Chef Secrets

Three local restaurateurs say that with the right ingredients, you can cook as they do

March 22, 2006|By STEPHEN G. HENDERSON | STEPHEN G. HENDERSON,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Chef's block. This phobia, like its literary cousin (writer's block), causes the novice to regard an empty pan with as much terror as a would-be scribe does the blank page. Convinced that anything he puts in the pan - oil, butter, a diced green pepper - will taste "wrong," the sufferer of chef's block is paralyzed.

There is a cure, according to a trio of local chefs. In fact, they say you can start cooking with the contents of one small shopping bag.

Timothy Dean of Timothy Dean Bistro recommends experimenting with large scallops, mushrooms, shallots, garlic, Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese and pine nuts. Sonny Sweetman of Abacrombie Fine Food suggests butter, onions, wine, carrots, potatoes and tenderloin meats. A fan of onions and wine as well, Sascha Wolhandler of Sascha's 527 recommends chicken, fennel, apples and olive oil.

Every item has multiple uses in the kitchen and each set of ingredients can be combined, with a few staples like salt and pepper, into a satisfying meal (see related recipes). Now, don't think too much. Just grab that pan and begin.

Timothy Dean

People today seem more frightened of cooking than ever and Timothy Dean thinks he knows why: It's the proliferation of television programs like Food Network's Iron Chef.

"Now that's a scary show," says Dean. "Crawfish? Razor clams? Please. People end up thinking that if they can't cook like [internationally renowned chef] Thomas Keller, then they shouldn't try at all."

To allay anxieties, Dean frequently uses the word "forgiving" when he talks about food. By this, he means ingredients that allow for a certain degree of human error. Start with sea scallops, he says.

About the size of a silver-dollar pancake, they're easy to flip in a hot buttered pan and develop a golden crust after only two or three minutes per side. "Even if they're overcooked, they're still completely edible," Dean says. "Scallops are forgiving."

As are mushrooms. Cook them any way you like - sliced, quartered or even whole; sauteed in butter or roasted in a 350-degree oven for 15 to 20 minutes. The only thing to remember is that mushrooms are sponges. Rather than rinsing them under running water, you can clean most varieties with a quick swab from a moistened paper towel.

Unlike onions, shallots are less likely to make you cry when you slice them. "I call them the king of the onion family," Dean says. "Any recipe that calls for onions? I substitute shallots, as they have a more subtle flavor."

Dean is also partial to pine nuts. After a few minutes in a 375-degree oven, roasted pine nuts will add zest to everything from sauteed spinach to scrambled eggs.

As for the cheese, "We're not talking about that green, foil-covered can," Dean jokes, describing his love for authentic Parmigiano-Reggiano. Buy a wedge of this cheese and grate it yourself over everything from pasta and risotto to green salads. It has a pungent, but never overpowering, taste. Save the cheese's rind and toss it into a soup stock or consomme.

Finally, Dean is passionate about garlic. Smash a clove with the side of a knife and the papery skin slips off easily. Or, drizzle a whole, unpeeled head of garlic with a few teaspoons of olive oil, wrap in tin foil and roast it in a 375-degree oven for 45 minutes to an hour. "You can then squeeze each clove onto toast and it will pop right out of the shell, like honey from a bee's comb. It's intensely good!"

Sonny Sweetman

A common mistake new chefs make is cooking their first meal for guests. "They pull out a new recipe, something they've never tried before, and then they are all worried it won't come out right," says Sonny Sweetman.

Instead, this chef suggests that on a night when you're alone, try to prepare a dish you're already familiar with, so you'll have an idea of how it is supposed to taste. "If you cook for yourself, there's no pressure."

A nice place to begin is with onions. "They are a good canvas to paint on and a background to a lot of different flavors," Sweetman says. Onions sauteed in butter are the base for soups, sauces, stews and stir-fries. Raw, they are good in salads.

Wine is best served "in the meal and with the meal," Sweetman says. Heartier wines like cabernet sauvignon and merlot pair well with beef. Sauvignon blanc and chardonnay complement poultry or fish.

Wine is a great marinade, though Sweetman recommends bringing it to a quick boil first to evaporate some of its alcohol. Uncooked wine will "eat" the meat, rather than infuse flavor.

"When you need a starch, grab a potato. Pasta's great, but it's been handled a lot before you get it," Sweetman says. "Potatoes are straight from the earth and all-natural." Not to mention versatile: They can be baked, boiled or deep-fried. More advanced technique? Slice a potato razor-thin, brush the slices with olive oil and wrap them around a piece of fish before baking.

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