Tales of a Kitchen Spy

Lately I’ve been trying to cook dinner, and after years of working during the dinner hour this has been an interesting transition. Sometimes I stop in the afternoon and can’t believe it’s time to eat again. I could live happily on cold cereal (a habit that goes back to my childhood), but there are other members of my household who are not so enthusiastic about cereal – even for breakfast, much less dinner.

So lately I make something simple – pasta, a roast chicken, curried rice – and then walk away. I ask my chef husband to try it and adjust it if he sees fit. Then I occupy myself with a different task and spy on what he does. Here are a few observations on how Robert improves on what I have cooked for dinner:
1) Salt
He almost always adds salt. Often he will ask if I added salt to the water for rice or pasta (I often forget) which I have learned cannot be compensated for by adding more at the end of the cooking process. Chefs use a lot of salt – it simply makes food taste better. I have no response to those who are trying to reduce their salt intake, except that I’m sorry, because salt makes almost everything better.
2) Fat
There is nothing like a stick of butter to smooth out a sauce for pasta or bacon drippings in mashed potatoes. We all know fat tastes good, but you may be suprised by just how much chefs use to get that delicious taste. The reason why mashed potatoes taste so good at nice restaurants is that potatoes fall behind butter and cream in the proportion used. I take comfort in arguments in the book “In Defense of Food” by Michael Pollan that animal fats are preferred to the trans fats found in processed food. (This book is a great read.)
3) Acid
When a dish just isn’t quite right and you don’t know why, it often needs a bit of acid to perk up the flavors. Robert will often add just a bit of vinegar to a dish (sherry vinegar is his favorite multi-purpose grab) or a squeeze of lemon. Too much will overwhelm, but a tad can transform.
4) Nuts
A bit of finely chopped nuts can give the textural note that makes a dish interesting and delicous. Robert often uses nuts for rice dishes (like peanuts), pasta (like pinenuts), and salad (like almonds). Sprinkling them on the top of a finished plate makes all the difference.

I suppose that I will learn to incorporate these observations into my daily cooking, but then I would miss watching Robert in the kitchen, which as many of you know, is a great thing to behold.

8 thoughts on “Tales of a Kitchen Spy

  1. This one made me laugh!!! As the dinner cook for my family, I think all your tips are spot on. I almost never tell my family how much salt and fat I use in daily cooking – they would freak out. I was once cooking pasta for Alex and a friend, and they both screamed as I put a liberal pour of salt into the water. And don’t get me started on butter and bacon fat – they are also the secret to refried beans!

  2. Other childhood favoites of Molly: a bowl of whipped cream with peanuts (notice the use of nuts here at age 10), ketchup on a plate eaten with a fork, and specifically, Life cereal. Out mother would prepare somthing wonderful like Bouef Bourguinion, and Molly would opt for a bowl of Life. Or Kraft mac ‘n cheese.

  3. I totally get the whipped cream and peanuts or Life cereal but ketchup on a plate? YUCK! I am so glad that your tastes have expanded Molly!
    Loved the cooking tips…salt and saturated animal fats…YUM!!

  4. Molly, what a timely post. I had just read in the NYT about El Bulli closing. With Krause Dining now a very pleasant memory and Esquina not yet open (and the culinary scene here in Nebraska still, well, challenged) we are starting to worry about where we will be eating for the rest of our lives. Time to raise the level of our home cooking, I guess. Keep parceling out gems from your and Robert’s kitchen for the rest of us to use.

  5. I am amused to understand that fat and salt are the flavor ingredients most frequently added by chefs! Flavors can be gained in other ways that are more healthy, pepper (all kinds, fresh and dry), lots of fresh fruits and vegetables, vinegar, herbs.

  6. Your writing style and tidbits are very interesting. I agree about the use of salt. Potatoes usually need a lot, but once in a while a steamed, unpeeled new potato with nothing on it is a wonderful, earthy taste.

  7. This made me chuckle….I cook about once every other week. When I do, Leo isn’t far from the kitchen and seems to be watching me out of the corner of his eye. He really tries hard to keep his mouth shut, but he can’t always help himself….”Hey, why don’t you add some chicken stock? What about butter?” I always fall short on flavor when I cook, but it’s because I’m trying to make it simple, and low fat. Usually, it results in a tasteless dish that sits in the fridge for a week! Thank GOD Leo loves to cook and does it well (yep, using lots of salt, cream and butter.) But as long as I balance it out w/ yoga and pilates, everybody’s happy!

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