Eating in America is not what it used to be. Gone are the days of gathering around the dining room table for an evening dinner with family or friends, actually talking with each other, recounting the day's events.
Families and singles alike have are caught in the maelstrom of dining on the run. Why prepare a meal for one? Let someone else do it and the dishes. Carry out is much easier.
Especially now, these days, this season--as spring approaches--too many things to do to take time to sit down and eat.
Sixty percent of mothers work outside the home; coupled with the fact that as children are driven to and from a countless list of activities after school and on weekends, and as the youth of driving age are driving themselves to their activities, the idea of eating together as a family is not even much of a memory. Maybe an historical oddity.
The ease of pulling up to an impersonal menu board, requesting your food order into an inanimate object, hurriedly grabbing your meal through the pick-up window so as to keep the line moving, and then dig into the bag as you leave the drive-through is the way to get there on time.
And why not? It's too easy, especially with the number of restaurants available. The National Restaurant Association (NRA) reports that the nation has 935,000 restaurants, with an average of 8,000 added each year, and moreover, it is estimated that sales should increase by 5 percent to $537 billion this year, according to the NRA Industry Forecast.
The average household expenditure for food away from home in 2005 was $2,634 or $1,054 per person, according to the NRA. Food industry sales on a typical day are estimated at $1.5 million. And, it should come as no surprise that 12.8 million people are employed in the restaurant industry, making it the nation's largest employer outside of government.
Locally, the Oklahoma Restaurant Association estimates that more than 54 billion meals will be eaten at restaurants this year. That is a lot of eating outside the home. Although the NRA reports that restaurants continue to grow in popularity, the average American consumes 76 percent of meals at home -- which includes not just preparing a home-cooked meal, but eating a carry-out meal at home.
Here are some more interesting numbers provided by the NRA: 37 percent of consumers used curbside takeout at a table-service restaurant; 59 percent of table-service restaurant operators offer televisions for customer entertainment; 57 percent of consumers use delivery to their home or office if offered by table-service restaurants; and four out of five consumers agree that going out to a restaurant is a better way to use their leisure time than cooking and cleaning up at home.
All diners, it seems, can be divided into three camps: those who eat-in at restaurants; those who eat-out (in the car) as soon as they pick up their food at the carry out window; and those who order-out but eat in their homes.
Still, stats indicate that slightly more than three quarters of Americans' meals are eaten at home. Why not prepare those meals, or at least some of them the old fashioned way--from a recipe.
It's not as difficult as one would think. Sure, it would be difficult to compete with what a trained chef can do in a restaurant kitchen, yet with a few basic tips from these experienced chefs and a little patience, most anyone can prepare of fine gourmet meal at home.
And it gets easier with practice.
It seems these basics revolve around four areas - kitchen cooking essentials, a.k.a., the equipment needed; studying the recipes very well before ever beginning; preparing the food; and jumping right in to begin the cooking.
The Home as Restaurant
Matthew Amberg, Chef de Cuisine for the past two years at Palace Café, 1301 E. 15th St., had some interest in cooking growing up, but later as he began cooking more and more, found that he was good at it and pursued that talent.
He says his favorite kitchen essential is a tasting spoon, "to taste all that goes out" onto the plates. This is essential, he says, to knowing that the food tastes as it should.
No doubt one of the most successful chefs in Tulsa is the Polo Grill's Robert Merrifield, who agrees that tasting the food is of utmost importance. In fact, he offers three main tips to cooking meals at home, the first being to "taste food as you go along cooking it."
He says it is a "fundamental mistake not to," adding that you do not want to make guinea pigs out of your guests. Robert and wife Ouida are proprietor chefs at Polo Grill, 2038 Utica Square.
"I teach all chefs some basic techniques like a Cooking 101 class, explaining the mistakes people make that would make them a better cook," Robert says.
And based on his many awards in the culinary world, cooks should heed his advice. Recognized at the local, regional and national levels, Polo Grill has received the Wine Spectator Award for nine consecutive years, as well as having the honor of Best of Award of Excellence for the past six years. Robert has been named as a "Celebrated Chef" by the National Pork Producers Council and was sent to Russia and China as a culinary good will ambassador.
Another important tip comes from a person long in the food industry, Tim Baker. Buying professional cooking equipment is essential, says Baker, owner of The Brasserie Restaurant & Bar, 3509 S. Peoria, who has more than 20 years experience.
