Larder = Tips + Techniques

Tip = Heavy For Its Size... For many people, choosing produce carries the same importance as choosing a bag of chips. With the invention and rapid growth of the crowded "super-store" concept, one can easily find themselves rambling through a maze of customers in a stressful experience that is tantamount to being stuck in traffic. What should be a careful selection of nutritious food for the family, is reduced to grabbing only what is needed before the carts begin to back up in a log-jam of metal boxes on squeaky wheels.

   Oftentimes, the process of picking produced is made efficient by answering one question. What looks like it might last the longest? A successful mission to find the proverbial "army tank" of tomatoes, the one that looks like it could be exposed to a nuclear blast and still be shiny, red, and hard as a rock, means a reduction in chaotic trips to the grocer.

   Chain stores have understood for years that the average consumer has neither the time, nor the experience to make meaningful choices when it comes to produce. For this reason, most grocery stores stock their shelves with GMO (genetically modified organism) fruits and veggies that are engineered to look beautiful, but leave a lot to be desired when it comes to flavor. To put it simply, GMOs have been altered to have all of the cosmetic attributes that make your search for "good" produce seem easy. The end result is most often, well, fruitless. Take for instance those bright red, perfectly shaped tomatoes that populate the produce section in the dead of winter. Those are GMOs. They are meant to last, and usually do. Consumers buy them, bring them home, and put them in the crisper drawer of the fridge, which is the last place tomatoes should be living; crowded, cramped and smothered in their own ethylene gas. The chill of the fridge forces them to lose flavor and become mealy, leaving you with a tomato more similar to styrofoam..

   So, where does one start when picking the best produce? When choosing vegetables and fruits there are so many things to consider; color, shape, firmness or softness, final use, smell, sound, size, etc.. For now, I'll narrow it down to one factor that should always be at the top of the list. That one thing is weight. Is it heavy for its size? This is a common question for chefs "in the know". Most consumers don't consider weight. In fact, many people will empty their little plastic veggie bags until the weight is suitable for the pocket book.

   I'll use the example of tomatoes. When tomatoes are in season my menu is stacked with dishes that show them off, so it's important that I'm getting the best. When my daily delivery of tomatoes comes from the farm, I'll give much less consideration to blemishes on the skin, unless it's due to pests or disease, than I will to the actual weight. I also consider color; deep reds and oranges usually are indicative of higher sugar content and more maturity, which means flavor. I want my tomatoes to have the heft of a baseball. To me, this means I'm much more likely to get a juicy, flavorful, ripe tomato that is sure to enhance a dish rather than detract from it. If I were to give only one tip to the home cook it would be to start thinking about weight. It is hugely important and often overlooked. Next time you're in the store and you pick up a tomato, if it doesn't feel surprisingly heavy for its size, put it back.

Technique = The Myth of the Figure Eight 
When learning to cook, it is important to remember the nature of the ingredients you are working with, and how they react to heat and manipulation. Different varieties of rice have differing levels of starch and nutrition. Rice grains contain two different types of starch: amylose and amylopectin. Understanding the difference between these two can be difficult, but what you need to know is that long grain rice has the most amylose, which is less sticky, and medium grain rice has amylopectin, which makes it more sticky. I use Carnaroli rice (a rice with a short, plump grain that is grown in the Piedmont and Lombardy regions) instead of Arborio because it has the requisite starch content, but retains its moisture and shape through the cooking process.

   When you are cooking risotto, the rice softens as it cooks, and therefore becomes more tender. Stirring constantly in a figure eight motion breaks up the grains and causes them to release more starch. The end result will be a sticky, gluey mass. Instead of using the figure eight technique, stir the rice only occasionally to make sure nothing sticks to the bottom of the pan, and move the pan back and forth every once in a while to rotate the rice from the top to the bottom. Proper risotto will be loose, creamy, and have a sheen. When you shake the pan back and forth, it should flow like a mass of lava, and not be overly liquid, or overly firm. I had the fortune of preparing a wine dinner with an Italian chef who had just received his third Michelin Star. We prepared a red wine risotto with stuffed squab. When serving the risotto, he laid it out on a round plate, and it flowed smoothly out to the edges- a sharp contrast to the scooped out mass of risotto one will often receive in restaurants. It was sauce-like, but rich, creamy, and shiny. It was delicious and authentic.

Tip = Choosing a Knife Sharpener
Have you ever wondered which knife sharpener is the best? Here are a few of my thoughts on the subject....

   As a chef I am often asked which knife sharpener is the best. There are so many options in stores now. When I first started cooking in the "rough and tumble" kitchens of Texas, most chefs used what was known as a handheld v-sharpener. This sharpener tended to be more abrasive, and could grind the steel of the knife down over time, causing consumers and chefs to spend more money replacing their knives due to wear and tear. As a professional chef, I have very good knives, and I want to preserve the blade for as long as possible (a good knife might last 25 years or more). After unsuccessful use during my freshman years in the kitchen, I moved away from the handheld v-sharpener.

   Another type of sharpener on the market is the electric grinder. It has the same quick sharpening effect as the v-sharpener, but it will also wear your knife down even faster. Electric sharpeners will last you a long time in a home kitchen, unfortunately your knives will not be as fortunate. Obviously, you're going to lose a little bit of the knife's material when you're sharpening, but there's no need to speed the process unnecessarily.

   Another good, but costly option is the triple-stone. The triple-stone is a three-sided rotating pyramid with coarse, medium, and fine-grit stone panels. You can use these stones with water, or with oil. They work beautifully, and for the professional chef the triple-stone, along with the honing steel, is the best tool in the kitchen. It takes skill and practice to use it, and if you can master it, it's worth every penny (prices go from $85 for a small version and up to $350 for a good size, professional stone). With a considerably higher price, the triple-stone is not the most economical for the home cook.

   When friends and guests ask me what they should use at home, I suggest one thing that I've found is reasonable in price, does the job without destroying your knife, and will get it razor sharp if used correctly. I advise them to buy a diamond steel. I've found the best ones at hunting and outdoor supply stores like Cabela's. On a recent shopping trip to Cabela's, I found what I consider to be the best diamond steel on the market. The maker is Smith's, a long time supplier to the hunting world. They've introduced what they call the "world's first interrupted surface, diamond coated, oval sharpening steel". Smith's 10" Diamond Sharpening Steel has a unique sharpening surface that features a sporty over-lapping oval hole design, which is coated with multiple layers of micron-sized monocrystalline diamonds. The unique diamond pattern on the steel helps speed the sharpening process by collecting and holding the metal filings which ordinarily build up during the sharpening process. It comes with a soft grip rubber handle which is the most comfortable I've found to date. In most kitchens now, chefs will use a diamond steel and then a honing steel to remove any imperfections on the blade. The Smith's 10" Diamond Sharpening Steel hones and re-aligns your edge at the same time. It works great for me, and if you spend the modest amount of money it costs to get one, your knives will thank you.