Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Kitchen basics: the sharp stuff

Its sort of obvious, but no matter the style of cookery that you're going to deal with, you're bound to have to use knives. And one place where its easy to screw up, its with knives. Allow me to explain.

To begin, we go with the basis that you're poor, so you have limited resources. With any bit of luck, you may have had some blades handed down to you by an aunt*. Whether you were handed a good or bad knife, chances are, you haven't really taken care of it all that well, and you might well be more acquainted with the act that is professionally referred to as "hacking", rather than, say chopping, slicing, or even pealing. This is not exactly your fault; after all, you most likely were never taught how to do this properly, so you had to guess how its done, a scary proposition when dealing with anything sharp and your digits.

So then, how do you pick the right sorts of knives then? Its pretty daunting when you go to a kitchen supply store (or even a department store) with its large selection of knives for different tasks, and at a range of price that can reach stratospheric (some chefs have their blades hand forged by master smiths...)

Upfront, you need three basic knives. Yes, just three. If you're just starting, you really don't need a boning knife, or a fancy sashimi blade. They have their uses, but they are NOT basic tools.

First, you need a large one
a small one
and a serrated edge one.
That's it.

The large knife, which is commonly referred to as a chef knife, is a solid tool with a blade around eight inches in length. You can very well substitute the French style for a Chinese cleaver. It looks unwieldy, but is surprisingly agile. An added advantage is that it is very inexpensive, coming in at the ten to fifteen dollar range. They can get and stay very sharp, as they are generally made of carbon steel, making them easy to sharpen. However, they are very prone to rust and stain at the contact of acidic juices, so they need a bit more care.

The small knife is a utility knife, a very versatile tool indeed. I would highly recommend that you stick to stainless steel for that one. It is also referred to as a parring knife, as it is often used for that purpose. The serrated edge knife is your good, old-fashioned bread knife.

There are certain things that you will want to pay attention to when choosing a knife. First off, how solid is it? A good blade for a large knife has to be relatively thick at the back, gradually thinning out towards the edge. A knife that is pretty much a sheet of steel with an edge as its use, mostly as a slicer, but that's not necessary right not. You need a solid, thick-backed blade to have enough power to cut tough roots like rutabagas, cut cabbage in half, or cut squashes down the middle. You also need to be able to brace your hand along the back to maintain control of the blade.

If its heavy enough, you can also use to back in a hammer move to break certain tough shells or bones.

Utility knifes don't require this as much, as they are used for more delicate work, or small slicing jobs. Whatever knife you use tho you need a design that makes sure that you'll be able to maintain a good grip on the handle if things get rough. You want something of a guard.
You'll want that design feature when your hand and handle are slick with meat juices and grisly with fats. The large knife's blade has to be wide enough that your knuckles wont hit the cutting board when you chop. It also makes sure that the blade wont slip and slice your fingers if its slippery.

Where the problem really lies in the end is the price. If you had to invest in a single good knife, then the chef's knife is the one to splurge on. With even the minimum of care it will last you a lifetime if you pick a good one. The Chinese cleaver combines low price, ease of use and solid design, but comes at the price of extra care and maintenance.

It is a personal preference, but regardless of what some professional chefs use, I avoid those shaped plastic handled knifes as far as the chef's knife is concerned
For the backbone of my knives, I want the traditional bastard, the one that clearly shows that it is full tanged
which means that the steel extend all the way down the handle to the butt. This ensures that it wont break on you if you happen to crack the handle piece.

And at last, get one of those:
And learn how to use it properly. For this, I'll let Gordon Ramsay show you in a little video: how to sharpen a knife. Later on, I will post some reference books that will include such instructional.

Keep you blades sharp, keep them clean, store them safe. Wrap them in a kitchen towel before storing them away if needed be.

Stay tuned for the next installment. Its such a surprise that even I don't know what its going to be!

*Thrifter's tip: the day you decide to leave the nest, let out the word that you need kitchen stuff, especially in the family. Its surprising the amount of tools and pots and pans that you'll end up with. With a bit of knowledge on your side, you might just be able to score a few good hits amongst those discarded toys, and if anything, you just got yourself some free dishes!

