a copy of Michael Chirorello’s book on oil infusions. I love the idea that foods or parts of food, like orange rind, I would have mindlessly thrown away at 350 suddenly became a source of flavor.

Also, by layering flavors in one oil, I could quickly add a flavor bomb for fat I would need in the pan anyway. But infusing isn’t limited to oil: coffees and teas are technically infusions, extracts are often alcohol infusions and you can often infuse vinegar with other flavors.

Basically, I make an adventure of eeking every ounce of flavor I can out of my diet food without adding nutritional impact, and in a way that has no bearing on how I used to eat. If it takes time, fine. If it’s “complicated,” I say “says who?” If I am what I eat, I want my food to be nothing short of extraordinary.

Poindextra asked, “One thing I’ve always had a difficult time with is timing everything to be ready at the correct time.”

NELLJONES mentioned a strict time table and schedule for when dishes begin and end in the question thread, which is basically a more formal version of what restaurants do. But there are a few steps leading up to that make that list even easier for you.

During the holidays, you’ll often hear people encourage to cook what you can in advance, which is a given. In the south, many casseroles can be prepared in advance and set to cook as the turkey is resting.

steamerBut also, buying an inexpensive steamer with a rice basket and a slow cooker is a worthy investment year round – but on the holidays, it also frees up your space on the range. You can’t plan dishes without knowing what resources are at your disposal, so these small appliances maximize your cooking tools.

Also, my favorite relish is now commonplace – whole seedless navels and cranberries in a food processor.

Some other key questions:

  1. Are any of your usual dishes better for leftovers? These are the ones you want to prepare in advance.
  2. What tools are at your disposal?
  3. Can you recruit help? Many reflexively say no, but if you maximize all the tools at your disposal, you don’t need to crowd the oven or range. You can delegate steaming vegetables, making rice or mashed potatoes in a slow cooker to your No. 2.
  4. Turkey’s usually require time to rest after leaving the oven (hide them so no one picks away at them!). Does anything else benefit from rest time?
  5. Are your platters pre-planned AND labeled (this makes it easier to delegate plating presenting)
  6. Can you include cold or room temperature dishes into the menu? The variety is good for the menu overall and also offsets over-relying on your oven and range.

Otherwise, “make things in advance” is easy advice, but more specifically, make some of the “nice touch” – sauces, vinaigrettes, etc. well in advance so they’re on hand. They’re also easy, so I like preparing them as a warm-up to the serious cooking to follow.

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