Ways to Be "Creative" in the Kitchen
by Larry Lindner, MA
Creative cooks use kitchen utensils—as well as gadgets not normally found in the kitchen—in unusual ways to make healthful, tasty meals in no time. Here are some of their secrets and tips.
If you can push a button, you can make gazpacho.
Put chopped, fresh tomatoes (it doesn't matter how many) and about one-third as many peeled, seeded, chopped cucumbers into a blender; add a little chopped onion and minced garlic along with a couple of tablespoons of olive oil; toss in spices such as pepper, dill, and a dash of wine vinegar; push mince, grate, purée, shred, or whatever other button you want, and voilá —healthful soup that can go straight to the table without any fussing at the stove.
The point here: Blenders are not just for smoothies (or daiquiris).
That's how it is throughout your kitchen. You've got "untapped" equipment that can be used in ways you haven't thought of to prepare dishes that are nutritious, low in fat, and good-tasting all at once. Some of the country's top chefs and cookbook writers have been onto it for some time.
Consider the way the blender is used by Rozanne Gold, who was consulting chef to The Rainbow Room in New York for nine years and is author of several Recipes 1-2-3 cookbooks. "If I make linguini," Gold says, "I take some of the hot cooking water, fresh parsley, and flavored olive oil and blend them together in the blender to pour over the pasta." She adds, "I just recently started freezing olive oil in little ice cube trays." Just a cube of frozen oil "makes the sauce very, very creamy" without adding too many calories to a dish that's going to feed several people.
Gold also uses Dixie cups to make yogurt cheese. Her method: Take about a half dozen cups, poke little holes in their bottoms with kabob skewers, and fill each cup with yogurt. Then put the cups on a rack with a pan underneath, and refrigerate. When the liquid drains out (after four to eight hours), remove the yogurt from the cups. Each perfectly shaped yogurt cheese mound—high in calcium and with little to no fat—can then be used, say, as the centerpiece of a dessert surrounded by a fruit coulis and sprinkled with berries. Or try it as a first course—surround with oven-roasted tomatoes and drizzle with olive oil.
Simple Tricks to Add Flavor With Spices
Another trick of Gold's is to use a metal tea ball "with all the little holes in it" to make something of a bouquet garni. "Put spices in it," she says, "and dip it into soups or stews." That way, "you don't have to mess around with a cheese cloth." You can also fill a tea ball with star anise, cinnamon, and cloves to flavor a warm apple cider. With cooking in general, the more you make of spices, herbs, and the like, the less fat you need to carry flavor.
That's why Sarah Fritschner, author of The Express Lane Cookbook, makes spice rubs with a coffee grinder. Few words will send a busy cook away from a recipe faster than "with a mortar and pestle," she says. However, a coffee grinder can grind fresh spices in seconds to rub on lean cuts of meat and take over the taste buds where the fat ends. (The grinder easily comes clean by rubbing with a dry paper towel.)
For two to three pounds of chicken breast, Fritschner recommends:
New Uses for Pots, Pans, and the Like
For making the best-tasting tofu dishes, which are high in the soy protein that may help ward off heart disease, Asian cooking connoisseur Nina Simonds recommends a cast iron frying pan or Dutch oven—but not necessarily for cooking the tofu. Rather, she uses heavy cookware "as a press to get as much liquid as you can out of it. It's the best thing to do with tofu to get people to eat it," she says. "Getting the water out allows other flavors to penetrate." Simonds adds that people also find the firmer texture of water-pressed tofu more to their liking.
One easy way to make tofu is to put barbecue sauce on it and bake at 350° for 25 minutes; or grill it over medium-high heat for five to eight minutes on each side until it's brown." Simonds, the author of A Spoonful of Ginger: Irresistible, Health-Giving Recipes from Asian Kitchens, also recommends seasoning it with—what else?—ginger.
Steven Raichlen, who penned the High-Flavor, Low-Fat Cookbook series, advises turning a wok into a stove-top smoker. Line the wok with foil and put a tablespoon of wood chips at the bottom—cherry, hickory, or whatever flavor suits you. Then put a round cake rack on top of the wok and put your kitchen fan on full blast to deal with the smoke.
"I love to smoke salmon that way," Raichlen says. "Turn the heat on high, and when you see whiffs of smoke, turn it down to medium. Then cover it. Cook the salmon for about 20 minutes." It gives the fish that "hammy, bacony flavor" without any fat, Raichlen explains. It also works on chicken breast.
Raichlen also recommends using the grill for things that are often deep-fried.
"I live in Miami," he says. "One of my favorite dishes is fried plantains—the Cuban version of French fries. Cooking them over a high-heat grill gives them the same carmelization of sugars [as frying] and wonderful taste without the fat.
"The whole trick to cooking a plantain," explains Raichlen, who also authored Healthy Latin Cooking, is to "let it ripen till it's so black it looks like you should throw it out."
John Willoughby, co-author of License to Grill, had no unusual grilling recommendations, but he did suggest using a garlic press to juice ginger as opposed to using a ginger grater. "You scrape your knuckles with the grater," he says.
James Peterson, who wrote the James Beard Award winning cookbook Vegetables, doesn't use a garlic press for any reason. "It's hard to clean and doesn't work very well," he opines. "I crush garlic with the side of a knife.
"I hate gadgets because I can never find them," Peterson adds. Which may be why he has found uncommon uses for a number of common kitchen tools. For instance, he peels kiwis by maneuvering a dessert spoon or elongated soup spoon under the skin (after cutting off the two ends). "The pulp slips right out," he says, and you can make "pretty rounds or wedges" to top fruit salads or other healthful dishes. "If you use a peeler," Peterson notes, "it could just crush the kiwi. You're also likely to waste a lot of the fruit. It's hard to peel."
To juice a lemon, Peterson cuts it in half crosswise, sticks a fork into it, holds it over a bowl, and rotates the fork with one hand while squeezing the lemon with the other. No juicer needed.
Hangers, Combs, and Toothbrushes in the Kitchen?
Peterson grills bell peppers on his electric stove by bending a wire coat hanger into a trivet-like device. If you've got a gas stove, he says, the pepper grills easily. It doesn't work so well with an electric one. That's where the hanger comes in. Bend the sides of the hanger down and set the thing flat on the stove-top electric coil. Then place the pepper on top. The distance from the heat source created by the wire is just enough to give the pepper some charred skin.
Peterson isn't the only one to use items in the kitchen that come from other rooms. The author of The Complete Italian Vegetarian Cookbook, Jack Bishop, sometimes employs a plastic comb to "imprint ridges" into gnocchi. ("The ridges are where the sauce adheres," he explains.) Rolling the gnocchi over a comb can make it a little easier to create the ridges than working with the tines of a fork. "Presumably," Bishop says, "it's a comb you haven't used on your hair."
Another bathroom tool found in Bishop's kitchen is a toothbrush "to get lemon zest out of a grater." Half the zest always "ends up between the little holes in the grater," he says. "It's wet and sticky, and banging it against the counter to get it out doesn't work." But with a toothbrush, "you can brush it all out. Just put the toothbrush in the dishwasher to clean it," he advises.
Finally, Paula Wolfert, who wrote The Cooking of Southwest France, says she uses a melon baller "to remove the choke from artichokes." In addition, she explains that a great way to get some of the fat out of homemade confit of duck is to steam it in your couscous cooker. "You could also steam the confit in a covered colander over boiling water," she offers.
Of course, if you're making your own duck confit, you probably have your own couscous cooker.
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