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The Improvising Chef

Posted Jan 14 2009 7:50pm

A cook’s kitchen is more like an ongoing process than a static place. Ingredients come from 2 sources, mainly, and are dynamic… either the store, or the stove (if you’re growing your food, the garden!). What’s available will depend on the season, what’s in the cabinet, and what’s left over from recent culinary adventures.

The amateur chef will read a recipe, make a shopping list, go to the store, and come back with ingredients to fulfill the recipe at hand, ending up with cabinets full of once-used ingredients and condiments without any real knowledge as to what they DO, or how they work in a recipe – or how they can serve on a whim or in a moment of inspiration to give an ordinary dish that extra special something.

As a painter learns the power and effect of the colors in his palette, a cook will have some foreknowledge of how things at his disposal taste, and he can visualize their impact on the evolving presentation he is creating.

A cook can create a lot of varied offerings with a seemingly limited variety of stock items with a little imagination and knowledge of various cooking processes – and an incorporative approach to the residue of previous meals and other elements at his disposal.

We tend to think in terms of the entrée as a “feature” with a “star” protein, and a supporting cast of “sides,” usually consisting of a starch (preferably a whole grain or legume) and a vegetable.   There are many other ways to think of this primary course, and an infinite number of ways to present the 3 components.

The chef becomes liberated when the focus turns to the methods rather than the components. Let’s look at an example of, say, fish, rice, and vegetables. Imagine we have some rice in the cabinet, some frozen fish filets in the freezer, and have just brought home a bag of ready-made cut up stir-fry vegetables from the store. How many different methods can we use to prepare them?


            Sauteed, poached, steamed, fried, baked, grilled, raw (sushi or sashimi), roasted, braised, stir-fried, smoked, stewed, in soup


            Sauteed, steamed, boiled, raw, microwaved, roasted, grilled, stir-fried, smoked, braised, stewed, in casserole, as salad


            Boiled, fried, sushi, in soup, in casserole, steamed

  Now, let’s suppose we start to combine the various methods:

Fried fish with a side of steamed rice and boiled vegetables

Braised fish with vegetables over fried rice

Sashimi over rice (sashimi don) with a raw veggie salad

Stir-fried fish and vegetables over rice

Baked fish with grilled vegetables and rice

Thai or Vietnamese style fish/rice soup with vegetables.

Wow. We just went around the world with three main ingredients, and didn’t even begin to explore all the permutations of possible combinations of methods.

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