Saturday, January 9, 2010

What's Cooking? Back to School

This was originally published in the August, 2009, Left Hand Valley Courier.

Kids are headed back to school, but what about you? Are you thinking about dusting off the summer cobwebs and learning something new? How about dabbling in a foreign language while learning some new skills with tools?

Yes, I’m talking about culinary school, where you can learn French names for simple tasks and learn to wield a knife like the best Iron Chef. Does that sound like fun? But is it too much time and expense, if you aren’t planning a career in cooking?

The super-cheap alternative is to spend a few days ensconced in someone else’s cooking school adventures. Katherine Darling’s “Under the Table” will give you just that opportunity, in a book that’s light reading with just enough meat to give you a bit of a message. Plus, there are 24 recipes to tempt you into the kitchen.

The most important lesson in the book, though, may be this: “My old habit of rushing through recipes, taking shortcuts whenever possible, began to melt away as I understood that there was a reason for every single step, and that the final product would taste infinitely better if I spent the time to do everything properly, with care.”

In a cooking landscape littered with quick-and-easy, 5-ingredient-or-less recipes that guarantee a family meal on the table in less than 30 minutes, it’s good to consider that sometimes the extra five minutes, the extra dirty bowl or the extra pinch of spice can make a huge difference.

If Darling’s book isn’t enough culinary school for you, why not get serious? I first looked at “On Cooking” when someone told me it was their favorite cookbook, but it’s more than just a cookbook – it’s a textbook used in culinary schools. Sure, there are recipes, but there are also detailed explanations, techniques, definitions and historical notes.

At over 1400 pages, with 37 chapters and a multitude of recipes, it’s a complete cooking class, from simple sauces to elegant presentation. But the recipes aren’t out of place in a home kitchen. For example:

Hungarian Goulash
Adapted from “On Cooking” by Sarah R. Labensky and Alan M. Hause

2 lbs. onions, medium dice
2 oz. lard or vegetable oil
4 tablespoons Hungarian paprika
1 tablespoon chopped garlic
1/2 teaspoon caraway seeds
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
Salt, to taste
1 quart white stock (see note)
4 oz tomato paste
5 lbs beef stew in 1 1/2” cubes

Sauté the onions in the oil or lard until lightly browned. Add paprika, garlic, caraway, salt and pepper; mix well. Add the stock and tomato paste, bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer. Add the meat simmer until tender, approximately 1 1/2 hours.

Note: a white stock is a made from beef, chicken or veal bones that have not been browned or roasted first, resulting in a light-colored stock. You’re not really in cooking school, so use any good-quality homemade or store-bought stock that you like.

“On Cooking” includes chapters on baked goods, but if you want to skip cooking school and head right into the pastry kitchen, the companion book, “On Baking” might be for you. Besides cakes, pies and breads, there are candies, fillings and mousses to tempt your sweet tooth. And while the results are professional, you might be surprised at how easy some are to make at home.

One-Step Lemon Curd
Adapted from “On Baking” by Sarah R. Labensky, Priscilla Martel, and Eddy Van Damme
This recipe makes enough lemon curd to fill an 8” pie shell

12 eggs
4 egg yolks
2 lbs. granulated sugar
1 lb. unsalted butter, cubed
1 oz. lemon zest, grated
12 oz. fresh lemon juice

Whisk all ingredients together in a large bowl. Place the bowl over a pan of simmering water and cook, stirring frequently, until very thick – approximately 20 to 25 minutes. Strain, cover, and chill completely.

Class is over. Now, get cooking!
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