How to Think Like a Chef

By Staff
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Learn to think like a chef at home using professional tips and simple, traditional ingredients.

Author, and creator of London Farmer’s Market, Nina Planck provides 150 recipes that reflect her background in The Real Food Cookbook (Bloomsbury, 2014). A farmer’s daughter and former vegetarian, Planck uses timeless ingredients and classic cooking methods that reflect her journey to traditional foods. The following excerpt from a chef and friend of Planck’s, Emily Duff, will teach you how to think like a chef in your own kitchen.

You can purchase this book from the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store: The Real Food Cookbook.

Recipes from The Real Food Cookbook:

Homemade Blueberry Soda Recipe
Cream of Corn Soup Recipe With Red Pepper Sauce
White Chicken Stroganoff Recipe With Dill

How to Think Like a Chef

The last line in many restaurant recipes is “Finish with butter.” A good trick it is, too. Butter brings flavor, texture, color, and shine to the dish. There is no shortcut and no substitute for this particular instruction, which the pros also render as “Mount with butter.” Vegans could mount with olive oil, I suppose, but the effect will be more slippery than silky. The uses of butter had me thinking about all the things chefs know and we don’t. So I asked my friend Emily, who spent twenty years in restaurant, pub, and café kitchens in New York City, to tell me how the professionals think about food and why. — NP

Some of the best home cooking I ever did professionally was at my farm-to-table café, Henrietta’s Feed and Grain. Each morning I’d head to one greenmarket or another, come back laden, and write a fresh menu. I might make a starter of smoked bluefish from the small boats captained by Alex Villani, a wry waterman with iconic white hair and a beard. Perhaps there’d be a peach salad, roast chicken with herbs, a brambleberry crumble. The next day’s dishes would be entirely new. Now the only hot, tiny kitchen I occupy is my own. It lacks the gadgets and staff I once relied on—and it’s often overrun by twig sculptures, action figures, and small hungry people—but I still arrange it and run it like a professional kitchen. I still think like a chef.

We shop and cook seasonally. This saves money, keeps us creative, and lets local farmers do some of the kitchen work. If the raw beets have great flavor, so will the roasted beets we send to the table.

We talk to producers and purveyors, from farmers to butchers to chocolate makers. This gets us out of the kitchen to meet—and learn from—experts and like-minded foodists who share our passion for real food.

We use lesser-known cuts of meat, and we use the entire animal. The filet and tenderloin can be boring and expensive. We like shanks, hocks, cheeks, hanger, liver, kidney, chuck, and sweetbreads for deep and diverse flavors and great value.

We make stock from bones. A supply of meat and fish stock in the fridge and freezer lends big flavor when you need it. We like broth to moisten pasta, to give a little backbone to a quick soup, to braise root vegetables, to enhance a silky sauce.

We experiment daily, with everything from ingredients to tricks and techniques. We learned classic pairs and methods for good reason, but inventions keep them fresh. Once, not too long ago, no one had heard of Parmigiano ice cream with balsamic syrup.

We keep our tools clean and sharp: sharp knives and new blades keep us moving forward. Dull knives cause accidents. We buy a good knife and take care of it.  We respect primitive technology. Fire is our main tool. A well-seasoned cast-iron skillet is better than any nonstick pan, and cheaper, too.

We improvise freely. A recipe is merely an inspiration. Make it your own.

We prep and organize. We wash, peel, pick, blanch, chop, label, and store ingredients so they are ready to cook. We keep essential pantry items like unrefined sea salt and good olive oil fresh and handy. We make lists for shopping and prepping.

We taste as we cook—a must!

We are careful. We chop ingredients to a precise and identical shape and size for equal cooking time, we season meats and fish before cooking, we sauté onions, shallots, then garlic—in that order. (Like you, we have burned the garlic a few times.)

We are patient. We babysit the chicken stock by skimming off the scum, get good color on meat before putting it in the oven, let the roast rest before slicing, sauté mushrooms in batches so we don’t overcrowd the pan, slowly and luxuriously spoon-bathe fish in brown butter for silkiness.

We are thrifty. We save skillet scrapings for gravy, bones for stock, bacon fat for roast spuds, shrimp shells for stock, cheese rinds for soup, soured raw milk for baking, beet and turnip greens for sautéing, herb stems for aromatics.

We reduce for flavor. We simmer down meat and fish stock into a thick bit of demi-heaven, balsamic vinegar into a syrupy delight, and fresh juices into syrups for sodas and sauces.

We mount with butter. Say no more.

This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from The Real Food Cookbook: Traditional Dishes for Modern Cooks by Nina Planck and published by Bloomsbury, 2014. Purchase this book from our store: The Real Food Cookbook.