Pass the butter – and the salt! Properly used, these everyday ingredients can elevate your food.
A couple of months ago in a stylish new downtown Toronto restaurant, I enjoyed what I thought to be a highly accomplished meal of the modern French style. It had begun, convincingly, with a amuse-bouche consisting of a miniature edition of one of my favourite tricks with potato from the French culinary canon: pommes soufflées.
In case you are not familiar with them, be advised that pommes soufflées are exactly as they sound. They are potatoes bloated like aroused pufferfish, bronzed and crisp on the exterior, while inside, a foundation of lightness and hot air and potato-scented steam.
The trick of them is to slice potatoes in discs, then blanch them in oil until air pockets form inside,. Then you must drain and rest and cool them and, finally, drop them in oil that is much hotter still – which causes the air pockets inside them to inflate like balloons just before it renders their exteriors crisp and set.
According to legend, the world’s finest accompaniment for grilled Dover sole was invented by accident back in 1837 when a French chef preparing an elaborate meal had to back off and wait because his guests were late. When they finally showed up and he returned his half-cooked potatoes to the fryer, he was shocked to see them puff up into this new state of perfection.
If only it were that easy. If you have ever tackled the side dish at home, you will know that you need a lot of skill and luck on your side. The potatoes need not be of a certain kind (waxy) and a certain age (old). You must cut them in a very particular octagonal shape and get the thickness just so. And even at that, half of them invariably turn out more like potato chips than potato pillows. Which is why I was so impressed by the rule-breaking round and miniature ones that kicked off that recent meal in Toronto.
“But that’s easy,” Kristian Eligh, chef at Vancouver’s Hawksworth Restaurant, said over a recent nightcap there, “All you have to do is …”
Okay, I’ll tell you. There is a new and improved way going around to make pommes soufflées. Never mind the shape-cutting or even peeling the potatoes. All you have to do is slice some potato paper-thin on a mandoline, then brush it lightly with egg white, sprinkle it with corn starch and, finally, lay another sheet of potato right on top of it – or any shaped cutter you like – and punch out your two-ply potato disc with a 100 per cent puff rate guaranteed.
If these sorts of new-and-improved cooking techniques turn your crank and change your life as they do mine, you should probably be spending more time hanging out with chefs, as I do.
And if you fancy collecting tricks like how to clarify stocks into consommés with gelatin and refrigeration instead of heat and egg white’s or how to best use a Silpat to speed-cool cookies, tuiles and crumbles, you will have to. Because such skills are too esoteric for anyone to want me to focus on here.
But I will happily instead convey some of the more practical knowledge chef’s and experience have taught me.
To begin, let it be said that the No. 1 rule that governs the professional restaurant kitchen is exactly the same as the one that should direct your own initiatives at home: never let your reach extend beyond your grasp.
When a great Michelin-starred chef is cooking a wedding banquet for 200, he doesn’t do a tasting menu. And neither should you when eight people are coming for dinner. Stick to what you know, keep it simple and get it right – 0r better.
Now then, let’s get started. Over my 20 years as a food writer, I have spent a lot of time watching chef’s cook and give instruction in their restaurant kitchens coast-to-coast – and abroad.
Far too many chefs and restaurants than I can enumerate here. I am indebted to many of them for obscure know-how. but when it comes to practical day-to-day approaches to cooking, I certainly gleaned the most form Mark McEwan and his excellent team of chefs at his four restaurants while I worked with them on two cookbooks – for which I am home tested and wrote some two or three hundred recipes.
There was a lot to take away from all that. But for starters, I will focus on two big reasons restaurant food tastes a lot better than yours. Two reasons it tastes brighter and more assertive and luxurious on the palate and its flavours are more enticing than your own. They are butter and salt.
I am not advocating they be used to excess, just that they be deployed correctly, to more advantageous effect. Salt first. Salt is your friend. Anyone who fears an excess of salt in their diet should just stay away from junk food and processed food of any kind, like I do. But if you’re going to cook, use salt properly and often.