Now You’re Cooking : Manskills to Know – Epicurean Expertise

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Now You’re Cooking

Select the Best Steak

All the grilling skill in the world amounts to nothing if the meat you cook isn’t up to snuff. That’s why knowing how to choose a good piece of meat is every bit as important as knowing how to cook it.

First off, you need to look for the right cut. The most popular cuts for grilling are loin cuts, which include the T-bone, tenderloin, porterhouse, sirloin, top sirloin, and New York strip. All are cut from parts of the cow that see little use when the animal is alive, and are therefore more tender. Flank steaks and other cuts from more muscular tissue are also good for grilling, but because they fight back a little more when you chew them you don’t normally serve them up at a steak fry. Slice them up for fajitas or a steak salad, though, and your guests will swoon from all the flavor.

Along with the cut, pay attention to the grade: prime, choice, or select. Provided by the USDA, the grade reflects the age of the animal and the uniformity of the marbling (fat streaks) in the meat. Prime is rare, expensive and usually gobbled up by high-end restaurants, but if you spot some jump on it: you won’t be disappointed. Choice is great for home grilling. Select can be used, but you must shop carefully.

The best grilling steaks will be found in a butcher’s case, not on a foam plate and wrapped in plastic. The meat should be firm to the touch, with a uniform, fine texture and a bright cherry red color. Avoid meat that is deep, dark red, or has any areas of gray. You also want to look for even marbling throughout the meat, but without large sections of fat on the outside. The fat itself should be slightly off-white, but not yellow or gray.

Gril the Perfect Steak

Lord of the cookout. Now that’s a title you can carry proudly. But if you’re going to rule the back deck Weber like real royalty, you must first know how to take an ideal cut of meat and turn it into the juiciest, tastiest, tenderest steak that ever found its way onto a plate.

Begin with the best meat you can find—ideally dry aged New York strip. Then prepare the grilling surface. You want at least two zones ready to go in the grill—high heat and medium heat. On a gas grill, this will be fairly easy to achieve. If you’re charcoal grilling, you’ll mound the charcoal to two different heights.

Sear the steak on both sides, until you see the characteristic crosshatched sear marks, moving the steak with tongs (never use a fork—puncturing a steak releases the juices you just seared the steak to hold in). Now move the steak to the medium heat side, and cook to your preferred state of doneness.

You can tell how done a steak is by feel. If you poke the steak and it is very soft, it’s rare. If it gives just a little, it’s medium rare. Firm with slight give means medium, and hard means well done (which, if you are paying attention at all, you’ll never experience).

You can use a basic hand test to determine doneness. The fleshy pad beneath your thumb acts as a poke gauge. Touch the thumb to the index finger and touch the pad; that’s rare. Thumb and middle finger is medium rare; thumb and ring finger is medium; and pinkie is medium well. When the steak is cooked the way you like it, pull it off the grill, let it rest for 4 or 5 minutes, top with a pat of butter and serve.

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Season Cast Iron

Let’s talk cookware for a moment big fella. Rule one: Leave the non-stick aluminum pots and pans for someone else. The original, best, and mancookingest cookware is pure cast iron. Forged from fire as hot as the center of the Earth (okay, maybe not, but really, really hot), cast iron makes an ideal cooking surface. It is an incredibly consistent conductor of heat and cast- iron pots and pans don’t have hot spots. It allows you to control the cooking temperature precisely, and if seasoned and cared for correctly cast iron becomes virtually nonstick. Plus, a cast iron skillet is an awesome weapon to use on a home intruder. And, perhaps best of all, you can buy cast iron cookware at sporting goods stores and even at some hardware stores: talk about your Manskillets!

A new cast iron pan must be seasoned before it’s used. You’ve seen what rookies do to your Fantasy Football rankings, so you know how valuable a little seasoning can be. Seasoning is a process that seals microscopic pores and pits in the metal. First, rub a light coat of vegetable oil onto the cooking surface. The surface should look dry when you finish. Next, bake the pan upside-down in an oven set to 500°F for about 45 minutes. Let the pan cool to room temperature and you’ve seasoned it.

