This second installment in our 5 Essentials for the Home Cook series is a real treat. We have the advice of not one but two accomplished professional cooks who are also longtime Bay Area cooking teachers, Jodi Liano and Catherine Pantsios. Jodi and Catherine are in the middle of launching a very exciting project, The San Francisco Cooking School, a new professional cooking school that also has an extensive home cooking program, so they have a real understanding of what a home cook needs to know. They took a break from their busy schedule to share a few of their top tips for home cooks.
Jodi Liano was a lead cooking teacher at Tante Marie's Cooking School for 14 years. She also worked in the kitchens of the Food Network, developed recipes for Bon Appetit and has written multiple cookbooks for Williams-Sonoma. Catherine Pantsios cooked at the famous Zuni Cafe and Hayes Street Grill in addition to being the chef/owner of Zola's for several years. She also taught and oversaw the professional cooking program at Tante Marie's Cooking School. You're in good hands with these two!
Jodi and Catherine's 5 Essentials for the Home Cook
Jodi's Essential 5
1. Get rid of your timer. Jodi's first recommendation may seem radical but it has a purpose. A great cook uses all her senses to know when something is done, she explains. Instead of relying on a timer, Jodi recommends paying attention to the sounds and smells and textures of the food. Cooking time is only a suggestion because every oven is different, every pan is different, every ingredient is different from day to day. Learning to rely on and trust sensory clues and not the tyranny of the clock is key to becoming a great cook. Bonus tip: Always have a tasting spoon next to the stove and taste, taste, taste as you go along.
2. Homemade bread crumbs. Never throw out stale bread! Just whiz leftovers and heels into bread crumbs in your food processor and toss them into the freezer in an air tight container. Breadcrumbs are a seasoning, Jody explains. Sauté them in butter or oil and sprinkle on pasta as a garnish, over fish, in a salad. They really can go over just about everything.
3. Deodorize your kitchen with a bowl of vinegar. Do you ever not cook something such as fish because you don't care for the lingering orders it can produce? Jodi's grandparents were fishmongers and she learned this very important trick from them: just leave a bowl full of plain, white vinegar on the counter as you cook. The vinegar will eliminate the cooking orders, especially lingering ones (leave it on the counter overnight.) Works for bacon and fried foods, such as fried chicken, too.
4. Touch your meat to determine doneness. Jodi strongly advocates using your sense of touch to determine the doneness of a piece of meat. Really poke at it with your finger, she insists, and then use the palm test to figure out how well done it is.
5. Learn how much a pinch of salt is. Like Preeti, Jodi is a big fan of tasting and salting as you go. You are not aiming for salty food, she says, but for balance and flavor. Pick up a pinch of salt as you normally would and then measure how much your three- or four-finger pinch is as a guide. (Simarily, Catherine recommends measuring a teaspoon of salt into your palm so you get a sense of how much it is.)
Catherine's Essential Five
1. Use your hands! Your hands are the best kitchen tool you have for tossing salad, determining doneness, measuring ingredients, and even creaming butter and sugar.
2. Understand ratio. The best way to free yourself from recipes is to understand ratios which are the foundation of all professional cooking. Michael Ruhlman's book is a good introduction.
3. Learn to make a homemade vinaigrette. Every Sunday, Catherine makes a jar of vinaigrette for the week, using a three parts oil to one part vinegar ratio. Be sure to start with the vinegar and add the salt to it as salt does not dissolve well in oil, she advises. (Here is a basic balsamic vinaigrette from The Kitchn.)
4. Use your sharpening steel. A sharp knife is essential, Catherine insists. Not sure if it's sharp enough? Test it on a tomato. It should be able to cut through with hardly any pressure. If you have to press even just a little, give your knife a few swipes on the steel. Anything more and it needs professional sharpening. Make it a habit to give your knife a few swipes on the steel very time you pick up it up for a new task. The steel doesn't sharpen the knife (Catherine recommends finding a good professional for that) but it will hone and maintain the edge.
5. Don't overplan your dinner party menu. Keep it simple, advises Catherine, and serve family style so you can enjoy your guests and spend time with them. No one wants a stressed out host who disappears into the kitchen, so make dishes you feel confident about and have a good time!
Thank you, Jodi and Catherine!
For more information on The San Francisco Cooking School's Home Cooking classes visit their website.
Previous Expert Essentials: Preeti Mistry's 5 Essential Things for the Home Cook
(Images: Dana Velden)