This is a compilation of little pieces of advice on ingredients and techniques that accrue in individual blog posts and may be relevant beyond the scope of their recipe. As elsewhere on this blog, I am assuming no prior culinary education on the side of the reader. As a result, the following may appear extremely trivial and in some cases overly simplified to certain readers. This is intentional.
It’s worthwhile to get a decent olive oil, and I’m not saying that to be pretentious. Blindly picking a decent oil is like blindly picking a decent wine: Disregard the outrageously expensive outliers and the El Cheapo ones that come in cardboard boxes, then pick one on the upper end of the remaining price range. Or to put it in nerd speak: apply some sigma clipping, then aim for one standard deviation above the median.
I recommend getting whole black peppercorns and grinding them freshly for use. Stores often sell peppercorns in little jars with convenient built-in mills. You can also get large, decorative wooden pepper mills for the dinner table that may double as blunt weapons in a pinch.
Raisins are generally sold with a fine coating for protection. They should be soaked in a bowl of water before use (you’ll probably see the water turn a bit muddy). If you’re in a hurry, toss them in a tea sieve and wash them under running water instead.
There are various types of raisins; try to get large, fleshy ones with no seeds or pieces of stalk. Sultanas or Californian blue raisins work well.
For recipes that ask for risotto rice, make sure you use a kind of rice that specifically says «Risotto» on the packaging. You can also look for the names of popular risotto rice varieties, such as «Arborio» or «Carnaroli». These varieties have short grains that release starch and absorb water when cooked, resulting in the desired rich, creamy texture — regular Uncle Ben’s just won’t do (and don’t you even think of Basmati!). For the purpose of such recipes, stay away from pre-cooked rice, risotto mixes that contain other things than rice, or even «instant risotto» preparations like Rice-a-Roni.
This is a fancy word for a very basic technique that you’ll use all the time. It just means cooking food that has been cut into small pieces in a small amount of hot oil or clarified butter, stirring frequently too keep things from sticking and burning. It’s a healthy and tasty way of preparing all kinds of savory foods.
Usually you’ll start your sauté with onions, garlic, chilies, ginger, spices, and the likes. This will release the flavors of these ingredients into the cooking oil. After a few minutes, you’ll add the other vegetables and continue stirring. Sautéing is usually ended by pouring in some watery liquid — wine, broth, cream, etc. — which cools your pan down to 100° C, removing the need to stir constantly.
I don’t recommend heating up the oil first and then adding the first sautéing goods (as you would do when you sear meat), because it’s easy to overheat the oil and burn the goods. Instead, just put the first round of ingredients and the oil or clarified butter into the cold pan and then turn up the heat to maximum. As soon as you hear the first sizzling, take the heat back down to a 3–4 out of 10. Push the goods around with a turner or long spoon to make sure they don’t get stuck to the bottom. Onions or shallots should turn glassy, yellowish, and fragrant; if you see dark brown edges, you’re probably using too much heat. Garlic can turn brown and bitter with too much heat.
Shallots are basically just a small, mild, sweetish breed of onion. You can substitute regular onions if you can’t find shallots.
Toasting pine nuts
Pine nuts are rather subtle in flavor on their own, but can be turned into gustatory powerhouses by toasting. Just toss them in a frying pan and turn up the heat. You don’t need any oil; they contain enough of it already… Just give them a shake every now and then until they start to glisten and smell nice. Allow them to brown a little from several sides, then take them off the heat (best to pour them off into a bowl). Warning: If you’re doing this for the first time, keep a close watch on them and shake them frequently. They might lie around innocent and pearly white for minutes, la–la–la, until suddenly you notice their undersides have burnt black. Once the first darkish discolorations appear, things progress rather quickly. Move them a lot and relieve them from the heat in time. Dark brown spots are OK (I like them best that way), but black will taste bitter. Don’t worry, it’s not difficult; just be prepared for it.
All vegetables should be either washed or peeled before use, and since tomatoes are a pain to peel, it’s pretty much always going to be the former.
Depending on where you live, it might be hard to get good tomatoes. The big ones in particular may be bred for size and shelf life at the cost of taste. If you can, buy tomatoes with the green stalks still attached; those are usually fresher and tastier. Cherry tomatoes may also be a solution if you can’t find tasty regular-sized ones.
Zucchini are often peeled before use; however, if they’re from organic production or you have other reasons to trust they’re not covered in pesticides, you can just wash them instead. They retain more of their taste that way, and look prettier, too.