“The basics” of cooking are different for everyone, I think. Well, maybe not if you’re a restaurant chef—I think those “basics” they get from culinary school are pretty much the golden standard. Unless you’re training as a sushi chef… Then I think there’s that idiom that all you do is make rice for 3 years before you can even touch any fish. I’m sure there are other exceptions, too, but you get the idea. But no matter who you are or how you cook there are things you can always benefit from knowing how to do. A lot of these basics can be store-bought now and while, in some instances, these are fine, there is something to be said about some of these staples being homemade. Store-bought stocks (chicken, beef, veg, seafood, etc.) can all be bought in cartons at the store and are a very worthy substitute. Things like marinara/tomato sauce, pesto and hummus are on the fence for me; they’re good but making your own can be just as easy, quick and cost-effective as cracking open a jar or container so the route I take depends on my motivation-to-laziness ratio. Things like jarred roux and Alfredo “sauce” are criminal—like, seriously?
So, with “The Basics” I’ll show you my basics. Part of my gravitation towards making some of these things is out of not wanting to waste anything. I don’t want to sound like a hoarder but I hate to throw any foodstuffs away. I have a freezer full of egg whites stored in sealable bags in singles and pairs (leftovers from when I’ve only needed the yolk for something—a testament to the amount of Carbonara and ice cream I make); the forest-green tops of leeks, cleaned and roughly chopped; a container of rendered bacon fat; bagsful of yellow onion scraps like the tops, root-end, skin and tough outer layers (I’ll get to that later); the shells and tails from EZ-peel shrimp, and so much more. It might look a little crazy to someone else, but to me these scraps are essentials to making a variety of recipes, from stocks and sauces to mousses and meringues. Besides, the actual crazy thing is the bag labeled “Organs” in my freezer (in the dark, scary basement, of course). The other reason I like to make my own basics (sometimes) is because I think it gives me a better sense of the bigger picture—like, I don’t know, you can’t be a Rock God without learning the basics of music (I turned on the radio today and realized this was a terrible example), so knowing how to make the basics gives you a better sense of how to cook (not to mention confidence).
So without further ado…
I believe in application. Everything has it’s own. This applies to chicken stock (and other stocks, too, but we’re focusing on chicken now). Bullion cubes and concentrates are fine in small amounts for a background flavor in sauces or something—nothing where you want the taste of the stock to stand out but, rather, just as mellow supporting role. While I’m happy to use them this way I have not yet found one that I would want to use for a dish who’s base is that of solely stock, like a soup or stew.
As I also said, I don’t like throwing things away, especially when they can be reused and repurposed. Chicken bones are a prime example. Any time I roast a whole chicken the carcass goes in the freezer. Any time I roast chicken quarters the bones go in the freezer. Any time I poach or roast a bone-in chicken breast for chicken salad I pull the bones out and it’s to the freezer with them. Any time I break down a whole raw chicken into portions the backbone, wings (sometimes—nobody ever wants them) and the giblets… You get the idea. With the giblets, though, I do freeze the liver separately because I don’t use it for stock making (it gives the stock a funky flavor). These bones and bits are garbage to some people but they’re actually the building block for a good stock. Obviously, I use both roasted and raw chicken scraps but using either/or would be fine, too (and I’m not sure that it really makes a difference but I do freeze raw and cooked parts separate, too).
Another thing in the freezer is a big bag of onion scraps: tops, cleaned root-ends, skin and that tough outer layer. It occurred to me one day when chopping onions and leeks that if I were going to be making a stock I could throw all of these scraps into the stockpot—no waste, and the skins give the stock a deeper-gold color. That’s when it hit me to start freezing them for later days. So I stockpile these things until I have enough to make a big batch of chicken stock. It might seem like just another chore to create for yourself, adding another thing for that nagging voice in the back of your mind to remind you that you have to do, but I look at it with more anticipation, like waiting for newly planted seeds to germinate in the garden. As the chicken parts and onion scraps pile up I get more and more excited—it’s sick, I know.
And while making chicken stock takes some time between boiling, simmering, cooling and skimming, most of that time is pretty inactive on your part, not to mention it’s so simple.
Into a HUGE stockpot, throw in chicken carcasses and/or bones, onion scraps (or fresh onions are good), carrots, celery, bay leaves, a few cloves of garlic, some peppercorns, and a few sprigs of thyme and parsley. Pour over some cold water, put it all over medium-high heat and bring to a rolling boil. Then, reduce the heat to low and simmer, uncovered, for 4 hours.
Let it cool completely (either plunge the pot into a sink filled with cold water and ice, changing the water out periodically, or on the counter at room temperature, which could take forever). Strain it through a colander that’s been lined with cheesecloth and into another large stock pot and then chill it in the fridge overnight. Then you can skim most of the fat off the top pretty easily before divvying the stock into storage containers. It’ll last 3 – 5 days in the fridge or 3 – 5 months in the freezer. I like to freeze it in various sized containers—1 quart, 2 cups, 1 cup, ¼ cup, etc.—so that no matter how much I need for a recipe there’s a container or two with the perfect amount ready for me.
