Understanding the Basics

Being a good cook has many different aspects that need attention.  It is not all about putting quality ingredients together and adding a few seasonings to make a good dish. 

In saying this, to be a good chef means that you should not be selfish in your methods and ingredients.  Not everyone is going to like or be able to eat all of the items on your menu.  I have found over my nearly three decades of cooking that there are more chefs that get angry when restaurant guests have special requests.  A lot of the time they get upset because of the lack of knowledge behind their menu items.  If they had a better understanding of the origin of their menu items then they could create a menu that is more diverse and would have less special request. 

Times are changing with people understanding both food and their bodies better, so the more you are able to adjust and move with this, the more enjoyable cooking will become.

One secret to getting away from the grips of recipes is to understand the dish that you are making right back to its roots.  I am not saying you need to know who created the dish but, more so of why the dish was created. That being said, the more you know about what you are creating will always benefit you in the long run.

The Caesar salad was created to make use of the anchovy runs that went up through Mexico and California.  An Italian restaurateur by the name of Caesar Cardini created it for his restaurant in Tijuana Mexico.  That’s right dear reader! the Caesar salad was created in Mexico, Not Italy.  Now that you know this little fun fact, try to think about the last Mexican restaurant that had the Caesar salad on its menu.

Another example is a cooking technique called confit.  Which is basically cooking something like duck or goose in its own fat at a very slow temperature until it basically dissolves in your mouth.

The whole reason for this dish was to act as a form of preservation before there was refrigeration.  People would render down the goose fat with various aromatics and then slow poach the goose. When it is done simply leave it on the counter for dinner another night. What happens is as the fat cools, it pushes all of the air out and you are left with an air tight seal and to make it even better its sealed in one of the best fats ever….DUCK FAT!!

Most classic dishes that date back many generations were often created because of an abundance of an ingredients or a way to feed families in a pinch to avoid starvation.

The reason why I am sharing this with you is so that you can take an origin of a dish or a technique and use them to your advantage to step outside of the box and get away from reading as you cook.

Let’s take the confit method for example.  If we break it down what do we have?  You have a rich fat used to poach something with flavoring added to the oil to enhance the flavor.  In the example I gave you I used goose fat and goose meat or more commonly used duck fat and duck legs.

So we have a fat, a protein or item to be cooked, herbs and spices.  If you are a vegetarian wanting to do something with this then try thinking along this path.  What is in season that you want to use up from your garden or what is something that you really like to eat? 

Tomatoes have just come to the end of their season so what if you took some cherry tomatoes, some thyme and rosemary and poached them in a nice grape seed oil.  Once you have done this, you can then seal them in jars and you have something for later in the winter to add to a sauce or even make a vinaigrette out of.  If you start thinking like this then you will not be forced to eat tons of items from your garden all at once.  You can spread them out over the seasons to last longer. 

If you understand the origin of the dish then you can use the same methods or reasoning and twist them to create your own dishes.

Let’s take a pesto sauce and throw a fun twist into it to create something of your own.  A basic pesto should have basil, garlic, Parmesan cheese, pine nuts, and olive oil.

If we take each ingredient and switch them up you are left with something new and unique to your liking.  Change the basil for another herb like cilantro or mint or even both.  Maybe you have do not like pine nuts so you use almonds or cashews.  Perhaps you have a nut allergy so try using seeds such as pumpkin seeds or sunflower seeds. 

I have always lived by the way that each ingredient that is in a dish should play a specific role to round out the dish.  In the case of a classic pesto, the pine nuts help the sauce from having an oily or thin outcome.  They help thicken up the pesto to give it a better finish on the tongue and give a slightly creamy texture with a very subtle bite. Since it has some viscosity to it, it will coat the ingredients it is used for like pasta or a bread. 

The herbs give it a beautiful color as well as the main flavor component.  Maybe you have a ton of kale or Swiss chard in your garden so try swaping out the herbs and make a pumpkin seed kale pesto. 

This is how all good chefs think when they are trying to branch out of their comfort zone on a very basic level. As we move forward with more blogs and videos we will raise the bar and get into more advanced techniques.

To understand and follow me on this train of thought, you will still need to do some reading and study a little but, in the long run you will find  yourself not looking at recipes the same way ever again. Instead of an in-depth study of the recipe, it will be more of a skim. 

I am not going to share a recipe with you on this blog but I will however ask for this.  Email me or leave a recipe in the comment section with your own creative pesto recipe and what you used it for.  I want to see you challenge yourself and share your creative side with me.

Warm three beet salad/spicy candied pecans/soft goat cheese/curry & Kaffir lime pesto

Let your inner chef shine!!!

4 thoughts on “Understanding the Basics

  1. Nice job Jamie and I am with you knowing the roots help you get the most out of a dish. I look for concepts when learning from chefs, just as you did here. When I look at recipes I try to glean the concept. Perhaps you can expand on the different oils. I use grapeseed oil, that you mentioned, most often due to zero taste and high smoke point. Keep it coming.


    1. Thanks Tony
      The type of oil should be used based on your application.
      For confit you want to use a high temp oil or fat. If you used something other than duck fat for confit ….be sure to infuse as much flavor as possible with things like garlic herbs spices so that the items you are cooking pick up the flavor


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