Preparation Techniques

In a restaurant, the chefs just cook.  They have helpers called prep cooks to do the mundane tasks such as chopping, peeling and all the other jobs that you have to do when preparing a meal or a recipe.  However, we at home, unless you have children or a husband to help, have to do this ourselves.  It is suggested that before you start a dish or recipe that you read the instructions carefully.  Then gather all of the ingredients you will need from the pantry, cupboard and refrigerator along with the implements needed to perform the various tasks.

Next you will want to do the prep work such as chopping, blending, toasting, etc.  Finally you can begin cooking.  Here are some helpful hints to assist you in doing some of the preparation work.

Beating Egg Whites to Soft Peaks

Place the egg whites in a glass or metal bowl.  Do not use a plastic bowl and make certain the bowl is squeaky clean with no oily residue.  Using a mixer, electric hand mixer or rotary beater, beat whites until they form peaks with tips that curl over when the beaters are lifted, but definitely leave a peak.

Beating Egg Whites to Stiff Peaks

Place the egg whites in a glass or metal bowl.  Do not use a plastic bowl and make certain the bowl is squeaky clean with no oily residue.  Using a mixer, electric hand mixer or rotary beater, beat whites until they form peaks with tips that stand straight when the beaters are lifted.

Beating Egg Yolks Until Lemony

Place the egg yolks in a mixer bowl and beat with an electric mixer on high speed about 5 minutes or until thick and lemon colored.

Caramelizing Sugar

Place granulated sugar (not sugar substitute) in a heavy skillet or saucepan.  Heat over medium-high heat without stirring until the sugar begins to melt; shake skillet occasionally.  Reduce heat to low; cook and stir frequently until the sugar is golden brown and completely melted.  Use for Caramel Flan or to give nuts a candy coating.  If adding liquid to caramelized sugar, be careful as it will flair up and bubble furiously.

Clarifying Butter

Melt unsalted butter over low heat in a heavy saucepan without stirring.  When the butter is completely melted, you will see a clear oily layer atop a milky layer.  Slowly pour the clear liquid into a dish or jar, leaving the milky layer in the saucepan.  Discard the milky liquid.  The clear liquid is the clarified butter.  Use as a dipping sauce for lobster, scallops, crab, shrimp, mussels, clams or artichokes.  Clarified butter also is good for pan frying or sautéing as it does not burn as easily as regular butter.  It is wonderful to prepare an omelet.

Cutting Fresh Pineapple

There are devices that will assist you in cutting pineapple, but I’ve not had good luck with them and you need a good deal of strength.  To do it by hand, first remove the crown or leaves by holding the pineapple in one hand and the crown in the other and twist in opposite directions. 

Next, trim both ends from the pineapple and stand the pineapple upright on a cutting board.  Starting at the top of the fruit and working down, cut off wide strips of peel with a sharp knife.  When finished, remove any eyes that remain with a knife or your fingernails.

To serve, cut the fruit into spears, slices or chunks, removing the hard core from the center of the pineapple.  If you want perfect rings, cut the pineapple into rings of the desired thickness.  Then use an apple corer to remove the core.  Using toothpicks, decorate a ham before baking with the rings.

Deglazing a pan

After sautéing or roasting, look at the bottom of the pan.  Those dark fod particles stuck to the bottom are caramelized drippings from meat juices.  This is called “fond,” a French term loosely meaning bottom or foundation.  Fond is loaded with flavor, and can be used to make gravy or added to sauces.  The best way to capture these flavorful deposits is by deglazing.  Add any liquid like wine, stock or water to the hot pan and start scraping vigorously while bringing the liquid to a boil.  This is your “foundation of flavor” for sauce or gravy.  Once the sauce or gravy has been completed by thickening and the addition of other ingredients, you may want to strain out any remaining chunks or bits of the fond, leaving a flavorful sauce or gravy.

De-veining Shrimp

When purchasing raw shrimp or prawns, you will want to remove the tiny black vein that runs from the top of the shrimp to the tip of the tail on the inside curve of the shrimp. This is called de-veining.  With a small utility knife, lay the shrimp with the curve is facing upward.  Using the point of the knife, slice a shallow cut.  You will see a black threadlike vein.  Merely lift it out and discard it on a piece of paper towel.  This vein can leave a rather bad taste if left in.  If purchasing frozen shrimp, it has often already been de-veined.  If unsure, check with someone in the meat or fish department.  Usually if it has been done, it will say so on the package.  You will become quite proficient at this after while.

Dissolving Unflavored Gelatin

Place the envelope of unflavored gelatin in a small saucepan.  Stir in at least ¼ cup of water or other liquid such as broth or fruit juice.  Let stand 5 minutes to soften.  Heat and stir over low heat until the gelatin is dissolved.  Once dissolved, the gelatin can be combined with other ingredients.  If used undissolved, gelatin forms rubbery lumps.

