This page contains some of my general ideas about cooking as well as a few basic recipes I refer to from time to time in my posts so that I do not have to keep repeating myself.
Shapes of Pasta
When you buy a particular brand of pasta, no matter what the shape, the ingredients that go into it are more than likely the same. This does NOT mean that they all taste the same. There are many factors:
1. Mouth feel. There is a huge difference between how vermicelli (angel hair) and linguine feel in your mouth. It has to do with the thickness of the pasta as well as the shape.
2. Sauce capacity. Shells hold more sauce than spaghetti because of their reservoirs. Generally shapes like shells and rotini are good for thin sauces, whereas spaghetti can manage robust meat sauces.
3. Water absorption. Different shapes cook over different times and so absorb different amounts of water, mostly dependent on thickness. Certain shapes lose more starch in cooking than others.
4. Aeration. Some shapes, such as elbow macaroni, trap air and thus aerate the sauce as you bite them, changing the taste.
5. Quantity. You can stuff a lot more spaghetti on a fork into your mouth at one go than farfalle.
So . . . it is important to pair your pasta with your sauce to produce the desired effect. It’s also important to realize that in general in Italy pasta is not served with the sauce dumped on top. The cook blends the sauce and pasta together before serving. You should never be eating morsels of unsauced pasta.
Basic Egg Pasta
Nothing beats making pasta yourself. If you are used to making pastry dough it should be a breeze. There are just a few things to bear in mind. First is the flour that you use. Regular unbleached, all purpose flour works just fine, but for some of the thicker pasta shapes durum wheat may produce a better product. Generally I go with a half and half mix of durum and regular flour. Second, I find that having a pasta machine is very convenient, but not absolutely necessary. Pasta dough requires a fair amount of kneading to get the right silky texture; doing this by hand and with a rolling pin is a real chore. You can do most of the kneading by running the dough through the widest setting on the machine, doubling it over and running it through again until it achieves a nice silky texture. Third, DO NOT mix the flour and eggs in a bowl for the initial dough. Getting the right proportions of egg and flour requires a delicate eye. Make a mound of flour on your work surface, punch it down to form a hollow crater and crack the eggs into the middle. Then slowly incorporate flour from the inner walls of the crater with a fork, and then with your hands. Do not incorporate more flour than you need to form a shaggy ball. Fourth, I find that the narrowest setting on a pasta machine is usually too thin for practical purposes. Fourth, homemade pasta cooks very quickly. Don’t overcook it. Have a large pot of boiling, salted water ready and be hyper-vigilant. Once the pasta goes in it will usually be no more than 3 minutes (depending on thickness) before it is cooked. Check after 2 minutes, and as soon as it is done, drain it, sauce it, and serve. It will continue cooking from residual heat even after it is drained, so err on the side of underdone. It would be a shame to waste all the effort and end up with a soggy mess.
3 ½ cups flour
4 extra-large or 5 medium eggs
Mound the flour in the center of a large wooden cutting board. Make a well in the middle of the flour, add the eggs. Using a fork, beat together the eggs and begin to incorporate the flour starting with the inner rim of the well. As you incorporate the eggs, keep pushing the flour up to retain the well shape (do not worry if it looks messy). The dough will come together in a shaggy mass when about half of the flour is incorporated.
Start kneading the dough with both hands, primarily using the palms of your hands. Add more flour, in ½ cup increments, if the dough is too sticky. Once the dough is a cohesive mass, remove the dough from the board and scrape up any leftover dry bits. Lightly flour the board and continue kneading for 3 more minutes. The dough should be elastic and a little sticky. Continue to knead for another 3 minutes, remembering to dust your board with flour when necessary. Wrap the dough in plastic wrap and set aside for 20 minutes at room temperature. Roll and form as desired.
Note: Do not skip the kneading or resting portion of this recipe, they are essential for a light pasta
The Stock Pot
Have a big pot reserved as your stock pot. I mean big – 12 quarts (12 liters) or bigger. It should be heavy stainless steel. It will take time to mature. You need to dedicate it to its task. Also dedicate a place in the refrigerator where it can sleep at night.
Half fill the pot with water. Then toss in everything and anything – bones, peelings, scraps of all sorts. All your skins go in – onions, garlic, carrots, potatoes. All the carcasses from chickens and bones from stews and roasts. I mean EVERYTHING. Boil it all up for several hours. Then keep adding. Like a fine wine it matures over time.
Boil the pot once per day. Refrigerate overnight. This becomes your great reserve. Use the stock for gravies, soups, stews. Add water daily as you use up the stock — or, better, use the water that vegetables have been cooked in. You also need to strain it every few days to get rid of old bones and whatever else you chucked in.