Monday, December 27, 2010

The old standby

 Ah, Ramen; the often maligned, but reliable friend that is always there when you're in a tough spot. Why do we hate it so much, while we keep coming back to it as soon as the going gets tough?

The reason that Ramen is looked down upon comes from its most common use, as a last ditch supply for college students. Its also maligned because it is a very cheap and not all that nourishing, but mildly filling meal of uber-low budget.

But really, its all of our fault. We've taken the package as the complete meal, while what it mostly provides is a base. We look at the cover picture and assume that this is what the package contains, and we feel ashamed that this is all that we can afford in a land of steak and barbecue.

So is it possible to get
and turn it into


So how do we go about this then?

First, we have to understand what Ramen is. Ramen is a Chinese noodle soup that was exported to Japan a few centuries back. There are several variations, but overall, there are three components: the noodles, the broth and the toppings. It helps to understand how we may improve this dish at low cost that what's been missing mostly is... quality. Simply put, you get what you pay for. Products like Top Ramen are cheap, in both price and quality, and the end result reflects that. There are much better, and more varied versions if you are willing to dish out a bit more cash and get yourself to an Asian grocery store.

So, each packet contains a bunch of noodles and a packet of powder that forms the broth. In the more "upscale" Asian packets, you will also get flavored oils and some dried trimmings. However, you might not have access to those shops, so we'll look at the ways to improve what you have on hand.

To begin, if you went for the cheap stuff, throw out that broth pack. Seriously, its shite with way too much salt and next to no nutritional value. The noodles are your main component here. Just because its a packet of noodle soup doesn't mean that you have to use it as a soup. You could very well just cook the noodles in water, drain them and serve them with some toppings with a bit of sauce. I would avoid something Italian here, but use your judgment.

So, lets say that you've decided that soup was the way to go; well, if you went the extra mile and got the Asian stuff, then you're okay, skip to step three. For the rest, you need broth. While you could just use some bouillon cubes (and there are some good ones indeed), you may want to build it from scratch. So here's a dirt-poor way to make a flavorful broth:

You'll need some vegetables; I would recommend using that stuff you've been not using because it doesn't look all that fresh, or that's shriveled up, or that's dried. For our current purpose, I would go for something like a shriveled carrot, a bit of onion, some dried up cloves of garlic (smash it first), the leaves off of your celery (if any), a packet of soy sauce that's been forgotten in the fridge door, and a stronger flavor component, like dried shriveled mushrooms, some anchovies, or the leftover bones of those chicken wings you had last night. Make sure that you take all that skin off first.

Put all your components in a pot and add enough water to completely cover the contents. Bring to a boil, then lower it to a simmer, for about an hour of two. The longer the simmer, the better and stronger the broth. You may want to add a thing or two to flavor it, like a bit of ginger, some black pepper (whole grain if you've got any), a pinch of salt. Once that the broth has simmered to your satisfaction (or your patience), turn off the heat, pass the mix through a sieve and reserve.

Okay, so you now have a decent broth. You've already improved your Ramen a couple of notches, its time to move on the third step, the toppings:

Your choice of toppings will depend a lot of what you've got on hand. The quick and easy way is to just slice up some ginger and green onions and leave it at that. A few bits of seafood like shrimps or clams could do the trick. If you happen to have some roast meat on hand you could add some fine slices to the top, tho shredded meat is excellent too. As far as veggies go, a few leaves of spinach (fresh or frozen), Chinese cabbage, Kimchi, cilantro, Thai basil, chives, a wedge of lime, or dried sea weed, there are loads of possibilities.

Sure, it looks like Ramen got more expensive. But when you get right down to it, its something an investment. the game is to get the biggest bang for your bucks, so using all those bits and pieces that you've got lying around allows you to not waste as much resources as you would if you didn't use them. And if you've got too much broth, you can easily freeze it for later use. Just make sure that you label it so you'll know what's in that re-purposed plastic container.

Sunday, December 26, 2010


This is a little article, useful for the thrifty, as it contains instructions on the proper use and care of non-stick pots and pans. I'm not a fan of those products, but you use what you have, eh?

