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Cooking up some basic principles for food prep

February 27, 2011
By ANITA HANABURGH, For The Leader-Herald

Recently, I sat and thought about what to write. I haven't done much with food prep lately. Maybe I'll write a series of 101 classes, basics for food preparation. At first I thought I've done some of that. True, but not in order. Then I thought I could run the series straight, but this might get boring for the non-cook. Well, maybe I'll just run the series once a month starting today.

For this column, I will share some of the basic principles of food preparation.

There are a lot of recipes ideas out there and a lot of people showing us how to make these recipes. Rachael, Emir and Martha will show you how to prepare the 'essence' of a 'good thing' in '30 minutes' any day of the week.

My idea is to give the basics that can get applied to any recipe.

At the community college, I taught a restaurant management course. The students had to take a basic food course and an advanced food class. With the degree, the students who wanted to become a cook or chef could do that and any student who wanted to become a manager could do that as well.

Sometimes, the management-directed students would complain, "Why learn to cook, I will hire someone" or "I want to run a dining room, not peel potatoes!"

I would explain that as a manager of a body of employees, it was important for the right hand to know what the left hand was doing. Food is basic to the food industry. Even managers or owners running a fastfood operation would benefit from knowing the basic principles of food preparation.

By knowing the principles, the restaurant (or you) will understand the "how" then they can create their own dishes. It is important to know the "whys" - why we only mix a cake for 2 minutes; why we shouldn't boil eggs or why the yeast takes time to rise and baking powder doesn't.

Now, I will start from the beginning. Certain principles should begin all food preparation. So, what is the first step in kitchen preparation? Wash hands? Preheat the oven? Measure the ingredients? Wrong. The first step is to read the recipe. Yes, read the recipe from top to bottom.

Step number one - Read the recipe. I'd like a nickel for the number of times students came to me with "My recipe says I have to refrigerate overnight" (for tonight's dinner?) " I have the onions and chicken cooked and it needs stock, do we have stock?" (Did you make it?) "It says to separate the eggs and whip the egg whites, I already added the eggs." (Did you read the steps?) "Oh no, the first step says to cook the rice before adding it. The recipe calls for four cups, I only have two."

Step number two - Think. Perhaps the most important and most neglected step. The recipe is read. Now think through the steps start to finish. Pause for a minute or two. Believe it or not, this saves steps, missteps and mistakes.

When reading the recipe, use your head. It is possible that the recipe is not written in understandable terms or sometimes the steps don't make sense. Some fallible mortal wrote the recipe, so be sure to think it through. Besides, it's your recipe; you might want to adjust it.

Step number three - Organize the items needed. The French call this the mise en place. Basically, it means putting everything in place before you start. My students frequently called it the "missed its place," which may have been more accurate. It did help them remember the term.

With mise en place, the food needed for the dish is gathered first. This helps make sure you have everything before you start. It's not easy to run to the store in the middle of preparing a dish.

The equipment is collected next. Everything should be available and ready for use all the measuring tool, bowls, spatulas, towels and pans needed. This avoids added steps and searching for utensils during critical spots in the recipe.

Step number four - Pre-prep the items needed. This would be chopping the onions, cooking the rice, shredding the cheese, peeling the potatoes, washing the lettuce, sifting the flour, preheating the oven and measuring the ingredients. This is getting everything in place before you start.

Oh busboy, having everything out and ready makes assembly a breeze. Knowing how to start is a good way to facilitate success in a commercial or home kitchen.

Next, we will learn about recipe reading and measuring. Study this one well; principles are always stacked on other principles.

Restaurant watch: As always, pay attention to what you are eating.




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