He, along with Justin Thompson, Executive Chef of this new classic French cuisine restaurant, culled their ideas together and agreed that those who want to prepare gourmet meals at home must begin with good, restaurant-grade kitchen equipment, such as sturdy and well-made pans and utensils. He said to resist the temptation of buying at places such as Target and even Williams-Sonoma, but rather purchase kitchen equipment at a place specialty cookware store. Food will cook better and consequently taste better.
Essential handy gadgets? "A hand mixer," says Baker. "This is perfect to stick into a pan when making sauces, and it reduces the need for a Cuisinart." A blender (for soups) and a thin strainer are essential for sauces--a colander cannot be used in its stead.
Also, Baker says all good kitchens should have good olive oil, heavy cream, unsalted butter, kosher salt, a pepper mill grinder, lemons (for acidity, even if the recipe does not call for it), white wine, and fresh herbs.
Wine and fresh herbs are important. "Never use boxed wine because that is what your food will taste like." He said it does not have to be expensive; a good rule of thumb is to buy a wine that you would enjoy drinking and one that costs no more than $15.
Avoid dry herbs whenever possible (unless you're making a seasoning mix), says Baker, for the best result of the finished food taste. When fresh herbs are not available at the local market, Baker has these tips. "Dry herbs are much stronger that fresh herbs, so you'd want to use about one-half the amount of the dry herb to equal the fresh measurement. You can reconstitute the dry herbs somewhat by placing them in a dry skillet on medium to high heat for one minute. This reinvigorates the herbs."
Knives are also crucial in the kitchen. Baker says the basic knife group for any kitchen includes bread, paring, filet and a chef knife.
"The chef knife does not have to be a great big one," Baker adds, "an 8-inch knife will do. And, be sure they are razor sharp." He says more accidents happen with dull knives rather than sharp knives because of the slipping that can occur with a dull knife.
Choosing the right recipe is important. All three -- Baker, Amberg and Merrifield--agree that meals should be decided upon based on the food in season.
"When buying and preparing ingredients, select those in season, especially produce which will make a difference in the dishes. We will change our menu four times a year," says Baker, "to use what is in season."
He parallels that to wine, saying that the grapes and fruit will dictate how the wine will be from year to year.
You Need a Road Map
With the kitchen essentials gathered and the menu planned, studying the recipe before cooking is the next priority, say Merrifield and Baker.
Read the recipe over and over again before even beginning the cooking process. Look up cooking terms that you may not know. Most cookbooks will have a glossary of terms. An online search will quickly result in finding a cooking term definition also.
Know the recipe very well, so you can anticipate upcoming steps. If, from the cooking experience you have, there is any cognitive dissonance between what you know and what you are reading, sort it out. Practice the recipe a few times before preparing the dish to guests; you want to be sure you can prepare it and that its tastes meet your expectations.
"I cannot emphasize enough to do the meal at least once. We go through a series of tests with our recipes; we do not take the 'first generation' of anything to the customer," says Baker.
Third is food preparation. With the menu set and recipes studied, the next step is to "be prepared" to cook, says Baker.
"Prior to turning on the skillet, get the ingredients prepped and ready. Have everything chopped and measured." And, when possible, cook with the best possible ingredients. Baker says, "It makes a tremendous difference on the plate."
Having everything ready is very important; Baker offers the example that if the recipe calls for sautéing onions to the translucent stage before putting in another ingredient, as soon as the onions are ready is the time to add the next ingredient. Not having ingredients premeasured will cause the onions to cook past the translucent stage if time is taken to measure or prep the next ingredients. This seemingly minor change in the recipe has the potential to change the recipe's integrity.
Fire It Up
The final step is to jump right in and begin cooking. In doing this, we come back to Chef Merrifield's "Cooking 101" points. He insists that all protein (fish, meat, poultry, etc.) must be seasoned with salt and pepper--not doing this is a major mistake. Baker goes as far as to say that his restaurant philosophy is to always season ingredients.
Merrifield offers these suggestions when preparing to begin cooking with protein.
"Seasoning is a basic step, but I'm surprised by how many people don't season protein. For example, catfish. Some people will just dredge the catfish (to coat food with a dry mixture either by sprinkling, rolling, or shaking the food in a bag) through flour or cornmeal.
"When people do this, they are missing the opportunity to bring out the components of a dish." Merrifield says to season the flour or cornmeal first.
