Category Archives: Food

Basic Ingredients – LBB#4

What I DON’T want to do when talking about ingredients is to get into a long-winded discussion of “the best” this or that. I believe in a few basic principles about choosing ingredients but am in no way of the “food snob” camp. Remember two things I learned very early: just because it’s more expensive doesn’t always mean it’s any better, and you can still screw up the finest ingredients by improper preparation. Yes, by all means try and make sustainable choices but buy what’s in your budget, from where you can and want to get it, and don’t think that if you are seen shopping at a regular supermarket for something you are somehow blaspheming your commitment to good cooking. Good cooking comes from the heart and the soul, and shopping for ingredients shouldn’t be a painful, guilt-ridden exercise! Now that’s said, we can move on and talk about the raw materials.

No matter what you are purchasing, choosing the right ingredient for the task is as important as the right task for the ingredient. In general terms, buying things that are local, grown in their intended life cycle (not MAJORLY aided or enhanced), freshly sourced, and in season is a very good place to start. Know where your food comes from, and try and ensure it comes from fairly close to home as much as you can, are my guiding principles. In any set of variables, you will have a range of possible results, and starting off with ingredients most likely to give success to the cook can be the difference between the acceptable and the extraordinary. A few pointers in each of the following categories can help not only in the creation of great dishes at any one time, but the anticipation of potential menu items based on what one can expect to find in the market at any given time.

Fruits and vegetables

Get to know your local growing season. For our local area of the Pacific Northwest, that means something to look forward to at each time of the year: from asparagus, rhubarb, morels, and peas in spring, to berries, stone fruit, and tender young vegetables in the summer, a segue to tomatoes, followed by mushrooms, squash, and finally root vegetables and overwintered storage crops before it starts all over again. The converted will never again eat a strawberry outside of June, or a tomato before July or after September. Some of these micro seasons are only a few weeks long, so the creative cook has only a handful of kicks at the can before a long wait to try something new. This anticipation becomes a huge source of inspiration, and I have often found myself planning a meal in my mind a year away, “next time we have some….”

Meats and poultry

Find out who supplies your favourite butcher, as great meat and poultry is as much about the handling as the raising in my experience. Small farmers quite often only deliver supply once a week or so, so knowing which day the fresh stuff comes in is a great piece of information to have. Well raised, well handled meats and poultry provide not only a terrific base for the meal, but often have depth of flavour and texture so that they need very little in the way of additional help to make them taste great. One of the greatest complements I ever received from a customer was after serving a him a very simple dish – roasted organic chicken breast, herb gnocchi, and a mushroom ragout. Tom said to me, “Chef, that’s what I like about you – you’re not trying to hide anything. You just put a bit of salt on it and send it out.”

Fish and seafood

As with produce, and perhaps even more so, seafood requires knowledge of the season, a good trusting relationship with your source, and adaptability. As fishing in BC is often subject to short seasons and openings, inclement weather, and a high level of perishability, my goal is always to first decide on a style of fish and then see what looks great before finalizing the menu. You may head to market intending for halibut but find some ling cod looks better, or be on the hunt for a fine piece of deep red tuna to find nothing that lives up to the vision. Being able to decide to make a U-turn and prepare something completely different is usually the right thing to do if what you were looking for doesn’t live up to your expectations. Of course, if there is an ABSOLUTE need to have a certain product, I always try and make contact at a few key junctures: when planning the menu, call ahead and see if what you are looking for will be in season, check a few days in advance to get a sense of the delivery schedule and put in any special requests (If I’m not buying a whole fish or fillet, I always ask for the front portion of larger fish, as they have better yield and are generally more even in thickness than tail sections) It is not always a bad thing to purchase a product at its peak of freshness and then freeze it for the needed day, especially if it means not buying something that has been sitting in the display cooler for several days. In fact, certain types of seafood, such as prawns and sablefish, are better purchased frozen, as they are processed immediately after coming out of the water on board the vessel.

Herbs and spices

Fresh herbs make the world of difference, especially if you have a garden and can snip them as needed. Plant those that will be hardy year round, such as thyme, sage, and rosemary, and then supplement with spring and summer plantings of the finer varieties. Spices do fade over time, so purchase them in small amounts, whole if you can, and toast and grind them just before using.