Softening unflavored gelatin when it is combined with at least ¼ cup sugar is not necessary.  Combine the gelatin/sugar mixture with liquid and heat immediately to dissolve the gelatin and sugar.

How to Butterfly Shrimp

To butterfly means to lay it open with a knife.  Place the shrimp with curve facing up on a cutting board.  Cut from top to tail, but not quite all the way through so that when it is opened, it will resemble a butterfly.  The term is also used to slice open a steak or pork chop, not cutting all the way through and placing stuffing between the two slices.  Then it is browned and baked.

Juicing Citrus Fruits

Cut the fruit in half crosswise.  Hold a citrus juicer atop a measuring cup or a bowl, or use a freestanding juicer.  Press each half of fruit into the point of the juicer, turning the fruit back and forth until all the juice is out.  Discard the pulp and seeds that collect in the juicer. 

If you merely need to squeeze a bit of lemon, lime or orange, cut the fruit in half crosswise.  Hold the cut side up to contain the seeds and squeeze over the recipe desired.  There are also little cheesecloth elasticized covers that you can place over the cut side of a lemon or lime that allow you to contain the seeds.  I’ve also used a double square of cheesecloth to do the same thing, wrapping it around the cut fruit and twisting cloth to hold it in place.  Then squeeze juice through the cheesecloth.

Making Crème Fraîche

Many recipes call for crème fraîche, a thick, tangy French cream similar to sour cream, but smoother and richer.  Its body and thickness comes from natural bacteria in unpasteurized cream.  But since this is an unpasteurized process, we have to improvise in the United states by using the natural fermenting agents in buttermilk.  Mix 1 cup heavy cream, ¼ cup buttermilk and 1 tablespoon lemon juice.  Cover and let sit at room temperature for 6 to 8 hours; then refrigerate.  Crème fraîche is great for cooking because of its rich flavor and stability – it doesn’t break down when heated, unlike sour cream.

Melting Chocolate

Melt unsweetened, semisweet or sweet chocolate over low heat in a small heavy saucepan, stirring often to avoid scorching.  If uncertain, use a double boiler.  If the recipe calls for cooled chocolate, remove the pan from the heat and allow to stand until the chocolate is lukewarm.  Scrape the chocolate from the saucepan with a rubber or silicone spatula.  Avoid using the microwave as you can scorch it or change the consistency.

Peeling Tomatoes

Bring a pot of water to a rolling boil. Core the stem from the tomato and cut a small X through the blossom end.  With a slotted spoon or a spider, place it into the boiling water for 30 seconds.  Remove it with the slotted spoon and plunge it into icy cold water.  Using a paring knife, pull the skin off the tomato.  You can peel peaches and apricots the same way.

Preparing an Artichoke

There are two types of artichoke; one is the Globe artichoke and is round with the leaves hugging the vegetable closely.  The other is more pointed and the points stick up and away from the artichoke.  Both have very sharp tips so be careful working with it.  Both are very good.  Wash the artichoke to remove any dirt that may be on the vegetable or hidden between the leaves.  Inspect it when purchasing as sometimes an insect can get into the vegetable and destroy a good part of it between the leaves.  You will see it in most cases.

Next, cut the stem so the bottom will set flat when placed in a pan.  Then cut – in a sawing motion – about an inch or slightly less from the top of the artichoke.  Discard the tips and stem, but not in the garbage disposal.  Artichoke leaves do not process well and will clog it up.  Then with kitchen shears, remove about half an inch or the dark part of the remaining leaves and discard them.  You are now ready to cook the artichoke(s).  Place in a pan large enough to hold all artichokes in a single layer.  Add about 2 inches of water.  Add a tablespoon of salt and cover the pan.  Bring to a boil, turn down heat and simmer for 40 to 50 minutes or until a sharp fork penetrates easily, but it isn’t turning mushy.

Remove from heat and lift artichokes out with a large spoon or spider into cold water for a few moments.  Invert them in a strainer so water drains out from between the leaves.  Allow to stand a few minutes until cool enough to handle.  Grasp about an inch of the center leaves and pull them out; discard those leaves.  Gently spread the leaves until you have removed the reddish leaves and can see the soft spiny center.  With a grapefruit spoon, gently scrap this layer away from the firm heart of the artichoke, removing all of it.  At this time it is ready to serve.  You can fill it with a dipping sauce or leave it as is and serve with clarified butter on the side.  I like to just use a mixture of mayonnaise, lemon juice and crushed garlic with a dash of Tabasco and pour into the center of the prepared artichoke.  Try placing a piece of heated Canadian bacon in the center and a poached egg on top.  Top with hollandaise sauce with extra on the side.  Then dip the meaty part of the leaves into the center, turn leaves over and scrape meaty part between your teeth to remove it from the leaf.  Place a bowl in the center of the table to hold discarded leaves, or use a bowl large enough to be able to place leaves along the edge of the artichoke.

