Most of us learn to cook by first watching others do it. Maybe you’re a son whose mom made blue ribbon pies, or a daughter with her dad hanging from pizza at his dad’s pizza shop. Or someone, anywhere, once asked someone cooking on their stove, “So, how much salt did you just add?”
I learned a lot about cooking from my parents, especially my mother, and cooking with friends. But I’ve also learned from watching the cooking – to be precise, the end results of cooking – of hundreds of restaurant chefs.
I’ve reviewed restaurants here for 15 years, mostly in the 80’s and 90’s, to some extent in mind, having eaten and checked out thousands of restaurant meals.
Home cooking tips from a restaurant and food critic
Here’s (some) what I learned about home cooking by reviewing all of the restaurant’s meals. These are the lessons I take to the “fireplace”, especially when cooking for guests in my house. Sitting down to a meal at someone else’s table is akin to being a restaurant reviewer in a chef’s restaurant.
I remember writing frequent criticisms in my reviews, about how the butter on the table tasted “for the fridge” or how little or stale the bread was. These are little things (in the nature of little things, she adds) that a skilled chef should keep an eye on.
For example, in a perch, keep butter in its own shed, away from foods from which it can pick up scents and flavors. (This warning applies to many foods that may absorb the stench: for example, a piece of polenta to cool, or certainly several baked goods.)
Through restaurant meals all those years, I learned a lot of powerful cooking techniques, for example how hand-raised burgers excel, especially bagged and pre-packed pucks. How spongy are mushrooms, really, so I have to consider my hands when adding moisture (if any) when cooking or serving them.
Mushrooms are similar to meat as a vegetable matter and can be profitably cooked in the same way – on or over a high dry temperature.
I learned not to soak chopped nuts in a salad dressing for more than a few minutes lest they lose their crunch. Or watch out for how easy it is to shake off the crispness you’ve achieved on roasted veggies, the edge of a steak, or the bottom of a risotto by either letting it steam if it’s contained somehow (covered in a serving dish, for example) or by embarrassing it with sauce.
Some things really bothered me, mostly infractions, it turns out. I was ranking or rating a restaurant on the correspondence between what it says and what it serves on the plate. A really good pho joint got the same kinds of pluses as a fine dining establishment if both were honest in their own way.
One thing that totally bothered me: canned beef, which in my opinion looks and smells just like anything Purina dog wet. (It might taste like it too, but I can’t and won’t go there.) So, whenever I asked a server if the restaurant had made “its own beef hash” and they said he did but it didn’t, I was annoyed. Cooking from a can is re-cooking someone else’s cooking. Do not do it. Cook everything yourself.
I suppose the most I’ve learned about cooking from every restaurant review is also another form of honesty, i.e. buying the best quality ingredients you can afford, and preparing them simply or directly, with careful focus, while preserving the dish. Balanced (between textures, tastes, tastes, smells, in fact all the senses).
This sounds like a lot, and it really is, which means it also allows for play and pretend which can be its flaws. Eating out—and just as entertaining at the table—is fraught with the desire to show off, dazzle, and be dazzled.
It’s important to check this, just like a fall or winter coat at the door.
Grilled Portobello Burger
6 medium to large cremini or portobello mushrooms
6 buns or burger rolls with eggs (brioche)
1/4 to 1/2 cup high quality olive oil
Several grinding of black pepper
kosher or sea salt
Several tablets of herbs de Provence, crushed in the palm of the hand
Choose mushroom tops larger than the diameter of the cake, to allow for 25-50 percent shrinkage from the grill’s heat. Remove the stems of the mushrooms (use the stems later for broth or broth) and quickly clean or rinse any noticeable growth medium from them. If not sliced, slice or roll the buns crosswise along the equator leaving a slight “hinge” before slicing all of them.
Add the rest of the ingredients except the lettuce leaves in a small bowl and mix well. Just before grilling, brush the mushroom caps on both sides with the flavored oil.
Grill the lids on both sides until they release plenty of water and begin to darken well and turn “meaty,” taking care not to blacken or burn them. Put them aside. Toast briefly inside the buns on the grill. Put the lids on the cakes and spread the lettuce leaves over them. Serve with as many condiments or sauces as possible.
preserved meat hash
2 cups cooked beef, shredded and cut into small cubes
2 cups cooked waxy potatoes (such as Yukon Gold), cut into small cubes
1/3 cup heavy cream
1 medium onion, peeled and cut into small cubes
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided into 2 equal parts
Flat leaf parsley, finely chopped
Freshly ground black pepper
In a bowl, gently mix the beef, potatoes, and cream. Sit aside.
Over medium-high heat in a large skillet, preferably nonstick or seasoned cast iron, melt 2 tablespoons of butter and cook onions in it for 6-7 minutes to soften.
Add the remaining butter to the skillet, and when it’s melted, mix in the meat and potatoes, pressing everything down with a flat spatula to flatten it uniformly. Cook like this for 10 minutes, or until a crust forms on the bottom. (Peek to see how it will come.)
Next, brown the top side in any of three different ways: by grilling it near the grill element for 5-6 minutes; Flip the hash into broken sections and cook the new sides for 8-10 minutes; Or (this is the hardest but can be the most attractive) put a large plate over the hash in the skillet, flip both the pan and the saucepan together, then move the less-cooked side of the hash from the plate back into the skillet and cook that side for 8-10 minutes.
Garnish with chopped flat-leaf parsley and serve with plenty of ground pepper and hot sauce or ketchup. Hard-boiled eggs are a traditional addition, but any well-cooked eggs also work well.
sAll Bill St John at email@example.com