Once in a while you need to clean out and start fresh – tragic moment. Scour the pot well, and start again.
This recipe comes from my sister, Jane Mendola, who used to own a bakery, The English Tart, on Staten Island, NY. It is foolproof if you follow the instructions to the letter.
Put 1 ½ cups of all purpose flour and 4 ozs of cold butter, sliced, into a food processor.
Turn the processor on and count to 10, not too fast (but not too slowly) – around 8 seconds.
Then trickle steadily into the feeder, 2 ozs of iced water and turn off the processor when it all comes together.
Turn out the dough and cut it in half.
Make a disc out of each half and plastic wrap them and refrigerate until ready to use.
The vast majority of recipes will tell you to marinate items such as meat and fish by putting the pieces in a bowl with the marinade and let sit, turning occasionally. Generally this is all right, but a far superior method is to use a Ziploc bag. Put the items into the bag with the marinade. Close the top and lay the bag flat on a counter so that you can distribute your items in ONE layer. If there are too many, divide between two or more bags. When the items are all in one layer, gently open a small hole in the top of the zip lock, being careful not to spill the marinade. Simplest way to do this is to fold up the top only. Carefully press out all the air in the bag and then seal it again. Now all the items are completely surrounded on all sides by the marinade and there is no need to do anything except refrigerate for the necessary time.
Here are three instructional videos I made to demonstrate the preparation of an Argentine tortilla. Part 1 is most useful because it concerns making a basic egg batter for a variety of dishes such as English pancakes and Yorkshire pudding.
Part 1 (The batter)
Part 2 (The filling)
Part 3 (The tortilla)
Weights and Measures
In the bulk of my recipes I give a detailed and precise list of ingredients. This is really a matter of convention as opposed to how I actually cook. In certain recipes, especially baking, exact measuring is very important. But in the kinds of savory dishes I make most commonly I don’t measure anything. I throw things in the pot by eye. BUT . . .as the dishes simmer I am tasting, tasting, tasting, and making adjustments as necessary. So, what you should take from my recipes is not so much precise measurements as a general idea to play with. Strictly speaking, all my herb and spice lists should be labeled “to taste” just as is typical with salt and pepper.
The same is true of the proportions of main ingredients. Sometimes I will make a beef stew, for example, but with almost no beef and laden with a mix of vegetables. Nor do you always have to stick with the ingredient list rigidly. If you want to substitute sweet potatoes for potatoes, go ahead. The kitchen police won’t arrest you. However, you do need to be mindful that certain ingredients are critical — especially if you are trying to recreate an ethnic or historic recipe.
Béchamel is traditionally made by melting a quantity of butter, and adding an equal part of flour to make a roux, which is cooked over gentle heat while stirring with a whisk. As it is a white sauce you must take care not to brown the roux. Then heated milk is gradually whisked in, and the sauce is cooked until thickened and smooth. The proportion of roux and milk determines the thickness of the sauce, typically one to three tablespoons each of flour and butter per cup of milk. One tablespoon each of butter and flour per cup of milk makes a thin, easily pourable sauce. Two tablespoons of each makes a medium thick sauce (use this for fish). Three tablespoons of each makes an extra thick sauce, such as used to fill croquettes or as a soufflé base. Salt and white pepper are added and it is customary to add a pinch of nutmeg. Optionally a whole or cut onion, studded with one or more whole cloves, and a bay leaf may be simmered with the milk and then strained before adding to the roux. In the case of poached fish you may add some of the stock to the milk.
Hollandaise is not desperately complicated to make, but you do have to know what you are doing. You’ll need a whisk, a double boiler of some sort, egg yolks, and butter. A hollandaise is a semi-cooked emulsion of egg and butter, and all emulsions are tricky. You are trying to combine two things that don’t want to mix (fat and water).
The proportions for hollandaise are ¼ cup of softened or melted butter, a squeeze of lemon juice, and a splash of water for each egg yolk. Place the egg yolks in the top of a double boiler on your counter top while heating water in the bottom to a simmer. If you do not have a double boiler suspend a stainless steel or heatproof glass bowl over simmering water so that the bowl does not come in direct contact with the water (otherwise the yolks will scramble). Whisk the yolks, water, and lemon juice together so that you have a smooth mix. Add a small amount of butter, place them over the steaming water and whisk vigorously. As the butter melts and begins to emulsify with the yolks add more butter, a little at a time at first, then increasing the amount as the emulsion forms and the sauce thickens. You should end up with a sauce slightly thicker than heavy cream.
