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Chef Stacy believes that cooking from scratch and using the best ingredients are the secrets to preparing delicious and memorable meals. She has created dozens of classes for the home chef and teaches students how to master culinary techniques and recipes in just one session. Read on to see what she's dishing up for The Oakland Press today....

Friday, March 19, 2010

The Foundations of Good Cooking

“Why did you pick such an odd/pretentious/difficult-to-pronounce name for your cooking school?” It’s a question I’ve been asked more than once. When I explain that a ‘mirepoix’ (mihr- PWAH) is a combination of carrots, onions and celery, I sometimes get a look, that if spoken aloud would say, “So what’s so special about that?”

The Mirepoix Cooking School mission statement is “to teach people to cook and think like professional chefs”. When we set about deciding the direction we would take, what would separate us from all of the other cooking class programs offered in Southeastern Michigan, it was important to me that Mirepoix be a technique driven school. Since a mirepoix is a foundational combination of ingredients, it seemed a perfect fit, since one of our primary goals is to teach the foundations of good cooking.

Another interesting thing about a mirepoix is that it has a specific ratio: 1 part carrot, 1 part celery and 2 parts onion. Onion plays a very important role in a recipe, even more so than the other two foundational ingredients. It seems, though, that when it comes to onions, there are two very distinct camps – those who love them, and those who hate them. I mean, really HATE them.

I find that most of the time, when someone says they “hate” a particular ingredient, dish, or cuisine, most of the time it is because they have been a victim of bad cooking technique, which, without exception will produce bad food.

There are several types of onions, and each of them have a distinct flavor, which should help the chef determine which onion to use in each of their recipes. There are also other members of the onion family – the shallot, scallion and leek, which also have their own distinct flavor profiles, and should be used accordingly.

Most people identify onions by color and by sweetness. Yellow, Spanish, White, Red and Vidalia, are the most common light colored onions. White onions are commonly used in Mexican cuisine and have a sharp flavor. Yellow onions are more mild in flavor and can even be sweet. Vidalia onions are named for Vidalia, Georgia, where this particular variety thrives. Vidalia onions are sweet and excellent for caramelizing. Lastly, Red onions can be cooked, but have a nice flavor when eaten raw.

When selecting an onion, inspect it for any rotten or soft spots. Store onions in a cool, dry, dark place. Onions will keep for a couple weeks if stored properly. The older the onion, the more pungent the flavor will be.

Another excellent, but lesser utilized flavoring agent is a shallot. Shallots have a unique flavor that is milder and more delicate than that of onions, and adds a subtle nuance to your recipe. Think of a shallot like a more subtle and sophisticated flavor enhancement. In his wildly offensive, though incredibly accurate book, Kitchen Confidential, Anthony Bourdain describes the shallot in one of my favorite chapters, How to Cook Like a Pro.

“Before butter, my friends -- the humble shallot... You almost never see this item in a home kitchen, but in our world they're an essential ingredient. Shallots are one of the things -- a basic prep item in every mise-en-place -- that makes restaurant food taste different from your food.”

Leeks are one of my favorite ingredients. Many people avoid using leeks because they are unfamiliar with how to clean them, chop them and cook them. Leeks have a thick stalk and resemble a very large scallion (also known as green onion). Their flavor is more delicate than scallions, and have a more refined flavor. Leeks are delicious when braised, quickly sautéed, or even creamed.

After selecting the leeks, make sure you clean them properly! Leeks are notorious for hiding lots of sand, grit and dirt deep inside their tightly bound leaves. To clean a leek, simply trim off the root end and about 1/4 inch of the white base. Remove any ragged, coarse outer leaves and discard.

Next, trim each of the darkest portions of the leaves down to the light green, more tender portion, leaving about 2 inches of green. Slice them into 2-inch lengths and soak in a bowl of cold water. Swish them in the water to remove dirt, drain, refill bowl, and swish again until no more dirt is released. Drain and dry. Slice as your recipe indicates.

Scallions, also known as green onions, are very commonly used ingredients, appearing most often in dips and other uncooked preparations. Scallions have a mild, pleasant flavor, and a nice crunchy texture when sliced and used as a garnish.

To learn more about the proper way to clean, cut, and cook onions, leeks, and shallots, register for our Knife Skills 1.0 & 2.0 classes at the Mirepoix Cooking School. Also, join us on Facebook for weekly recipe updates and other tips and techniques. This week’s recipe is a delicious Leek tart that is simple to prepare and impressive when served at an Easter or Mother’s Day brunch.

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