Seasoning is actually an ongoing process. Each time you cook, you lay down a layer of oil or grease. But you’ll ruin the seasoning if you let food sit in the pot or pan or clean it in the wrong way. Clean up cast-iron cookware as soon as you’re done cooking, washing it lightly with warm water and a little dish soap. Dry the pot or pan thoroughly before putting it away. Never put cast iron in a dishwasher, unless you’re really fond of eating rust.

Care for Copper

Once you reach a certain level of cooking expertise you’re going to want high-performance tools to help you take your game to the next level. Along with a selection of cast iron skillets (previous page), that means copper pots and pans. Copper is a spectacular conductor of heat, and gives you maximum control over cooking temperature. Copper pans are also lightweight, which makes them easy to handle. Although you can’t sear foods the same way in copper as you can with cast-iron cookware, copper is a superior material for fine sauces and other complex recipes. Most copper cookware, like the very popular Revereware, are copper only where they contact the heat source and are lined with stainless steel.

Copper cookware is also beautiful. That’s why so many hardcore home cooks display their copper pieces by hanging them from pot racks.

Keeping your copper pots and pans looking and cooking their best is a matter of attention to detail and a little maintenance. Allow your copper pieces to cool completely before washing. Wash them in hot soapy water with a non-abrasive scrubbing pad. Copper cookware should never air dry; dry your pots and pans with a clean, soft towel immediately after washing.

You will, inevitably, deal with tarnish or verdigris (a green coating produced by a chemical reaction as copper ages) marring the look of your copper ware. You’ll find a number of commercial cleaners available, but none works better than a simple homemade paste of lemon juice, flour and salt mixed together. Rub the paste over the entire copper surface, using a soft cloth. When you’re finished, rinse with warm water and dry with a clean towel. The chemical reaction does all the cleaning for you. And remember: like cast iron, copper cookware should never be put in a dishwasher.

Cook Fish over an Open Fire

Caught or bought, fish cooked over an open flame is the best kind. Hone your skill so that the fish is perfectly firm and flaky when you pull it off the fire, and you’ll be able to whip out a delicious dinner over the campfire or on the backyard barbecue.

Whether you grill steaks or filets, you want thick cuts to throw on the flame. This lessens the chance of messy breakage when you turn the fish. Look for an even-width cut, so that a thinner portion doesn’t overcook.

Cover the fish in a thin coat of olive oil (it shouldn’t drip off) before cooking. This ensures the fish doesn’t stick to the grill while adding some mouthwatering flavor. Preheat the fire and drop the fish on the grill. If you want those great looking crosshatch sear marks, give the fish a quarter turn after a few minutes.

Flip the fish only once, when the edges are opaque and flaky. You’ll know the whole cut is done when it’s completely flaky and opaque through and through. Any juice running out will be clear.

Go a little bit more rustic by impaling a whole fish on a spit, and turning it over an open fire. Once it’s done, you’ll be able to peel off the crispy skin, and flake the meat off the bones. (This works best for saltwater fish, which have larger bones).

For a campfire feast, create a cooking pouch from a large tin foil sheet. Oil up a couple filets, and place them in the pouch with a chopped bulb of wild garlic, a pinch of salt and pepper, and

½ cup of beer. Seal the pouch and drop it on the coals. After about 12 minutes, you’ll have some of the juiciest, most delectable fish you’ve ever chomped on.

Gril Corn on the Cob

Just about any dinner food can be grilled. And one of the best is corn on the cob. You’ve already got the grill fired up, so what sense does it make to run back in the house and boil your corn?

The two ways to grill corn on the cob are in the husk or in aluminum foil. It’s your call, because the corn is going to taste the same either way.

Go natural by peeling the outer layer, leaving most of the husk intact. Twist the remaining husk to break it open slightly. Soak the cobs in a pot of cold water for 15 minutes. Completely cover the ears with water.

Preheat the grill to medium while the corn soaks. When the corn is ready, remove the silk and squeeze the husks back down over the corn. Close the tops with twine or string.

Grill the corn by rotating as they cook to keep them from burning on one side. Once you’ve turned the ears completely around, place them off to the side and close the cover. Grill for about 15 minutes more. When the husks darken and pull away from the tip of the cob, pull the ears off the grill. Remove them with tongs, and peel using an oven mitt or towel. Brush off any ash or residue on the corn, and serve with butter.