Sectioning Oranges or Grapefruit

Cut a thin slice from each end of the fruit.  Using a sharp utility knife, and cutting from the top of the fruit down, cut off the peel and the white membrane.  It can be done in a spiral removing the peel in one piece. Then working over a bowl to catch the juice, cut between one fruit section and the membrane down to the center of the fruit.  Turn the knife and slide it up the other side of the section next to the membrane; repeat.  Remove any seeds from the fruit sections.

Separating Eggs

Place three bowls on the counter.  If you have an egg separator, place it on bowl #1.  Crack the egg on the side of the bowl and gently drop it into the egg separator, allowing the white to fall into the bowl.  Place the yolk into bowl #2 and pour the white into bowl #3.  Place the egg separator onto bowl #1 again and repeat.  Removing the white into a separate bowl and starting with the original bowl insures that no yolk drops into the egg whites if you plan to beat them until stiff as even the tiniest amount of yolk will prevent the whites from beating properly.

If you do not have an egg separator, start with the three bowls anyway.  Crack the egg gently on the side of the bowl and carefully allow the white to spill into the bowl, containing the yolk in the shell and pouring it back and forth until all the white has been separated.  Put the yolk in bowl #2 and pour the white into bowl #3.  Continue as above.

Sieving berries

In a blender or food processor, blend or process raspberries or blackberries or other berries with large seeds until smooth.  Place a sieve over a bowl.  Pour the pureed berries into the sieve.  Using the back of a wooden or plastic spoon, stir and press the fruit through the sieve.  Discard any seeds that remain in the sieve.

Sifting Powdered Sugar

When making recipes with powdered sugar, note that the powdered sugar from a box (one pound) requires sifting when making frosting or other dishes as it may clump.  Powdered sugar that comes in the bag has already been sifted.  Spoon the powdered sugar into a sifter or sieve.  Sift into a bowl or directly onto cakes, bars or cookies.  For a patterned look, place a paper doily to template on top of the food.  Lightly sift the sugar over the doily/template.  Remove the doily/template carefully as not to disturb the pattern.

Toasting Nuts, Seeds and Coconut

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.  Spread the desired nuts, seeds or coconut into a shallow baking pan.  Bake for 5 to 10 minutes or until light golden brown, stirring once or twice.

Using a Pastry Bag

Place preferred tip into pastry bag.  Fold down the top of the bag 3 or 4 inches.  Holding the bag near the tip, spoon about ½ cup of the desired mixture into the bag.  If using whipped cream you may add more.  Unfold the top and twist closed.  Hold the twist between your thumb and forefinger and gently squeeze the bag to release the contents.  Guide the bag with your other hand.  If making rosettes, hold bag directly over the area being decorated and squeeze gently; dip down slightly and lift.  You may need to practice on a sheet of waxed paper or a dish.  You may then reuse the contents.  This is a wonderful way to fill deviled eggs, refill twice baked potato skins, decorate a cake with frosting, make rosettes on a pie or dessert with whipped cream or any time you feel that it would enhance a particular dish.

I have used a plastic bag by snipping off a corner when I didn’t have a pastry bag available.  Purchasing several tips would be advisable.  Tips and the bag are available at your local craft store where cake decorating supplies are sold.

Using Fresh Herbs

You may chop with a knife or put the herb in a deep container such as a glass measure and snip it with kitchen shears. With larger leaves such as basil, roll the leaves tightly from point to stem and then slice.  This is called chiffonade.  If you wish it more chopped then snip with the shears in half crosswise.  To substitute fresh herbs for dried, use three times more of the fresh.  The dried are more concentrated.  When using fresh herbs in a cooked dish, wait until it is nearly cooked before adding herbs.  They will remain bright in color and retain their flavor.

Whipping Cream

For best results, place the mixing bowl and beaters in the freezer for 10 minutes or the refrigerator for 30 minutes prior to whipping cream.  Using an electric mixer or rotary beater, beat the whipping cream just until it mounds slightly and soft peaks form when the beaters are lifted.  Avoid over-beating the whipping cream or it will turn to butter.

There are devices that will whip the cream quickly without beating.  It uses C02 cartridges and comes with a dispensing tip.  You can then store the dispenser with the whipped cream in the refrigerator for several days much as you would the stuff in the can.