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Cooking Confidential

Master Chef and Top Teacher Linda Carucci Tells you how to Nail Every Meal


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You’re a good cook. Or maybe just an OK one. But the truth is, you would kill for a list of tips that would help you really light a fire
every time you turn on the stove. How do the pros do it? They learn things in culinary school that just aren’t in that darn recipe you’re staring at so intently as you simmer and stir.

But thanks to Linda Carucci, author of the brand-new Cooking School Secrets for Real World Cooks (Chronicle Books, 2005), you too can be in the know. Here, Carucci shares the top 10 secrets from her book, gleaned from her years of experience in the world of food. Her résumé includes a stint as the dean of the California Culinary Academy and winning the 2002 Cooking Teacher of the Year award from the International Association of Culinary Professionals. The Montclair resident is currently the Julia Child Curator of Food Arts at Copia in Napa.

So next time you have a dinner party, be prepared. There will be no polite, “Oh, this is delicious, Sharon.” You’re gonna rock.

Now for Linda’s tips:
When I cook, I’m on a mission. My goal is to bring out the absolute best flavor. Here are 10 easy tips that will do just that.
1. Taste as you cook.
Cooking without tasting is like slapping new tires on a car and driving off without an alignment. As you taste, season with salt to bring out the inherent flavors in the food, amplifying them and bringing them into balance—and making you look like a culinary genius. Use Diamond Crystal Kosher Salt; I love its pure, clean flavor.

2. Season meat, poultry, and fish before cooking.
If you use salt, spices, and herbs before cooking meat, poultry, and fish, you’ll be rewarded with incomparable flavor and restaurant-quality savoriness. Experiment by salting one chop or burger before cooking and another after cooking. I promise you’ll taste the difference.

3. Salt cooking water so it tastes like the ocean. Doing so will season whatever you boil, blanch, or poach as it cooks—and result in more flavorful pasta, potatoes, vegetables, chicken, and shellfish.

4. Cook with the seasons.
Veggies and fruits are naturally more flavorful and vibrant tasting—and less expensive—when they’re in season. We may be able to find fresh corn on the cob in stores in the middle of December or brussels sprouts in early July, but the time it takes to get them from a far-off field to your kitchen translates into diminished—and sometimes bitter—flavor.

5. Buy organic.
If you haven’t compared the taste of freshly harvested organic carrots or broccoli with their conventionally grown counterparts, you’re in for a pleasant surprise. (An added benefit: Organically grown produce packs more nutrients, thanks to the rich soil it’s grown in and the absence of nutrient-depleting pesticides and herbicides.) The same goes for poultry, lamb, and pork.

6. Sauté onions slowly.
When a recipe directs you to sauté onions, don’t take any shortcuts to hasten the process. Take a few extra minutes to slowly coax out the natural sugars over lower heat until the onions are meltingly soft and lightly browned. They’ll provide an incomparable foundation of flavor for your soups, stews, braises, sauces, risottos, and curries.

7. Add butter.
To finish soups, sauces, and stews with great flavor and the light-catching sheen you see on sauces in fine French restaurants, use a technique called monter au beurre (“mohn’-tay oh burr”): Whisk in a chunk of butter when the cooking is complete.

8. Make sure it’s unsalted butter.
Salt is used in butter both as a preservative and to mask undesirable flavors in the cream; unsalted butter is made from the freshest cream and has a cleaner flavor. Whole Foods 365 Organic unsalted butter is priced right and tastes great.

9. Add a splash of extra virgin olive oil.
Take a tip from Mediterranean cooks and drizzle extra virgin olive oil over a bowl of pasta or beans just before serving. If you’re trying to cut back on fat, you’ll get more flavor from the olive oil (or butter, for that matter) if you use less early on in the recipe and add some just before serving instead.

10. Make sure it’s high-quality oil.
Use a mild-tasting extra virgin olive oil—Bariani is my workhorse oil—in cooking and to prepare delicate sauces like pesto or mayonnaise. A bold-tasting, Tuscan-style oil is better suited for dressing salads and vegetables or for drizzling over a finished dish.

E-mail Linda Carucci at linda@LCKitchen.com, or visit her website at www.LCKitchen.com for recipes and a schedule of book signings and cooking classes.

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