Little Things. Big Differences.
Sometimes the smallest details can make us better cooks.
A friend was recently in my kitchen and asked why I had so many tomatoes set out on the counter. I had 2 pints of cherry tomatoes that I planned to cut into halves and mix with diced cucumber, red onion and pieces of feta; a row of eight or so Roma plums that in a few days I would roast and toss with quinoa; and a cluster of beautiful on-the-vine imports for which I had buyer's remorse because despite their good looks, I knew they were tasteless. I told her all this but what she really wanted to know was why the tomatoes weren't in the refrigerator.
I'm certain there's much kitchen wisdom that I have still to gain, but since that tomato conversation, I've been carrying a piece of paper around with me, writing down some of what I have managed to learn, small things that can make a big difference.
Some of these tips make it easier to cook, or to buy and store ingredients. Others help us cook safer with better taste. I'm sure after I write this I'll think of several more, but here's a start.
- Never refrigerate tomatoes. Instead, leave them on a counter at room temperature, preferably out of the sun. With warm climate origins, a tomato's flavor-producing enzymes will be disabled by the chill, plus the membranes will be damaged, making a tomato soft and mealy. You'll be surprised how long a ripe tomato can stay in great shape left out on the counter so have faith.
- When juicing a fresh lemon or lime, before you cut the fruit open roll it on the counter or a cutting board, pressing down firmly with your hand as you roll. This loosens-up the insides and separates the fruit fibers, making it easier to extract the juice after it is cut open.
- Standing in the produce aisle and can't tell the difference between flat leaf parsley and cilantro? Here are two easy ways. First, parsley has a clean cut stem and cilantro still has roots. But if you're still not certain, or you've remembered this difference but can't recall which has the roots, just smell them. Cilantro's distinctive fragrance will give you a sure answer.
- Bringing meat to room temperature before cooking doesn't apply to fish or shellfish. In fact, you should do just the opposite. All seafood is fragile and vulnerable to spoilage, so keep it chilled right to the moment when you cook it. This means that if you prep the fish (trim it or coat it or season it) but then have a bit of time before cooking, place the fish on a bed of ice or return it to your refrigerator under a sheet of plastic wrap. Unlike a ribeye steak, fish going chilled into your pan or oven will not interfere with its cooking.
- When cooking pasta add a lot of salt to the water; enough so that it tastes like the sea. Add more than if you were cooking, say, green beans or rice. Green beans already have taste and rice absorbs ALL the water as well as all the salt. But dry pasta cooks best in a lot of boiling salted water because it absorbs tiny amounts of the water, making it tender and tiny amounts of the salt adding flavor. Without enough salt in the water, your pasta will be very bland, meaning all the taste will have to come from the sauce.
As to those theories about salt helping water boil or raising its boiling temperature, there are mixed conclusions. But even if salt does help increase the boiling, it does so to such a miniscule degree that it makes no difference whatsoever in how fast or how well the pasta cooks. But keep salting for flavor. That does make a difference.
- Still on the subject of pasta. I hope you already know this but it merits repeating: never add oil to pasta water. Yes, a little oil will keep the pasta from cooking together, but you'll also get a bit of oil on every strand of spaghetti. Oily pasta means your sauce won't stick and the whole point of pasta and sauce is to have them come together. You can easily prevent any sticking by using lots of water and stirring frequently as the pasta cooks. The one exception is lasagna: a tiny bit of olive oil in the boiling water will help large lasagna sheets from sticking together and since lasagna is constructed and not sauced in the traditional sense, a slightly oily surface won't matter.
- Use a melon baller for more than making melon balls. It's the perfect kitchen tool for removing the core out of a halved pear or apple. It also works for taking the seeds out of a cucumber. You get a clean, easy result and it always looks so neat and finished.
- Never use bouillon cubes for anything. They are simply cubes of salt which have been briefly exposed to photographs of dead chickens. I appreciate that homemade stock is a big effort but we have an alternative: boxed stock. It comes in organic, low sodium, fat free, chicken, beef, vegetable, and other varieties. I particularly love the Pacific organic chicken broth but other brands are also good. If you need less than a whole box, just freeze what's left over. I mourned when a neighborhood deli, which had been my go-to source for chicken soup whenever I had a cold, finally lost its lease. I still miss the counter guys, but I now keep a couple of boxes of chicken stock on hand and with a handful of acini de pepe (little pasta pieces the size of a peppercorn) thrown in, I'm quickly cured.
- Aluminum foil. No, it doesn't make any difference if you use the shiny or the matte side. I personally like the look of the shiny side, but my glazed pork chops don't care.