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Whether it’s standard American food, ethnic fare, or a tempting dessert, everyone has their favorite. And while many people appreciate the taste sensations of gastronomic wonders prepared by others, there are plenty of would-be chefs who enjoy making food in their own kitchens. For those individuals, spending time cooking is a delight, and they derive much pleasure in perfecting their cuisine for family and friends.
Take it from the experts, the professional chefs: No matter the style or the complexity of the dish, great cooking starts with a good foundation, and that includes knowing the “tricks” the pros use to achieve the best results. That alone will save you time and frustration.
Most professional chefs will tell you they began their career by mastering time-honored recipes and techniques. They learned about the main ingredients, the proper ratios, and the correct temperatures before they tried their own variations. Once you master the basics, it’s much easier to experiment with different versions of a recipe, adding flavorful flair and adjusting ingredients to please your own palate. Be careful to modify only one element at a time, and take notes. Perhaps you can even improve on Grandma’s pot roast recipe.
Q: I’m familiar with pierogi, kielbasa, and stuffed cabbage. What other traditional Polish dishes might I enjoy?
A: One dish that’s not as well known outside of Poland, but just as delicious as those mentioned above, is bigos, or hunter’s stew. It may seem like a type of sauerkraut, but it’s much more. Bigos always starts with shredded, fresh cabbage and sauerkraut, along with some type of meat. It’s important to use sauerkraut made the old-fashioned way — naturally fermented with plain water and sea salt, and not with vinegar, or it won’t taste the same. The best type of meat to use is smoked pork, whether it’s pulled pork, smoked sausage (more traditional), or bacon. Some recipe variations call for tomatoes or mushrooms, along with traditional Polish spices. While caramelized onions aren’t required, we think they should be.
If you can be patient, the ideal method for cooking bigos is to heat it, freeze it, reheat it, refrigerate it, and heat it again, as the temperature changes intensify the flavor. Then it’s ready to savor — along with a nice, fresh slice of Polish rye bread and Polish beer.
Q: How can I, as a home cook, elevate my own culinary skills?
A: As with mastering any skill, it takes practice. When basic tasks become second nature, a chef can create an environment where efficiency is maximized — which frees up time to create daily soups, make menu changes, and ensure specials are truly special. Each day, a professional chef must repeat the same recipes, trying them constantly and improving ratios. Every time I make potatoes at home and have extra time, I focus on one element, such as the seasoning, so the recipe is the truest reflection of the flavors I wish to portray.
I believe you can learn from books or personal instruction. I recommend The Professional Chef, by the Culinary Institute of America, which suggests a lot of starting points. For example, the book teaches you how to make basic bread, and then you can play with the recipes.
Keep at it. When first making pasta, I ended up with a big, sticky mess. But I really like pasta, and I wanted to learn, so I kept trying until I got it right. Every time you cook, take notes. Otherwise, when you find a version that everyone loves, they’ll want you to make the recipe again — but you won’t know how. Be creative, adding your own touches. Make dishes you find happiness in. After all, that’s what we’re all trying to do — put happiness on a plate.
Q: Why temper food?
A: One of the easiest ways to help you achieve the perfect “cook” of a steak, (such as) medium-rare, is to temper it. We all know we need to let steaks rest after cooking before we even think about slicing them, but a less well-known technique is to let them sit at room temperature before cooking.
Thirty minutes or so for a 1-inch-thick steak should do the trick. This brings the steak closer to room temperature, setting you up to get the perfect sear. It also requires less cooking time, resulting in a more consistent color throughout the steak. Add a light coating of your favorite cooking oil, season it well with good salt and freshly cracked pepper, sear it high, flip it once, let it rest, and enjoy.