Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Cooking Lesson Number One: Seasonings Are Your Friend

So, I have a friend.  Bless her heart, she's a wizard with animals, a rock star at packing and tells a hilarious story.  But the poor thing has never properly learned to cook.  Fortunately, she has a husband who can pick up the slack, but they work opposing shifts, and I can't very well let her starve while she's alone.  Besides, she's desperate to save some money around the house, and food is the best place to do it -- but only if you know what you're doing. 

I half-jokingly told her I'd take her under my wing and teach her to cook.  I figured I could include my culinarily-clueless boyfriend in the lessons and kill two birds with one stone.  But as I started thinking about it, I started to realize that maybe other people could use some help.  Plenty of my friends can't cook, after all, and the friends who can often express interest in doing it more inexpensively.  So I decided, maybe I should blog a few of my lessons, to make them easier to share. 

Lesson the First: Seasoning is Your Friend

When it comes to 'seasoning,' the very first thing you need to think of is salt.  You need to put salt on everything.  You also probably need to use more than you would imagine.  Contrary to what you might think, salt (when used properly) doesn't make food taste salty.  It just makes the food taste more....delicious.  It amps up the dial for every flavor that crosses your tastebuds.  It's a complex chemical reaction that takes place in your mouth and exists, evolutionarily, to ensure you eat enough sodium (which is necessary for multiple bodily functions). 

That said, you've probably heard about how sodium isn't so good for you.  It's true that, in high quantities, it can cause hypertension and plenty of other problems.  Here's a secret: The sodium that's hurting you isn't what you're putting on the food you're cooking.  It's the hidden sodium in processed foods.  If you cut those out and focus on cooking food from whole ingredients, you don't need to worry about salt. 

One other thing: Most of the frenchy-froggy chefs advise you to use kosher salt.  This is because it has a bigger surface area and dissolves better.  It's also easier to measure, and tends to have a cleaner taste.  But it is a little pricier, and I won't hold it against you if you use regular table salt.  I've been known to do that plenty of times myself. 

Herbs and Spices by Cuisine

Once you've mastered the salt thing, it's time to tackle herbs & spices.  You can get a long way with an empty pantry but a full spice rack.  Below are some of the more common cuisines along with the herbs and spices they use, as well as some of the other common ingredients that go into these recipes.  If you're starting with a bare spice rack, you can pick the cuisine you cook the most of and focus on buying just those spices.  You can also skim through to see which spices show up again and again, and buy those first. 

A few notes: 
  • Herbs are the green leaves and stems of plants, and many of them can be grown at home.  Spices are usually seeds, berries or bark, and they're mostly grown in exotic or far-away places.  
  • Herbs can be used fresh or dried.  If you're using dried herbs, add them to the dish early on so they can infuse the dish with flavor while it's cooking.  If you're using fresh herbs, add them toward the end so they don't get slimy and wilted.  
  • Herbs and spices both lose potency over time.  Try not to store them too close to the oven -- the heat will cause them to lose flavor quickly.  Replace them frequently.  
  • Save money on herbs by buying them in bulk.  You can usually buy plastic bags of herbs and spices on the Mexican aisle of a supermarket for a fraction of the price of the name-brand containers.  
  • Start small with any new seasonings you try.  You can always add more later, but you can't really take it back if you put in too much.  Start with a quarter-teaspoon of any new spice or herb and work up from there as necessary.  
  • In addition to their yummy flavor, herbs and spices have various health benefits associated with them as well! They've been a key part of, er, herbal medicine since the dawn of time.  
Mexican Cuisine:
Examples: Chili, fajitas, enchiladas
Herbs & Spices:  Garlic, cilantro, oregano, cumin, chili powder, paprika, black pepper (these last four I refer to as "chili spices" in recipes I write for myself). 
Other Common Ingredients: Peppers, tomatoes, beans, rice

Asian Cuisine: 
Examples: Stir-fries, fried rice
Herbs & Spices: Garlic, ginger, black pepper, soy sauce, five-spice powder, Siracha
Other Common Ingredients: Vegetables, tofu, rice, noodles

Italian Cuisine: 
Examples: Pasta dishes
Herbs & Spices: Garlic, oregano, parsley, thyme
Other Common Ingredients: Pasta, tomatoes, polenta

French (and gourmet American) Cuisine: 
Examples:  Roast chicken, meatloaf
Herbs & Spices: Rosemary, thyme, marjoram, sage
Other Common Ingredients: Onion, carrot and celery (aka mire poix, or the start of any good soup), wine

Mediterannean Cuisine: 
Examples: Roast lamb, gyro meat
Herbs & Spices: Basil, parsley, marjoram, oregano
Other Common Ingredients: Olives, chickpeas, feta cheese

There are lots of other combinations to learn -- like those in Indian, Middle Eastern or North African cuisine -- but they are perhaps not as useful to the beginning cook.  Pay attention to seasonings in recipes you find and you'll start to realize which ingredients are responsible for what flavors. 

The valuable thing about this brief list is that it helps you determine what a dish will taste like (if reading from a recipe) or what type of flavor profile to give something (if experimenting in the kitchen).  For example, if you start with tomato sauce and add oregano, parsley and thyme, the results will probably be a pasta sauce.  If you took that same tomato sauce and added cumin and paprika, you'd be well on your way to making chili.  By knowing -- even vaguely -- what you're starting with, you know more or less where you'll end up. 

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