There might well be a post later on today about our second lesson; we'll see how it goes ;)

Friday, December 24, 2010

First lesson

Whenever you embark on a new path, and this is especially true in the kitchen, you have to deal with a learning curve. You can read loads of material, watch innumerable videos and instructional, but in the end, you will need to put things into practice. That is when you will face your inner demon: you need to deal with failure.

It is a pretty obvious thing when you get right down to it; you try something and you run the right of not succeeding. Nobody wants to face that demon, we all want to believe that not us, we'll get it right the first time, because we're awesome like that. But in reality, we run a good risk of failure, no matter how closely we follow the recipes.

Cooking is not science; yes, there is such thing as molecular cuisine, but seriously, its a gimmick, its an obsession about the presentation and the experience; its showmanship more than craftsmanship. Cooking is an art (in French, its referred to as les arts culinaire), where you master a set of techniques, then you apply them to your medium.

Just like in painting, or illustration, your first few sketches can very likely turn out to be messed up squiggles on the plate, something vaguely reminding you of your intent, but with none of the intended result. Accept it. Don't dwell, don't panic, don't freak out. Learn from it. Figure out how you went wrong. Is it overcooked? Undercooked? Did you mess up the proportions? Did you forget a key component? Did you try to improvise using whatever was in the pantry and ended up with something that would look and taste more like the aftereffects of a Saturday night drinking binge?

It happens. When you're tight on cash, its very tempting to just save it, try to eat it, just not waste it. But the lesson is, know when to admit failure and throw away the results. Its tough, believe you me, I've been there. Its tough to throw away that pot of veggies and pasta when your paycheck isn't due for a week and you're short of cash. But, really, can you eat that shit? If your honest answer is no, then just toss it in the garbage and move on.

Necessity can sometimes cause us to try out things we were avoiding because we had the choice, but when you're up against the wall and hunger strikes, you learn that ramens ain't all that bad, especially when you still have bits and pieces of stuff lying about that could kick things up a notch...

Ramens? Really?

Stay tuned...

Sunday, December 19, 2010

In the begining...

Before a meal gets prepared, there is hunger. For most people, hunger is something of a constant. Many cant afford or figure out how to satisfy that hunger with a maximum of return for their investment. The main reason this occurs is that the main limiting factor is plain and simple cash; now, I'm not saying that this is a mistake, but its not that much of an impediment as we are driven to think. With the years I have found that the lack of cash forces me to be creative; after all, this is how most of the world gets around the cash problem. Some of the best cooks in the world, toiling in the fanciest restaurants are of the poorest and most deprived nations, who learned how to make small miracles out of plain and simple survival need.

They are not superhuman; they simply rise to the challenge. In the western world, where we have access to a greater variety and more abundant supplies, our greatest challenge is to rise against the media and societal image of what a meal is, and how much we are supposed to eat. The simple fact is that we have lost much of our kitchen skills after WWII, simply because the main meme in society became convenience, which tends to sacrifice value for speed. When that sacrifice is made, we lose an important trait, self-sufficiency. If you run out of microwavable diners (and how small and horrid they are) we fall back on takeout and drive-through fare, which piles on those elements that make us addicts: salt, sugar and fat.

There is a way around that, and that's to reclaim the kitchen. When you start mastering basic kitchen skills, you start paying attention to the returns on your investment. When you make it yourself it is quite possible, and far more nutritious, to spend you one-person-one-sitting fast food trio budget on a few staples and be able to feed a few for two or three meals. The trade off is that you now have to spend some time and effort producing that food; but it is my opinion that it is more than worth it.

In the coming posts I will describe the basic system I will be using to organize the posts. I am no academic authority in the culinary arts, nor am I a professional chef.; I am a Ms Peel, a talented amateur. I am also no professional photographer, but I will do my best to take clear pictures when they are appropriate; just don't expect a pictorial step-by-step of each and every single recipes. I will also be posting videos when they are relevant, and useful links to online resources. As an advance disclaimer, I don't make a penny off of these links, I am doing this out of personal experience and preference.

Keep your wits and your knives shard, and have a towel handy. If anything, it might be necessary to staunch that nasty learner's cut!