To cook the ears in foil, remove the husks and silk entirely. Soak the corn in cold water for 10 minutes, and roll them tightly in large sheets of foil, twisting the ends shut. Grill for fifteen minutes, turning the ears every couple of minutes. When fully grilled, individual kernels will squirt liquid when squeezed. Use an oven mitt to remove the foil and serve as before, with plenty of butter.

Carve the Bird

They sit you at the head of the table for a reason, and it ain’t because you’re easy on the eyes. Someone needs to carve that beautifully tanned bird. And you are on the hot seat.

Cutting up a roasted turkey or chicken isn’t open-heart surgery. With a sure hand, the right knife, and a step-by-step process, you’ll be serving bird slices in no time.

Equipping yourself with the right tool for the job will make the carving go much easier. Don’t use an electric knife. It doesn’t allow enough control and you’re likely to shred the bird rather than carve it. A sharp, quality 10-inch carving knife is ideal.

The turkey or chicken should rest for about 10 minutes after you take it out of the oven and before you start cutting, to allow the juices to settle and saturate the meat. When you’re ready to start the feast, take your weapon in hand and go to work. Remove the legs one at a time, by holding the leg firmly and sliding the knife into the crease between thigh and body. Slice down until you come to the joint, and pull the leg off. Put the legs on the serving platter. Sever drumstick from thigh if you want, or not if you prefer.

Remove each wing by forking it and cutting horizontally above the wing joint. Slice down from that cut and remove the wing.

Now start the real carving. Slice halfway up the breast, cutting vertically until you come even with the wing joint horizontal cut. This first slice should fall right off the bird. Continue cutting slices off the breast (thinner, evenly cut slices are a sign of knife mastery), working your way up to the crest. Cut the other side, and present the platter of your skillful slashings to your hungry fans.

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Cook a Lobster

You could do a lot worse for a perfect meal than a whole lobster. That sweet white meat is the stuff of heavenly kitchen dreams, and it’s an easy delicacy to prepare.

Fill a large stockpot about ¾ full of cold water. Add 2 tablespoons sea salt for every quart of water. There should be enough water to cover the lobster. You can add white wine or spices to the water, but these add little if anything to the flavor of the meat.

Heat until the water is at a roiling boil (really boiling = roiling). Grab your prey around the body, just behind the claws, and remove the rubber bands (if there are any) from his claws. It’s okay if you need to use tongs.

Those claws will move around even though he can’t possibly reach backwards. Drop the thing into the pot and slam the lid down on top.

Generally speaking, you’ll need about 10 to 12 minutes to cook a one-pound lobster. Add 2 minutes for each additional half-pound. This timing may vary slightly, so check your crustacean periodically. He’s done when he is bright red and an antenna can be pulled off without resistance. You can also check by pulling off a small side leg. If the meat is white and firm, he’s ready for the dinner table.

Serve lobster with the traditional drawn butter (melted butter that has been strained of solids) or less traditional mayonnaise. Lemon slices are excellent accompaniment as well.

Use lobster crackers (special pliers-like utensils) to crack the shell, and small forks to get at that lovely meat. Most of the meat is in the tail and claws. Avoid the yellowish green tomally, the sac right behind the eyes, and the dark vein that runs up the tail.

Boil a Perfect Egg

Consider the hard-boiled egg. A perfect use of the hen’s fruit, a handy snack in its own protective case, ready to eat with just a sprinkle of salt. It’s a protein-packed quick breakfast, a mini-meal on the go, a simple and wonderful product of the kitchen requiring little in the way preparation or fuss.

Simple as it is though, it’s also easy to screw up.

Oddly, overcooking is more often the problem than undercooking. You’ll know an overcooked hardboiled egg by its signature greenish ring around a greenish or gray yolk. Overdone hardboiled eggs also taste slightly of sulfur. Only the devil finds that taste pleasant.

For perfect hardboiled eggs start with eggs that have sat in the refrigerator for 3 days or more. Older eggs will be easier to peel. Put the eggs in a saucepan, covering them with cold water to at a least an inch above the eggs. Now turn on the heat and bring those babies to a boil.

