Thinking small can prevent big problems

April 26, 1995|By Dale Curry | Dale Curry,Los Angeles Times Syndicate

Sometimes it's the little things that get in the way. Like ruining your makeup while chopping onions, with guests only an hour away from arriving. Or buying freshly cooked crabs to find that no one is willing to pick them. Or planning to serve guacamole when the avocados aren't ripe.

To keep the frustrations down in the kitchen, we've cataloged simple techniques for 20 oft-performed cooking chores. There may be multiple ways to tackle these tasks, but these are our preferred methods for each. Some make the food taste better, while others head off disaster; still others save time and streamline culinary expertise.

* Ripen an avocado: Buy avocados three days before you are ready to use them. Choose hard ones. Place them in a brown paper bag and set them in a dark cabinet or pantry. In three days, they should be softened and perfect for use in salads, guacamole, etc.

* Peel a shrimp: To peel a raw shrimp, first pull off the head. Then starting with the tiny legs underneath, peel about half the shell off from the head end of the tail. Gripping the tail fins, slide the tail meat out of the rest of the shell. To devein, cut a short slit on the top of the shrimp. Run a knife under the vein and slip it out; then entire vein should come out from both sides of the slit.

* Peel a tomato: Heat a pot of boiling water on the stove top. Plunge tomato into water for about 30 seconds. Remove from water with a slotted spoon and drain. Hold the tomato with a paper towel to keep from burning your hand and begin to peel the tomato with a knife and your fingers. The skin should pop off in large sheets. The tomato will not cook in this short time.

* Dry fresh herbs: The microwave oven makes this a simple task. Simply sprinkle about 1/4 cup leaves of herbs such as basil, mint, tarragon and oregano on a paper towel. Microwave on high (100 percent power) for several minutes, depending on the size of the leaves (try 1 minute for small or thin leaves such as thyme or cilantro; 2 to 3 minutes for larger leaves). Rotate herbs every 30 seconds or so, examining them as you go for dryness. When they appear to be dehydrated, remove them from the oven and cool before storing in airtight jars at room temperature.

* Clean mushrooms: Do not wash them. Rinsing mushrooms under running water tends to damage their delicate taste and texture. After trimming off the hardened stem tips (about 1/8 of an inch) wipe the mushrooms with a damp paper towel to remove any debris. This rule applies to most edible mushrooms including the white ones sold in supermarkets. There are exceptions such as wild-growing chanterelles, which are sturdier, often caked with mud and need rinsing.

* Cook pasta: Use 4 quarts of water per pound of pasta. Bring water to a rolling boil, add salt to taste and stir in the pasta. Once the water returns to a boil, it will move the pasta without your stirring. Adding 1 tablespoon of oil keeps the water from boiling over and helps keep pasta separated. The key is to avoid overcooking pasta. The best test is the taste-test. When the pasta begins to look transparent, begin tasting little pieces until it becomes al dente (to the tooth) or just right for biting. This can take anywhere from 1 minute for thin, fresh pasta to 25 minutes for thick, dried pasta. When ready, quickly drain.

* Pick a crab: Break off the large claws first and set aside. Then open the flap underneath and pull off the back shell. Using a knife or your finger, clean out the the center and cut off the gills along the sides. Cut off mouth parts and eyes. With a sharp knife, remove sockets where the claws were attached. Starting from the back of the crab body, and with the point of the knife angled slightly downward and pointed to the center of the body, make a cut across the top of the legs on one side of the crab. Set the resulting piece aside. This cut must be properly made so as to open the body chambers and expose the meat.

Rotate the crab in your hand and cut the other side. Now, holding your finger over the lump meat, cut off the small legs. You should have the body with meat exposed and two small pieces with meat exposed. With your knife, carefully pry out the backfin or lump meat in one large piece. Then remove meat from the other opened chambers. Do the same with meat from the two pieces. Crack the claws near the pinchers with a nut cracker and remove claw meat.

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