Small kitchen habits can make a big difference in your cooking, so we love learning about the everyday cooking habits of cookbook authors, chefs and other food professionals. What are the small habits they practice every time they step into the kitchen?
This week we are talking to our favorite food experts to find out the simple cooking practices they rely on, and today Tom Hudgens, author of The Commonsense Kitchen, shares the fundamental habits he honed while a chef at Deep Springs College, an organic farm, men's college and working cattle ranch in California.
What are some of your daily habits that make life in the kitchen better and easier?
If a habit is indeed "a settled or regular tendency or practice, especially one that is hard to give up," then I have many kitchen habits:
Wash greens carefully. Whether I'm making a salad, a dish of cooked greens, or a dish abundant with leafy herbs, I always wash greens in the same way: immerse the leaves in a big basin of cool water, swirl them around delicately, drain in a colander, then spin dry. The vibrant "live" flavor and texture of all greens, no matter how they're to be used, benefit from a delicate bath.
Keep fruit in a bowl on the counter. Wherever I am, I always seem to end up with a fruit bowl, basket, or some other fresh fruit display, even in a hotel room...while some people have a weakness for fresh flowers, I can't resist buying promising-looking fruit. Many varieties of fruit keep and ripen better at room temperature than in the refrigerator...and to me, cooking without a bowl of ripe seasonal fruit nearby just isn't as inspiring.
Make the most of alliums. I use the botanical term "allium" to refer to all members of the onion family (including garlic, shallots, and leeks), whose various deep, aromatic savors enliven cooking the world over. Where would I be as a cook without the quarter-inch onion dice or the sixteenth-inch shallot dice I can produce without a second thought after years of practice; or "garlic habits," such as splitting and decorticating each clove (for cleaner, brighter garlic flavor), or quickly crushing a split clove to a puree with the back of my chef's knife?
Salt from the bottom up. In some ways, salt is the most important ingredient in the kitchen: without it, much good cooking just can't happen. When making soup or stew, adding vegetables to the pot one by one, I've long made a habit of adding a pinch of salt to the pan with each addition; this is called "salting from the bottom up," and it keeps the flavors distinct.
Examine your habits. This is the most important of all. Make a habit of examining your kitchen habits and ask, are they limiting me as a creative cook? After all, in the kitchen, there are always multiple paths to delicious results. This, primarily, more than any technique- or skill-based habit, is what keeps the kitchen craft exciting and limitless to me.
Are there any new kitchen habits you are hoping to adopt in 2014?
I hope to develop better mise en place habits, to not let my counters get overcrowded, and to sharpen my knives more. I'd like to further cultivate the habit of using the whole animal or vegetable—we know the flesh is good, but what about the skin, or the leaves, or the head? Each meal I cook, I'll aim to make a bit extra of one of its components: savings for a future meal, a practice both aesthetic and frugal, as Tamar Adler richly describes in her book The Everlasting Meal.
(Image credits: Tom Hudgens; Chronicle Books)