Once the water is at a rolling boil, turn off the heat, cover the eggs, and let them sit for 10 minutes. After the time has elapsed, drain the water out of the pan, and start running cold water over the eggs. Leave the water running until the eggs are cold.

Refrigerate the eggs in a closed container (the smell can get into other food) until you’re ready to eat them. The shells should crack open and peel easily after a sharp rap on the counter. If the shells are little difficult to peel, roll the egg between your palm and a hard surface while pressing down firmly with your palm. That will break the shell into lots of small sections, which can easily be shed under running water. There you have it, your own little power snack.

Make the Perfect Omelet

Man does not live by donuts alone. No, on occasion, a man must start his day with a healthy, filling, and tasty breakfast. He must turn to eggs. You can scramble them, but if you want to make eggs an all-in-one meal, make an omelet. Omelets are actually easy and quick to make, and a filling breakfast.

Use two large eggs. A two-egg omelet is easier to handle and will easily satisfy even a man-size hunger. Crack the eggs by rapping them on a flat, hard surface. Pop the shells open along the cracks you’ve made, and drop the eggs into a bowl. Add two tablespoons of water and beat thoroughly.

Assemble the ingredients for your fillings—cheese, bell peppers, whatever (the classic French omelet has no fillings). If you are adding veggies, like peppers or onions, sauté them first—they can’t possibly cook in the short time they’ll be on the burner with the eggs. Heat an omelet pan on high until it’s really hot. Drop a pad of butter into the center of the pan and swirl it around.

When the butter is melted and has just started to brown, pour the eggs into the pan. Use a spatula to pull the edges in toward the center at different points around the pan, allowing the uncooked egg on top to run out and fill those areas. Soon, you’ll have very little uncooked egg left.

Now spread the filling over one half of the eggs (the side opposite your dominant hand—for ease of flipping). Use your spatula to pry up the edge of the other side, and flip it over on top of the fillings. Let it cook for a few seconds more and then, aided by the spatula, slide your delectable creation out onto a plate. If you accidentally turn less than half the omelet, flip the filled side that same amount, to make an “envelope” omelet.

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Sauté Like a Chef

Sautéing is to cooking what power nailing is to home repair: the coolest, manliest technique you can use. The technique gets it name from the French word meaning “to jump,” because the food is meant to be moved quickly. Sautéing involves pan cooking any kind of food quickly, using oil or butter to rapidly transfer heat from the source to the food. Sauté just about anything, from small medallions of beef, to a panful of vegetables. The only limitation is that all the food should be roughly the same size.

Use a pan with sloped slides and large enough to hold what you want to cook. Preheat the pan over a burner set on medium. Toss in some butter or oil. Butter is used more often, because it lends a richer flavor to the food. But oil is generally used at higher temperatures—anything above 375°F—at which butter would burn and smoke rather then melt. Oil can also be used for a healthier meal, and some cooks prefer to use a mix of oil and butter. Experiment to find what works best for you.

Whichever lubricant you use, allow a moment for it to get hot before tossing in the food. Butter should melt, stop foaming and begin to brown. Then put whatever you’re cooking into the pan. Cook meat and fish to the doneness you would choose when grilling. Cook vegetables until you can easily slice through them with the edge of a spatula.

Depending on what spices you use and how sticky the food is (and whether you plan on making a sauce from the leavings), you can deglaze the pan right before removing the food. To do this, splash a bit of alcohol such as cooking sherry into the pan, and allow the flame from the burner to ignite it.

Whip up Perfect Pasta

No man really ever has to know how to make a chocolate soufflé, but every man worth his salt absolutely must know how to rustle up a big serving of perfect pasta.

That means noodles that don’t stick together, aren’t mushy, and hold sauce like they were married to it. That perfection begins with the water, and you need lots of it: 4 to 5 quarts for any amount over half a pound of pasta. Abundant water makes it easier to get long, skinny pasta into the water quicker, makes for a quicker return to boiling after the pasta has been tossed in, and washes away more of the starch that contributes to sticking.

Bring the water to a rolling boil before you add the pasta. Salt the water after it starts boiling—1 tablespoon will do it. Then stir every couple of minutes to maintain a separation between the noodles.