Consommé is a delight as a first course, particularly if the main dish is heavy. Essentially, consommé is stock that has been reduced and clarified. Bring a quart of beef or chicken stock to a rolling boil. Add the whipped white of one egg plus the crushed shell. Let it simmer uncovered until the stock has been reduced by half. Using a sieve lined with muslin or other fine cloth, strain the consommé into a clean bowl. It will be a gorgeous golden color for chicken or deep brown for beef, with a heady aroma. You can serve it two ways. Conventionally it is served piping hot, perhaps with a sprinkle of fresh parsley or a few julienned vegetables. You should serve it in small bowls because it is very rich. Or, for a summer treat you can refrigerate the consommé which will turn into a gelatin. Serve in chilled bowls with a garnish of parsley or thinly sliced scallion tops.
Many confections require that you cook sugar syrup to a certain stage. You start with a syrup of sugar and water with proportions according to the recipe. Then you heat it over medium-heat and either use a thermometer clamped to the side of the pot or test for the stages. As the syrup heats, the amount of water reduces allowing the temperature to rise well above the boiling point of water. This is an abbreviated table, using Celsius only, and brief descriptions and uses. If you are going by appearances you need a bowl of iced water near the stove. As the syrup heats, take a little with a spoon and drop it into the water. Then check for appearance as follows:
Stage Celsius (degrees C) Appearance and Uses
Thread 106-112 Loose thin thread. Sugar syrups.
Soft Ball 112-115 Soft, sticky ball. Caramels, fudge, pralines, fondant, and butter creams.
Firm Ball 116-120 Firm but pliable ball. Caramels, nougat, marshmallows, and toffees.
Hard Ball 122-130 Hard, sticky ball that holds its shape. Caramels, nougat, divinity and toffees.
Soft Crack 132-143 Strands that are firm yet pliable. Butterscotch, firm nougat, and taffy.
Hard Crack 146-155 Stiff, brittle threads. Brittles, toffees, hard candy.
After this you get caramel of various degrees, then burnt sugar.
The Onion Family
The important thing about the onion family is that just about all members, with the exception of garlic, are interchangeable. Using leeks instead of onions, for example, can fundamentally change a dish. Make French Leek Soup in the same way you make French Onion Soup. Or use a mix — chives, shallots, and green onions in place of plain onions.
1 .The onion family (genus Allium) has many brothers and sisters, many of which are under-used in home cooking. Learn about ALL of them and don’t be afraid to change one for another in a recipe. My commonest substitution is to use leeks in place of onions. But you can also use caramelized scallions in place of onions in stews.
2. Use chives more often. They are a perennial that quickly spread and provide years of enjoyment in the garden as well as the kitchen because of their profuse flowers in the border. I use them most commonly in egg dishes and salads, as well as a soup garnish. They come in several varieties, including garlic chives and Chinese chives, each with distinctive flavors that enhance soups, stir fries, and salads. Don’t forget, too, that the flowers are edible. They make a colorful and delicately pungent addition to a green salad.
3. Onions change flavors dramatically depending on how they are cooked. I tend to distinguish four categories – raw, translucent, amber, and dark. Each imparts a different flavor to a dish. I use a very fine dice of raw onions in soups and stews sometimes, added almost at the last minute. You will be amazed at how much this brightens up the flavors. A SE Asian favorite is to deep fry onion threads until they are dark and crisp. Drained and dried of excess oil they will keep in an airtight container for weeks. They are marvelous sprinkled over rice or curries.
4. Shallots tend often to be forgotten, perhaps because many cooks do not know what they are or because they are expensive. They look like small, brown-skinned onions shaped much like big garlic cloves. To my mind their best uses are raw, finely chopped in salads, or deep fried in thin slices to a crisp golden and used as a garnish for beef stews.
5. Use leeks more. Try buttered leeks as a bed for fish. Slice both the green and white parts thinly on the diagonal. Melt a generous amount of butter in a heavy skillet and cook the leeks on a very slow flame for 15 to 20 minutes. Plain poached leeks, cut into big rounds, make an excellent accompaniment for any meat dish. Put a few, cut into 4” lengths (white part), into the roasting pan along with whatever else you are roasting. Onions are great roasted this way too. A whole head of garlic roasted makes a delicious spread for toasted bread.
6. All of the onion family (with the exception of leeks) are dead easy to grow. Even if all you have is a sunny balcony, pot up some chives at the very least. If you have a garden plot always devote a patch to onions. They can be eaten at all stages from spring onions to full matured bulbs. Garden onions cannot be rivaled in cooking.