A Fearless Cook’s Culinary To-Do List

culinary to-do list

Note: Apologies for my sudden (and longer than expected) lack of posts during January. A very important person in our family became ill late last month and I’ve been spending most of my time helping out. My schedule is still not back to normal, but I hope to be posting more frequently. Many thanks for your patience and understanding.

Now that the New Years’ celebrating is over and everyone is settling into always-seems-to-be-snowing 2014 in earnest, I’ve been tossing around some things I’d like to accomplish this year, an informal to-do list of sorts. I’ve given up on setting resolutions, so this list is really more of a rainy-day/too-much-snow-on-the-ground/just-wanna-stay-in/play-hookie-from-life list that I can pick away at during the year. Mini goals, in no special order. Fun ways to spend time in the kitchen, to be sure.

I assembled a similar list when I was trekking to Gaithersburg, Maryland in 2012 for the Culinary Techniques course at L’Academie de Cuisine. By the end of many classes, I’d scribbled some to-do items in the back of my notebook; during those 6 months, I diligently set aside time the during the work week to re-create the recipes we made in class or practice the techniques we learned. Here are some of the things I accomplished:

Veal stock from scratch. I tackled this on a lazy Saturday. It was an interesting way to spend 10 hours, and, as it turned out, an incredibly relaxing and cathartic time. I roasted the bones (which you can usually find at local butcher shops and farmers markets rather than food stores); simmered them in a large stockpot with water, mirepoix (good knife skills practice), garlic, and a bouquet garni (a pretty package of thyme sprigs, one or two bay leaves, a couple of black peppercorns tied up with cooking string) until the stock turned a rich brown hue; and removed everything I put into the pot by pouring the stock through a fine mesh strainer. The resulting clean, unsalted stock could be used in many applications, such as a base for a hearty stew or pan sauce, or if I cooked the stock a little longer to become to a demi-glace, it could infuse a richer veal flavor into osso buco. And boy was I happy when I opened the freezer to see small containers and quart-size bags of my beautiful stock.
Re-created merguez. I was instantly smitten with this spicy lamb sausage that my Culinary Techniques instructor, Chef Patrice, made for our class. This treat, which originated in North Africa and became popular in France and the Middle East, was spicy – and addicting. Despite the extensive ingredients list, which included seasonings I never heard of, let alone cooked with, I was determined to make this. I followed the recipe verbatim, and hoped that my version of Chef Patrice’s dish would come close to his. To my great delight, my merguez packed a bold punch of spice, thanks to my new friends harissa and Raz el Hanout.
Conducted my own “balancing flavors” exercise. Chef Patrice taught our class how to season a dish balancing salty, sweet, bitter, and sour flavors. As Chef Patrice had done in class, I started with a big bowl of canned tuna. To that bowl I added salt and tasted it. Then I scooped three-quarters of the salted tuna into another bowl. To that bowl I added some mayonnaise (sweet) and tasted that version. Then I scooped three-quarters of the salted/mayo batch of tuna into another bowl, added bitters and tasted it. Then I scooped three-quarters of the salted/mayo/bitters tuna into the last bowl and added fresh lemon juice (sour) and tasted that tuna. What struck me most about this exercise was that I could taste each flavor as it was incorporated into the tuna. Try this at home and see if you can distinguish the flavors as you try to balance them in the tuna.
Improved my knife skills. I lugged large bags of veggies from the food store and spent lots of time cutting planks and sticks from carrots and chopping, dicing and mincing onions. This practice helped me focus on the technique to make more precise cuts, for sure. Extra perk: I had lots of snack bags of carrot sticks to munch on and plenty of diced onions to use.

With all I squeezed in while holding down a full-time job and driving to Maryland every Friday from July to December, I figured it should be easier to fit another to-do list into my less-busy schedule. Here’s my list so far for this year.

Cook more sauces. I’m kind-of cheating because I have a copy of “Modern Sauces” by chef/food writer Martha Holmberg. This book is chock full of takes on traditional sauces and fresh ideas for contemporary ones. The recipes are well written and easy to follow and the stunning photos guide you through the 100+ recipes.
Experiment with pesto. I love all kinds of pestos and want to create some interesting herb and nut combinations. It would be nice to freeze batches and bring them out to sauce beef or chicken, or add to homemade ricotta and serve with crackers when friends come over.
Make vegetable or fish stock. My basement freezer usually has six quarts of chicken stock (unsalted), so I thought it was time to branch out and add veggie or fish stock.
Make some bread the old-fashioned way. My husband and kids would love nothing more than me filling the house with the aroma of baked bread. And given that I’m a bread lover from way back, I can’t wait to start kneading dough and turning it into ciabatta, baguettes, breadsticks or a loaf of wheat bread.
Make yogurt. I make fresh ricotta fairly often, so I’m looking forward to turning out some yogurt and using it in smoothies, sauces, and other treats.
Read at least one food-related book every couple of months. Cookbooks don’t count. Two that I’m looking forward to are “Delancey” from the thoroughly-enjoyable-to-read Molly Wizenberg and a novel from Ruth Reichl, both coming in the spring.

Cheers for a new year of culinary adventures! What are some things on your list?

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White On Rice Couple

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Leite's Culinaria

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Cooking Classy

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David Lebovitz

Paris based chef baking and writing cookbooks

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