Check the pasta often to see if it’s done. There’s only one way to do that, and that’s with your teeth. Pluck a noodle out of the pot, rinse it in cold water so that you don’t burn your tongue, and bite it. Pasta is done when it’s “al dente” or “to the teeth.” Meaning, it isn’t crunchy, but still provides a little resistance.

When your pasta is done, drain it in a colander. Don’t you dare rinse those noodles with cold water. Yes, your mother did that, but then again, she considered Velveeta the all-purpose cheese, right?

Instead, immediately after the pasta is completely drained, pop it back in the pot or in a bowl, and toss it with a ladle full of sauce. The noodles will absorb the sauce’s flavors and the sauce will help prevent any sticking between the noodles. Serve right away, for some serious cases of happy stomach.

Make a Display Garnish

A well-cooked meal is incomplete without garnish. Given how easy they are to create, there’s just no reason not to garnish. Just about any small, colorful food item can be made into a garnish. If you’re rushed or unsure of your fine motor skills, stick to the simple ones.

A rose is a nice finishing touch for a chicken or fish dish. Peel tomato skin with a potato peeler, keeping the peel an even width. Pinch the end of the peel and wind it tightly into an open coil and voila, a rose.

A strawberry fan is a great dessert ornament. Make a series of thin, parallel cuts across the face of the strawberry, from just below the stem side, through the tip side. Hold the stem and press down on the strawberry to fan out the slices and create a delicious dessert garnish.

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Taste Cheese Like a Cheese Taster

If your idea of enjoying cheese is slapping a slice of Velveeta on a Ritz, it’s definitely time to up your game. You don’t want to be stuck looking like Jethro Bodine when you find yourself in the middle of an actual cheese tasting (especially if it was that special someone’s idea), which means mastering the basics of the process. Simple as the subject may seem, keep an open mind: the vast number of cheese types and variables in the aging process make cheese tasting every bit as complex as wine tasting.

Cheese releases its bouquet most fully when it’s warm, so cheese for a tasting should be at room temperature. Slice into the cheese, taking a sample from as close to the center as possible. Edges exposed to air or plastic wrap form a thin protective skin that masks flavors and aromas. To keep from overwhelming your senses, start with the mildest cheese on the platter and work up to the strongest, and always taste an appropriately small sample.

Because taste is actually largely a product of smell, you’ll want to start by grabbing a big whiff of the cheese you just cut (oh grow up). Concentrate on the smell and you should be able to detect and separate out several undertones, such as grass (the main cow food), citrus, or butter, and more general qualities such as sharpness. Take a bite of the cheese and work it along your tongue from front to back, exhaling through your nose (that will invigorate the olfactory receptors). Press the cheese up against the roof of your mouth. You should now be able to comment knowingly about the texture and density, how intense the taste is, and other qualities such as saltiness and specific flavors. Just be careful never to use the phrase, “Reminiscent of a fine Velveeta.”

Sharpen a Knife

It’s the poor craftsman that blames his tools, but that’s just more reason for the craftsman to care for his tools. You wouldn’t leave your circular saw out in the rain, and you shouldn’t let your prep knife get so dull that it tears what it’s supposed to cut.

Avoid dollar-store sharpeners. A cheap sharpener is as likely to damage the edge as it is to sharpen it. And don’t just turn to the rod-like steel that comes with most kitchen knife sets; that’s only meant to tune up the edge between sharpenings.

Instead, get yourself a bench, or sharpening, stone.

The stone has a coarse and fine side that are used in tandem to produce a super sharp knife edge. Coat the stone with lubricant meant for the type you’re using. A water stone is soaked in water. Most other stones use mineral or machine oil.

Start on the course side and hold the knife edge away from you and down at an angle to the stone (about 20 degrees for most knives, and 10 degrees for Japanese knives or filet knives). Keep your wrists stiff and slide the knife along the face of the stone, sweeping it sideways as you go to sharpen the entire blade. Flip the knife when the first side is sharp, and repeat the process on the other side, until you’ve built up a burr on the edge. Now do the same using the fine side of the stone. Stop when the knife can cleanly slice through a piece of paper held up on edge.

Finish up by honing the knife with a steel. It will remove any microscope burr and align the edge perfectly. Slide each side of the knife along the steel, holding the knife at a slightly greater angle than you used on the stone.

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