"How do you build flavors? Seasonings are what build the flavors in the dish." Merrifield repeats his first main steps in cooking gourmet at home: taste the dish as you go along and season as needed to add complexity to the product.
The next step in preparing protein (beef, pork chops, tuna), says Merrifield, is to sear (brown meat quickly over high heat) it.
Here are Merrifield's tips on searing: Season all sides of the protein or product. He stresses the importance of using kosher salt and not table salt. Kosher salt has a better feel to it than sea salt or table salt, the crystals are bigger and stick better to the protein, and it is 50 percent less salty than table salt.
(As an aside, another reason to use kosher salt over table salt is that table salt is treated with calcium silicate to help it flow freely. Often, this will leave a metallic aftertaste in the foods.)
Next, Merrifield says to have the pan nice and hot, so that when the protein goes into the pan, it will be seared quickly, to a golden brown hue. "Searing allows the product to hold in the juices, which, in turn, means you are allowing the product to hold in the flavor," he says.
After cooking the protein according to directions, the next step for Merrifield is the process of deglazing the pan such as with white wine or vermouth. "This is the best opportunity to make a sauce that complements the dish--the flour or cornmeal, salt and pepper."
"Deglazing" is a fancy way of saying you're going to add a liquid to the pan in which meat or other food was cooked in order to remove the juice and fat--glaze.
The liquid--usually broth or wine--is heated to loosen the browned bits left in the pan, and is often used as a base for sauce or gravy.)
Fat, he says, is flavor when cooking. Another tip at this stage, Merrifield suggests, is to "mound your butter" to the sauce to add a richness to it. He suggests adding a tablespoon or so depending on what was left during the deglazing process.
To further add complexity to the sauce, Merrifield suggests adding a stone-ground mustard or cream, herbs and spices to the sauce being prepared.
Amberg has one final idea about cooking gourmet at home. One essential thing every kitchen should have is a good, homemade veal stock. He suggests preparing a large batch and freezing it in ice-cube trays, so it is available to use whenever needed.
To make a basic veal stock, he begins with gathering the veal bones or roast bones and then putting tomato paste all over them. Fill a good stock pot with cold water and add the bones. Bring the water to a light boil, and simmer for 12 hours.
Then, strain the mixture and add sautéed mirepoix. For mirepoix, Amberg says to sauté a mixture of diced carrots, onions and celery with red wines and a little oil. Add this mixture to the strained stock and simmer again for three hours, then strain the stock again of the mirepoix.
This will reduce the stock even more to a nappe stage, which you know if you have achieved it, Amberg says, by taking a wooden spoon, dip it in the broth and hold it out sideways. If you can run your fingers through the sauce and the sauce separates and then runs right through, voila!
Amberg says he can start with 50 gallons of veal stock at the beginning of this process, and then after the reductions, end up with only 12 gallons of savory, rich stock.
This stock, says Amberg, can be used for sauces on steaks, or as the foundation for a good beef soup, or for braising dishes. (Braising is a cooking method by which meat or vegetables are first browned in fat then cooked in a small amount of liquid--this homemade stock--at a low heat for a lengthy period of time.
The long, slow cooking develops flavor and tenderizes foods by gently breaking down their fibers.) Amberg says this stock is good to use in any recipe that calls for beef bullion or beef stock. In addition, he says, this stock can be made from fish or chicken bones as well.
Amberg offers one final suggestion when preparing a meal. It's always, nice, he says, to have a cheese plate for guests--it looks impressive and the enzymes in the cheese are good for digestion, so it should be served after a meal, not before the meal. He recommends checking out LaDonna's Fancy Foods, 1523 E. 15th Street, for fine gourmet cheeses.
There are many--too many--cooking books and web sites that offer very good suggestions when cooking at home. A good plan is to pick a few well-known books and stick close to them. The All New All Purpose Joy of Cooking (1997) is a good source. (Reviews for the most recent 75th Anniversary Edition published in 2006 are fair -- I'd go with the 1997 version.) A few other suggestions include Cooking School Secrets for Real World Cooks by Linda Carucci and Culinary Artistry by Andrew Dornenburg and Karen Page, and the magazine Cook's Illustrated.
Who needs fast food when you can prepare much more savory meals at home? It's safer, and with these basic cooking tips, more Fun. All three chefs agree that home cooking enthusiast can cook like a pro, preparing a gourmet meal at home. Bon appetit!
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