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I have had the good fortune to work with some very gifted chefs. Like most talented people, they are happy to discuss their art with people who are genuinely interested. Looking back at some of my conversations, I am struck by their ability to impart in a few words a glimpse of their cooking philosophy, and how their relationship with food is an expression of their personality.
Ask a painter how he or she created a certain shade of green, and they are unlikely to give you precise percentages of blue and yellow. If you are lucky, they will tell you about what was going on in their mind and heart as they were mixing the paint.
Unless you want to exist on a diet of prepackaged food and peeled oranges, a good knife is the most important kitchen tool you will own. You will use it more than anything else in your kitchen. Choose it wisely.
Unlike other tools, like pots and pans, a knife is always in your hand while you are using it. Sometimes you will use it for two seconds at a time, sometimes for twenty minutes at a time. During the simple act of making salad dressing, you may pick it up, use it, and put it down on four or five separate occasions. So the most important thing about choosing a knife is how it feels in your hand. A $1000 knife that doesn't feel right when you hold it and a $25 knife that doesn't feel right when you hold it have one crucial thing in common - you should avoid using them, and you definitely should not buy them. Before buying your first knife, shop around. Many kitchen stores will not only be happy to let you hold any knife in your hand, but will provide the opportunity to actually try out several models on actual food. When you visit your friends, check out their knives and offer to dice an onion for them. Be available for love at first contact, and let the relationship with your knife grow from there. And don't think of it as a lifetime decision. Whether because your knife techniques evolve or you lose a couple fingers in an industrial accident, the knife that feels right now may not five years from now. Pick the knife that feels right now.
A Chef's Knife is called a chef's knife for a reason - to almost any chef on the planet, it is the most important knife he or she owns. With a blade six to nine inches long, flat-edged, and tapered, it is well-suited for most tasks, and adequate for almost all others, with the notable exception of slicing bread. One French chef I worked with used a knife that looked like a miniature chef's knife, with a four-inch blade barely wider than the handle. Why? When he had received it from his first mentor decades ago, it was a full-sized knife, but decades of use and sharpening had reduced its size that significantly. Think about that.
Salt. Wars have been fought for it. A great man once walked hundreds of miles to defend a people's right to harvest it. It is often synonymous with the very earth itself. And it is the single most important ingredient in every kitchen.
In most people's minds, salt and pepper go together. Unfortunately, many people also tend to add them at the same time, and in equal amounts, whenever they are cooking. Pepper is added for its own flavor, while salt is added to enhance the flavors of everything else. If something tastes flat, it generally needs more salt. If something tastes salty, it generally has too much salt.
Sponges are disgusting. There is a reason that you will never find a sponge in a professional kitchen or bar or any other establishment that can be shut down for lack of cleanliness. For the health of you and those you feed, please learn to embrace the soft bristle.
To blanch vegetables, you want to use a lot of water that is extremely hot and extremely salty. The addition of the vegetables will temporarily reduce the water temperature. The more water you use, and the hotter it is, the less this effect will come into play. So use a full pot of water for even a small amount of vegetables, and bring it to a "rolling boil" which looks like a jacuzzi with the jets on full blast. And make the water SALTY; if it seems like salt water instead of salty water, then you are on the right track. Whatever vegetables you are using, cut them into pieces approximately the same size, whatever size that may be, so you do not end up with varying levels of cooked-ness. When it comes to deciding when to pull them out of the water, let your eyes be the judge, and then your mouth. Remember, the goal is to brighten the vegetables' natural colors and remove their raw edge - when they look and taste like that, you're done.
I have observed chefs teaching their staff how to cook, in some cases turning a dishwasher into a head line cook in a matter of months. Again and again, the first instruction I overheard was "hot pan."
In the kitchen, it takes a lot less time to cool things off than it does to heat them up. Imagine how much faster you can stop your car going uphill than going downhill. Stick a thermometer in a pot of boiling water and watch how quickly it cools off when taken "off heat." Then do the same exercise by plunging the bottom of the pan in a bowl of ice water. Often when I begin to cook a meal, even if I have no idea what I am going to cook, I will put a pot of water on to boil. Then if I decide to make pasta, blanch vegetables, or do any number of other things, I don't have to torture myself with a "watched pot."