This one is less of a recipe and more of a method, and embarrassingly simple, so I’ll keep this short.
Dried breadcrumbs are great for a lot of things; meatballs, meatloaf, crispy tops for mac and cheese, adding bulk and crunch to Cannellini-Stuffed Portabellas, breading/coatings, and so on. Store-bought breadcrumbs from the canister are fine I guess but I really think that making your own gives you a better texture. That said, though, if you can’t be bothered with it I would recommend panko breadcrumbs over the regular ones sold in a tube any day of the week.
If you have some bread lying around that’s going stale or you know won’t get eaten this is a perfect way to prevent having to throw it out. It can be the butts from a loaf of plastic grocery store bread, or a light English muffin, or a chunk of artisan boule from the bakery. It can be white or wheat, hamburger or hot dog bun, or even pitas. I would stay away from mixing things like rye, pumpernickel and sourdough in with the everyday, white-and-wheat crumbs because their flavors are too strong and might be too intrusive.
It’s really as simple as tearing some bread into smallish pieces and scattering them on a sheet tray. Make sure they’re in a single layer and with as much space between them as possible. If you have a lot of bread then use two trays.
Put the tray in the oven and set it for 250°. At this point set your kitchen timer for 25 minutes. Letting them come up in temperature with the oven helps them to dry out through and through. After the 25 minutes check on them. They should be completely dry inside and out, or close to—if they’re not then give them another 10 minutes. Shut the oven off and leave the bread in the oven until both oven and bread are completely and totally cooled to room temperature. Frankly, you can do this while you’re getting ready for work, shut the oven off and leave them in there until you get home—its not like you dry these out too much.
Load them into the processor and blitz them until they’re ground into fine crumbs. Thankfully we have food processors now and don’t have to mince breadcrumbs by hand or anything so strenuously manual.
Transfer to a storage bag and stash them in the freezer until you’re ready to use. Pretty painless, right?
I am one of those people that—oh, there are days—can sometimes not be bothered to peel and mince garlic. To even grate the garlic seems like an absolutely daunting chore. Stupid, I know. Naturally, minced garlic in a jar seems like the best way to remedy my terminal laziness, but to me it tastes kind of… pukey. For this reason I make garlic-infused olive oil. Not only does it save me from the trouble of having to do any mincing but it is also a great way to add garlic flavor to something that you don’t want the harsh burn of raw garlic infiltrating—think dressings, aioli and mayonnaise, raw sauces and so on. It’s great for cooking meats, roasting vegetables and even dribbling over a piece of Italian bread with a chunk of sharp cheddar to eat while you consider if you’ll just keep eating this for dinner or actually put forth some effort. I feel incomplete without it.
Essentially what you need to know is that for every one cup of olive oil you need one head of garlic. The finer you chop and mince the garlic the more its flavor intensifies, so, conversely, just lightly crushing whole cloves lends a much gentler and mellower flavor. I don’t want mild-mannered garlic but I don’t want aggressively assertive, either. I want well-rounded, full bodied flavor; gentle enough to use in a vinaigrette but forceful enough to flavor a tomato sauce to a noticeable degree. So, I divide my peeled garlic cloves into four piles; one pile is lightly crushed, one is sliced into thin slivers, one is roughly chopped and one is finely minced and grated.
These are stirred together in a 1-quart saucepan and placed over medium heat. They should be brought to a gentle sizzle, being stirred occasionally, and kept there for about 5 minutes. Make sure this is a gentle sizzle—the garlic should begin to become fragrant but it should not start to tan in the slightest. After 5 minutes, reduce the heat to low and simmer 15 minutes.
Shut the heat off and leave it all in the pan to steep until its completely cooled. Once it’s completely cooled, strain the oil through a fine mesh sieve and into a liquid measuring cup (or anything with a spout, for easy pouring). Pour the infused oil into a container—simple as that.
AN IMPORTANT NOTE: Let’s take some time to talk about something really sexy… Botulism. If you do a quick search for “garlic oil” online you will read about botulism. Botulism is a bacteria that’s found in soil and thrives in environments of low oxygen. Since garlic grows in the soil and oil is a no-oxygen environment, garlic-infused oils are a pretty good place for these bacteria to breed. By heating the oil and the garlic you’re killing off the toxin and spores. The CDC says temperatures above 85° kill the toxins and spores die above boiling point (approx. 212°), which the oil should reach. They also mention that infused oils should be stored in the refrigerator. Commercial infused oils use additives and preservatives that make them safe to stay in your cupboard but obviously we don’t have that here. So I’ll say that, per the CDC, you should store this in the fridge. I will also say that I have never stored my oil in the fridge and years ago, before I learned about botulism, I use to keep a bottle of oil with chunks of garlic, and maybe a sprig or two or rosemary or thyme, right on the counter. I won’t tell you what to do—just be aware of the facts.
Hopefully these basics will come in handy for you! Don’t forget to follow me on BLOGLOVIN’