The pantry

A well stocked pantry is the basis on which so many fine meals can be created. In general, you want to have enough variety so that you can be creative, but not so much that stuff sits around forever. I usually try and have the following on hand, and from this can usually go a few different directions or tackle most recipes. Feel free to add or subtract according to what you like to cook and eat:

Dry goods:

Wheat flours: all purpose will do for most things, but if you make a lot of bread or pastry, keep those around
Other flours, etc: cornmeal, rice flour, corn starch, rolled oats
Sugars and sweeteners: white, brown, and icing sugars, honey and maple syrup
Leaveners/baking supplies: baking powder, soda, instant yeast, cream of tartar
Vinegars: white, red wine, cider, balsamic, rice
Salt: coarse and fine sea or rock salt
Nuts: a couple of varieties you like (I am partial to hazelnuts, almonds and pecans myself)
Oils: vegetable, olive (extra virgin), sesame
Rice: one long (basmati, jasmine) and one medium or short grain variety (arborio, carnaroli, calrose), your preference
Pulses and whole grains: A variety or two of dried lentils or beans and some whole grains if you like to use them
Chocolate: Dark and white couverture or pellets, cocoa powder
Spices: A good variety plus a couple of blends (we’ll talk about those later)
Vanilla: a good extract is fine, but having a couple of beans around is always nice
Liquor: white and red wine, sherry, dry vermouth, port, a couple of liqueurs you like (coffee, orange, and nut flavours are always good to have). Buy stuff that’s not expensive but that you also like to drink so it doesn’t go bad!
Canned goods: plum tomatoes, tomato paste, coconut milk
Dry pasta: a long noodle and a shorter variety
Dried fruits: a few things you like
Panko or other dry bread crumbs

Perishable staples and condiments:

butter or margarine (don’t be that way, I use it all the time for certain things)
sour cream or yogurt
cheese – parmesan and something that melts nicely
fresh garlic and ginger
dijon mustard (smooth and grainy)
prepared horseradish
your preferred hot sauce
some sort of chili paste – sambal, sriracha, etc
soy sauce
sun-dried tomatoes
stocks (chicken/beef/veg, in freezer or tetra packs)

Non-food items:

aluminum foil (heavy duty)
parchment paper
plastic wrap
butcher’s twine
bamboo skewers
zipped plastic bags for marinating and storage
storage containers with lids
non-stick spray

That should be a good start for most people. Next, let’s talk about tools and equipment!

Think like a Chef – LBB#3

The best chefs I’ve met are ones that can do two things really well:

a) have a clear vision for what the finished product will be and then go out, select the best ingredients and prepare them accordingly
b) when presented with any number of ingredients, quickly be able to determine how best to utilize them to their fullest potential and in combination

Cooks that can do both experience the complete freedom that comes with those skills. The exhilaration that comes the first time you walk into a market with nothing but some money and have a great meal determine itself is incomparable. Some people may never get excited by this, and always set out, recipe and shopping list in hand. There is nothing wrong with that approach and it usually delivers predictable results, but to truly feel in command of the craft and be confident that you will be able to make something interesting no matter what you find is something else. I liken it to the experience so many others who work with their hands express in various ways and metaphors – that it is the block of stone itself and its characteristics that determines the finished sculpture, if you will.

This approach opens the doors to a world of new ideas and infinite possibilities, so that one begins to stop following recipes and ideas they have seen and instead begins to create them easily. The intention of these scribbles is committing these principles to heart and also to provide some reference to those basics upon which all good cooking is built.

(Forgive the overdone cliché, but I’ve always been a “teach a man to fish” person myself, and believe wholeheartedly that the greatest gift you can ever share with others is the knowledge you have gained, and hopefully they will do the same.)

So where to begin? let’s talk about making food INTERESTING!

In 1989, I read “Chez Panisse Cooking” by Paul Bertolli and Alice Waters, and it really changed the course of how I felt about approaching food as a young cook. In addition to some great recipes and ideas, there are two chapters in that book, one on quality ingredients and another on making a menu that have lasted with me my whole career. My copy is well worn and full of highlighted passages and key concepts that any cook should take to heart. One that has always stuck with me is this:

“A menu that does not excite those who cook it will not excite those who eat it”

SO true, and in order to make food exciting to cook, we have to look at what makes food exciting to eat.

Food touches all of the senses. We taste, we smell, see colour and shape, feel texture and temperature, and hear sounds as we eat.

All of these elements together create a palette from which an infinite number of combinations affects you differently whenever you put food on your table. Chefs are always trying to push the senses to the limits in never before thought of ways, but the underlying principles that make food taste good are unchanged. Here are those I always go by:

Variety and diversity in textures and the elements of taste make for interesting food; avoid monotony
Contrast is as important as harmony; but avoid extremes and imbalance
Food that comes from the same place (time/season or location) usually works together
Fresh and ripe rules every time

Let’s explore this a bit more, as I walk you through the process I use to go from “what am I going to make” to a finished meal:

Step 1: Visualize

When deciding what to cook, we have to draw on what we have to work with. Working through the following will usually have you pretty close to an idea of what you want to do.

