Ina Garten’s newest book, Cook Like A Pro, is all about helping home cooks (like me!) gain confidence in the kitchen — because who doesn’t want to feel like a professional chef as they’re whipping up dinner? And so recently, when I found myself in a total cooking rut, I knew just the woman who could help get me out of it. I decided to cook solely out of Cook Like A Pro for an entire week (with the exception of some light breakfasts and lunches, where I didn’t use a recipe at all), hoping to pick up some invaluable kitchen tips and wisdom and re-ignite my passion for cooking.
While I wouldn’t say I finished the week quite at the level of the cooking queen herself (and I’m certainly not landing my own television show anytime soon), cooking like Ina did teach me a lot of great tips, and it’s already made my food so much better (my parents, who are my harshest critics, can attest). Here are the five most helpful things I learned.
1. A squeeze of acid instantly brightens up fried food.
I’m a pescatarian, so I couldn’t try Ina’s favorite 30-minute weeknight dinner, Parmesan Chicken. Luckily the Barefoot Contessa offers a meatless alternative: flounder Milanese. I’m not usually one to fry fish (it’s scary!), but Ina was there with me every step of the way, and it was well worth it — the fried breadcrumb coating gave the silky, luxurious flounder a deliciously crunchy edge. To lighten up the heavy, salty flavor, Ina suggests pairing it with peppery arugula and a bright lemon vinaigrette. She explains that all these ingredients complement one another in a way that lets them all shine through — and after I finished eating, I totally understood what she meant.
2. It’s worth it to invest in a few different kinds of salt.
Ina devoted a whole page of her book to salt, which she adds to pretty much everything — even her desserts! Ina exclusively uses Diamond Crystal kosher salt for cooking, because she knows exactly how it will affect the dish. She explains that Morton’s kosher salt and any fine table salt or sea salt are denser than Diamond Crystal and therefore taste saltier. If you’re not sure how much salt a dish needs, put a few bites of whatever it is you’ve made in a bowl and add salt until you hit that sweet spot. I was surprised by how effective it was at bringing out all the other flavors.
Ina also recommends having some finishing salt on hand, which adds both an interesting texture and a different kind of saltiness. For the flounder Milanese, she recommends sprinkling on a touch of fleur de sel at the end. It’s a slightly damp salt with a briny flavor and doesn’t dissolve as quickly as other salts, so the flavor stands out more. On the Parmesan pesto zucchini sticks, she uses a flaked sea salt such as Maldon. I loved that it gave the soft zucchini a crunchy edge and an extra burst of flavor to an already flavorful side.
3. Cutting soft cheese with unflavored dental floss makes perfect slices every time.
In setting out to make Ina’s roasted eggplant Parmesan, I was determined to get the layers perfectly even so that everyone got an equally cheesy bite. At first, I tried using my chef’s knife, but it smushed and crumbled the ball of fresh mozzarella. I then tried Ina’s method and held a long piece of floss over the delicate cheese and pushed down in one even stroke. Smooth and simple.
If you don’t have any on hand, don’t worry — this smoky, crispy, creamy eggplant dish will easily become a family favorite, even if things get a bit messy. But if you do buy some, you won’t be short of ways to use it. Unflavored dental floss can also be used to slice layers of cake, tie up rolled meat, and truss poultry.
4. Cut corn kernels onto a damp towel so they don’t end up bouncing all over the kitchen.
Ina’s chipotle Parmesan sweet corn recipe calls for eight to 12 shucked ears of corn. While you may be tempted to skip the step of shucking and use frozen corn instead, trust me that starting with fresh is worth the effort. Plus, it’s actually not that aggravating if you follow Ina’s instructions.
After ripping the husk away from the cob, run a vegetable brush across the kernels to easily collect all the silks. Then, chop the end off so you can firmly stand the cob up and cut without it wobbling. Lay a wet towel on the counter so that the kernels have somewhere to stick. A few still managed to escape, but the towel held a lot more than I expected! Finally, pick up the towel and pour the kernels into a bowl. It’s so easy, it’s almost meditative. The result was the freshest, most flavorful corn I’ve ever eaten. Of course, the lime juice, Parmesan, and chili powder I mixed into the pan definitely helped.
5. Add coffee to chocolate recipes to give them an edge.
I mentioned earlier that salt makes all of the flavors in a dish pop — and Ina says that coffee does the same thing for chocolate. As always, she is so right. Chocolate cake isn’t usually my first pick, but these beautiful triple chocolate loaf cakes are quite possibly my new favorite dessert.
I was amazed that just a teaspoon of instant coffee granules could have such an intense effect. It deepened the chocolatey flavor and gave it that element of ~drama~ you’d expect from a recipe that calls for three different types of chocolate (bittersweet, cocoa powder, and semisweet chocolate chips). Honestly, it took all of my self-control to not just forego the baking step and eat the batter instead. I’m glad I didn’t because the finished product was light and moist — definitely my finest work as a baker.
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