Column with recipes
I cannot think of a single kitchen task that is not informed by the sense of sight. Visual cues tell us when eggs are cooked, onions are caramelized, when fish, meat and chicken are fully cooked and when vegetables and fruits are fresh or ripe or past their prime. And they tell you when rice and cheese have become risotto, when roux and pan drippings have become gravy, when bread has become toast and egg whites have become meringue.
Recipes don’t always rule
“Of course we’re always looking as we cook,” says chef/author/instructor Joanne Weir, “but are we really seeing and absorbing the valuable visual cues that abound?”
At washingtonpost.com, she tells of watching one of her students remove a “quivering” cake from the oven. The top was pale and it glistened with wet batter. The edges had not pulled away from the sides of the pan. When she asked why he had removed it from the oven, he replied, “The timer rang.”
For him, as for many of us, the written recipe is the last word, even though sensory cues are often more dependable for telling us what stage the recipe has reached and what we need to do next. A little observation would have told Weir’s student the cake was not done, even though it had been in the oven for the amount of time instructed in the recipe.
“It isn’t just baked goods that tell us their truth when we take the time to really look, says Weir. Onions turn translucent when softened. Meat on a grill is ready to flip when it tightens around the edges and is lightly charred.”
Paying attention pays off
In an article at epicurious.com, Tommy Werner lists kitchen tasks for which success depends upon the cook’s ability to interpret visual cues.
Garlic goes from light tan and aromatic to golden brown to dark and bitter within seconds. Start it in a cold pan and don’t take your eyes off of it. And before you even turn on the heat, have the remaining ingredients ready to add to the pan the second the garlic is just golden.
Bringing milk to a boil
It may seem as though milk for pudding or custard will not boil as long as you are watching it. But the minute you walk away (whether or not you turn up the heat), the pot will boil over and you will have to clean up the stove and start over from scratch. Use low heat, stir constantly and never walk away.
Nuts begin to change color and smell toasty at about the same time. You do need to watch them, however, and shake the pan to be sure the nuts on the perimeter don’t scorch before those in the middle of the pan are toasted. Because nuts have such a high fat contact, they will continue to roast even after they are removed from the oven.
Oven roasted nuts: Preheat oven to 350 F. Line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper. Spread whole nuts on parchment paper in a single layer. Bake, checking after 5 minutes, until nuts darken and the aroma of toasted nuts is strong in the kitchen.
Lift the parchment and nuts off the baking sheet to cool. Store in an airtight container.
I have never done this, but I have eaten tough fried calamari and now I know why: It has to be flash-fried in about 40 to 60 seconds and that means you cannot look away. Find complete instructions and a sauce recipe at epicurious.com
Making a roux
Combining fat and flour to thicken soup, gumbo, sauce or gravy can be tricky. “So,” advises Werner, “stand by the pot and keep stirring -- you're going to be here a while …” In fact, depending upon how dark you want the roux, you may be standing and stirring for 45 minutes or more.
Rhoda Boone gives instructions for making a roux at epicurious.com:
Start with any amount of fat (butter, oil, animal fat) and an equal amount of flour.
In a heavy Dutch oven, skillet or heavy-bottomed saucepan, melt the fat over medium heat and whisk in an equal amount of flour until you have a smooth, thick sauce. If necessary, add more fat to make it thinner or more flour to make it thicker.
The key to good roux is to watch it carefully and whisk it almost constantly (if black specs appear, your roux has burned, and you should start over). Keep whisking and watching until the desired texture and color are achieved.
The longer a roux cooks, the darker and more flavorful it becomes. It also loses some of its thickening power, so a darker roux is more prominent as a flavor base than a thickening agent.
White roux is cooked for 2 to 5 minutes, just long enough to eliminate the raw flour taste, take on a light tan color, and achieve the texture of wet sand. It is used in light-colored sauces, such as béchamel.
Blond roux is cooked until it starts to smell toasty and is the color of peanut butter, 5 to 10 minutes. It is typically used in gratins, bisques or creamy soup.
Medium-brown roux takes 15 to 30 minutes to develop its coppery brown hue and nutty taste and aroma and is often used in étouffée and gumbo.
Dark-brown roux looks like dark melted chocolate and tastes like rich campfire coffee with hints of tobacco, according to Boone. It is essential for building the flavor of traditional gumbo and usually achieves its color within 30 to 45 minutes of cooking.
Risotto’s reputation for being labor intensive comes from the fact that it has to be watched and stirred constantly, releasing the rice’s starches which thickens the risotto. Visual cues are crucial here because, regardless of what the recipe says, you have to watch for stock or broth to be absorbed before adding more.
Whether you use a hand or stand mixer, egg whites can go from beautiful and fluffy to Styrofoam in seconds.
“Never take your eyes off the meringue,” writes Kimberlie Robert at thefinercookie.com. “Let the phone ring and the dog bark. If the kitchen is on fire and you MUST leave, turn the stand mixer to its lowest setting and let the meringue stir until you’re ready to return. But for the best results, give your meringue all the careful attention required of a devoted lover.”
“Any time a huge, flickering flame is involved, you want to stick around. Because if you don't, that flame will blacken any and all cheese you want to melt,” says Werner. I find that to be true of the broiler in the oven as well. I have burned more cheese toast and garlic bread than I care to own up to, and all because I thought I couldn’t spare the several minutes it would have taken to watch and take it out at the right time.
Next week’s column will be about the sense most closely associated with food, and most influenced by the other four senses: taste.
Email Linda Brandt at email@example.com.