Available ingredients – what do I have, or can I get NOW!
Past experiences – what worked, what didn’t, likes, dislikes, etc
Olfactory (smell) and gustatory (taste) memory – picture how something will taste or smell in your mind
Sensory triggers – something catches your eye or a smell, a sound, the feel of a raw ingredient gets you thinking of an idea

Step 2: Flavour profile

Once you have the basic idea or main ingredients in mind, think of the flavour profile.

There are a varying number of elements to all of the things we taste depend on your cultural background, but essentially there are a handful of elements that compose all of the taste profiles found in the foods we eat. Western definitions of taste traditionally have broken everything down into 4 major elements:


Asian cultures have added the following to the list

Umami (literally “pleasant savory taste”)

Step 3: Introduce the other senses

The other senses contribute to the overall experience in a variety of ways. Imagine if food didn’t have the following attributes, which in many cases provide our first impressions, the lasting memories, and our overall like and dislike of a certain dish or dining experience:

Temperature – both real and perceived (such as mint as a cooling sensation or spice as heat)
Colour – use a wide palette
Shape – create visual interest
Texture – some of each creates contrast
Mouthfeel – dry, fat, rich
Smells – avoid overpowering or distracting
Sound – noisy, difficult foods may spoil a mood or setting

And always try to remember a few guidelines as you go along:

Think outside the box – try new things
Too much of anything is never a good idea
Great dishes hit on multiple senses in a variety of ways
Look to classic combinations for inspiration, then make logical leaps: If flavours work together in one context they will do so in another. A great example of this is the recent trend of bringing savoury pantry items into desserts.

For a bit of fun, try this experiment I did with my co-workers to illustrate the above concepts.

Select four ingredients that each have a very distinct flavour on their own, but have different characteristics, and not things that you would normally think to put together. Try and touch as many elements as you can from the lists above.

I chose the following, based on what I found when I opened my cupboard and fridge:

Salt and vinegar potato chips (salty, sour, crispy)
Smooth peanut butter (creamy, nutty, smooth, salty, sweet)
Spicy red pepper jelly (sweet, spicy, cool)
Fresh cilantro leaves (astringent, umami, chewy)

Now, try combining them and see what “the whole” tastes like. We took a chip, spread it with the peanut butter, topped it with a thin layer of the jelly, a few fresh cilantro leaves, topped with another chip, and then ate the resulting “sandwich” all in one bite. We found that the dominant characteristic of each item disappeared and settled into a more harmonious balance that had an interesting combination of texture and flavour that was actually quite pleasant. Let me know what you tried and if you had a similar experience!

Next up: Let’s talk about ingredients!

The Principles of Cooking – LBB#2

Cooking ANYTHING essentially boils down to a set of four basic principles:

1. selecting ingredients according to their preferred characteristics.
2. applying processes to the raw ingredients in order to transform them into finished products.
3. using a common set of known formulas in order to achieve the goals of # 2
4. evaluating the outcome and adjusting either 2 or 3 accordingly

The fundmentals of each of the principles can then be broken down further and applied according to the individual recipe or dish you are trying to prepare.

1. Selecting:

Every ingredient has its preferred set of characteristics, and depending on the desired outcome, which of those characteristics is most important may vary greatly. A slightly under-ripe fruit may be exactly what you are looking for if you are wanting to accent its acidity, firm texture, or if it is being cooked for a long period of time. However, if it is intended to be served raw and at its ideal level of sweetness, then being at the perfect stage of ripeness and its unblemished appearance is key. However, a sauce, soup, or other item requiring a soft smooth finished texture may require the cook to search out over-ripe fruit, which ordinarily may have been removed from the produce rack and relegated to a discount shelf in the back. Making the determination before you go out shopping, or having the outcome in mind will ensure that the proper selection is contributing to the success of the finished product.

2. Processes:

Every stage in the cooking process has an impact on the final product. If you have selected the wrong product to begin with, you can never expect the desired results. Likewise with the preparation techniques, using the wrong technique or poor execution will determine or compound the results, Every part of the process, whether it is the way a product is peeled or cut before cooking; how it is prepared, mixed, or seasoned; how heat is applied and when; whether or not there is moisture present in the cooking process; and how it is treated after cooking will all affect the finished product, so here a little bit of knowledge goes along way. Understanding the basic principles of food science form your ability to not only achieve great results, but adjust for any variables you may encounter along the way.

