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THOMPSON: Enjoying the pleasures of the table

October 02, 2017 - 12:00 PM

 


OPINION


A couple of Saturdays ago, three young couples spent the afternoon with me learning something about cooking in an informal afternoon workshop. That evening we dined on what we prepared. They seemed genuinely interested in discovering new culinary skills…and were motivated to learn more. Indeed, they agreed to attend monthly cooking courses I’m planning next summer, with a donation to a charity as the price of admission.

Cooking - much like writing - is a passion of mine…and has been for nearly five decades. My entire family could cook…mom, dad, sister and brother. My mother’s general philosophy about growing up was that you should be somewhat self-sufficient. So, by the time we kids left home she made sure we could cook, sew, and wash and iron clothes before being unleashed on the real world.

This attitude might be more universal now since gender roles have evolved…but in the 1960s it was uncommon for boys to learn domestic skills. Thank goodness times have changed. And, by the way, thanks mom. Her persistence first paid off when - at age 19 in boot camp with the United States Air Force - I sewed stripes on my entire squad’s uniforms in trade for booze and cigarettes.

But, back to cooking. I grew up in Florida, which except for the southern-most tip of the state is mostly Southern when it comes to culinary proclivities. That means hearty, really tasty but not always healthy food…fried chicken…potato salad. That said, mom lived to be nearly 95. I could cook most Southern delicacies before I was 20, but roaming the globe introduced me to new cultures…and new cuisines.

I lived in Europe in my early twenties, quickly picking up German, French, Spanish and Italian cooking…authentic recipes rather than Americanized versions. By the time I was 30, my appetite for learning increased and I started spending time and money on more formal training. I spent vacations attending professional cooking schools to learn better techniques. I was hooked.

Meals and preparing them - always important - are central to my life. I associate many of the best times in my life with what I simply call the pleasures of the table…good food, good wine, good people and sparkling conversation.

Cooking isn’t everyone’s thing…some people don’t even like dining…fine or otherwise. But, for those who do, perhaps you’ll find some of the following stream-of-consciousness tips and suggestions of interest.

When cooking with garlic don’t smash the clove with the wide blade of a chef’s knife to remove the paper-like covering. You see so many chefs do this on television…and it’s simply the wrong thing to do. The centres of garlic cloves - off-white when fresh and greenish with age - should be removed before cooking or eating. Why? These centres contain all the bitterness in garlic…and are the primary reason some people complain about garlic smells oozing from their pores for a couple days after eating it. Try it…you’ll taste the difference.

Speaking of garlic…don’t like the smell on you hands after cutting cloves? Wash you hands with water as you simply touch some stainless steel…either your sink if it’s stainless…or most kitchen stores sell a small hand-size piece of stainless steel. A chemical reaction with water and stainless completely eliminates the smell…and unlike lemon juice - another antidote - it doesn’t make you wince if you have a cut on your hand.

Since we’re talking smelly foods…when you select an onion always go with the flatter rather than rounder ones. Whether a Vidalia, Walla-Walla, white or red onion…the flatter ones are milder and better tasting. Want to ripen some rock-like pears or avocados? Place them in a paper bag with tomatoes or apples…they give off ethylene, which speeds the ripening process.

Foodies like me often have well-equipped kitchens, but you don’t have to have every item you see on television to be able to cook…and cook well. So, friends often ask what utensils or items make cooking fun, easier or better.

Here are some essentials, though certainly not an exhaustive list of kitchenware. Get yourself a few good knives…really good knives. They need not be a matched set or come with a knife block either. But you’ll find a chef’s knife, a paring knife, a serrated knife and a boning knife indispensable.

A chef’s knife can be used to slice and dice just about everything from vegetables and citrus to fish and meats…not so good for tightening screws or opening cans. Use the serrated knife for slicing…tomatoes, pineapples, citrus and bread. Put the paring knife into action for detail work…slicing and dicing smaller stuff…garlic, shallots, strawberries. A good boning knife isn’t for cutting through a cow’s femur…but for cutting around and through small bones in meat, poultry and fish. Never put a knife in a dishwasher or loose with the blade unprotected in a drawer.

When it comes to pots and pans…you’re only limited by what you like to cook, space for storage and your budget. Here are pots and pans you really need: a cast-iron skillet, a non-stick frying pan, a stainless steel skillet, a couple of stainless steel stock pots and some rimmed baking sheets. Beyond these you can add a host of others, including an enamelled Dutch oven, glass baking pans, stainless steel saucepans, loaf pans, muffin tins. You can go nuts with the accessory pieces…but if you love to cook they all serve purposes.

Finally, you might want to pick up some specialty pieces. A good mandoline…no, not the musical instrument (spelled without the e)…a device for slicing vegetables incredibly thin. If you’ve ever had a serving of two-inch thick cheesy escalloped potatoes with twenty layers of potatoes you’ll know why I suggest this item.

Get yourself a potato ricer and promise to never “mash” potatoes again…you’ll serve the lightest, best tasting “mashed” potatoes ever. Get a good thermometer with a good range…the newer digital thermometers with a probe are great because you can do everything from testing meats and poultry for doneness to checking on that perfect 350-375-degree frying temperature.

Get a good cutting board…heavy with a trench for draining meats…great for slicing and dicing veggies and fruits. Also, add a good garlic press, a box grater, a whisk, kitchen shears, both rubber and metal spatulas, a wire-mesh colander, measuring cups and spoons and both a large slotted and regular stirring or serving spoons. Finally, pick up some kind of hand-held or small food processor…otherwise pureeing something is an impossible chore.

I could suggest scores of specialty items…more pots and pans, knives, utensils…in which case - like me - you’d need another kitchen for storage! But this will get you started. Now, look up a few favourite recipes, go buy the freshest ingredients you can afford, invite friends or family over…and enjoy the pleasures of the table.

– Don Thompson, an American awaiting Canadian citizenship, lives in Vernon and in Florida. In a career that spans more than 40 years, Don has been a working journalist, a speechwriter and the CEO of an advertising and public relations firm. A passionate and compassionate man, he loves the written word as much as fine dinners with great wines.  His essays are a blend of news reporting and opinion.


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