3. Formulas:

In addition to understanding the importance of the processes and procedures one uses in the kitchen, having a repertoire of known formulas or basic recipes is essential. Cooking and baking always depend on the right combination of ingredients, the right proportions, and the right cooking method. For instance, knowing the ideal proportion of dry ingredients to liquid for whatever it is you are trying to prepare is essential. You can take the same ingredients, and by varying the proportions and methods, end up with very different results. A cake batter, pancake, muffin, biscuit, and cookie all have similar ingredients, but because all are proportioned, mixed, and cooked differently, they are all distinctly different finished items. The cook who understands the basis of these differences has then an infinite arsenal of recipes and his or her hands, and can set out to prepare a variety of things from any set of given ingredients.

4. Evaluating:

Now what if the results aren’t what you were intending? Sometimes this can be a discovery of itself, as some of the greatest recipes of all time have been “accidents”. Take Crepes Suzette, for instance. The cook turned his back for moment, in which time his sauce caught on fire. Not having time to prepare another, he tasted it, and found the result to be exceptional, so proclaimed it to have been designed that way. Knowing what the root cause to the most common problems can be allows the cook to use all of his or her senses, to make the changes necessary so that the desired results and the outcomes are aligned. This does take some trial and error at first, but an experienced cook can make adjustments on the fly in many cases and turn a potential failure into a probable success.

Learning and applying these principles in the kitchen will be the focus of this series. But before we get there, we’ll talk about how to “think like a chef”

The Chef’s Little Black Book

Today I am starting a new series – an idea I have for a book that has been sitting in a stage of partial completion for a while. If it will ever make it to print, I don’t know, but at least writing it this way I can get it all in one place and share for now as it comes together.

It starts something like this……….

Every great cook I have worked with has had his or her “little black book”, a collection of recipes and menu ideas gleaned from years of working alongside others who share the passion for food and cooking. In most cases it’s a shorthand list of formulas, great menu items, and notes to self about one’s experience spending thousands of hours behind a stove. This collection goes to form the chefs we become, and the broader one’s repertoire, the more source for inspiration there exists. I have held firmly to my belief that everyone in the kitchen makes a contribution to the knowledge base of the profession, and that collective brainpower has led me to years of inspired cooking in small restaurant kitchens and at home.

This experience and knowledge once closely scrutinized, comes down to several basic principles and approaches to food, ingredients, and technique. It is that combination that gives us the variety, as every recipe I have ever seen, know, or developed has been an extrapolation of a simple idea based on one of the fundamentals.

It is my goal in this series to share my personal collection of the basics, as well as an insight into how to take a relatively small set of ideas and turn them into an endless array of recipes, menu ideas, and memorable meals. What I want to get away from is the concept that cooking is about just following recipes. Cooking food is like playing music, my other great love. You can follow the score, but at the end of it all there are only 12 notes. Every great piece, song, or melody is derived from the ability of the composer to combine those 12 notes with an understanding of common combinations and fundamentals that work, sprinkled with a good dose of imagination and experimentation.

To transcend from merely following recipes to experiencing food in such a way that you can imagine an outcome, select the ingredients and put them together with a fairly close interpretation of what you set out to is truly a magical experience that those of us who have cooked professionally for many years probably take for granted, but one I want to share with you over the next little while.

So here it begins, my “little black book”

January 2013

A Month of Sundays

It has certainly been an interesting year. This time last year, I had my resignation letter written but not submitted, my stomach full of butterflies, and no certainty what I would be doing in the fall. I would never have ventured to guess that my life would be focused on thinking of how to help our next generation of young chefs attain their goals and learn their craft well without that involving me picking up a frying pan on a daily basis, but am happy to be in a position where that is actually the reality. I have neglected my musings here as I have been absorbed in much technical writing updating our provincial cooking programs and all of the related support materials, travelling around the province and meeting firsthand all of the schools that teach culinary arts and their local industry folks. What a great group of people we have here! It’s no wonder the food is so good in BC.

I have managed to squeeze out a few barbecues in between the raindrops, and have posted the first in a series of summer recipes from those dinners. I was out in Langley last week for a meeting and took the opportunity to swing by JD farms and pick up a free range turkey to celebrate the summer solstice. The first of the local strawberries graced our table as well, so I made my Grandmother’s famous summer fruit pie, a staple of any barbecue at the Green family compound. A few cold beverages on the patio nibbling homemade tortilla chips with tapenade and a scallop salsa was the perfect setting to pass the time catching up with some friends as we were seduced by the gentle smoking of said turkey nearby.

Other dinners have included a couple of “cowboy steaks”, a slow roasted pork shoulder, and the usual suspects of ribs, chicken, potato salad, and biscuits. I’ll get the recipes for those done before we hit the road for 3 weeks of an extended road trip through California, Arizona, Nevada, Utah starting mid July. Until then, happy cooking!