Food: 10 basic cooking techniques
13 February, 2022, 11:04 am
In my travels across Fiji I’ve met many people who openly admit that they just cannot cook.
Sure, they can make instant noodles, open a tin, start the microwave or butter a long loaf, but the thought of cooking a decent home cooked meal from scratch, scares the hell out of them.
I guess if you never ventured into the kitchen or have been spoiled by someone else’s cooking, the gas stove or wood-fired barbecue may seem like a ferocious fire breathing dragon that is waiting to burn you.
However, once you learn how to control the heat source and understand some of the basics of cooking like timing, preparation and building flavours into a dish, it’s really not that scary.
To help dispel the mysteries of cooking, the following is my Top 10 cooking techniques that every Fijian household should master to create delicious meals using more of our local produce.
- Roast a chicken Unless you’re a vegetarian, who doesn’t love a roast chicken!. Those ready-to-go roast chickens at some supermarkets are damned good value and the best part is they’ve cooked it for you, but if your local store doesn’t sell them – roast one at home. Roasting a chicken could not be simpler. All you need is salt and pepper, and some butter or herbs for added flavour. A gas oven is ideal but a wood-fi red oven or barbecue with a lid will suffice. The secret to a non-gas stove is to ensure the wood burns down to charcoal first so the flames don’t catch your chicken on fire as it roasts. Like any meat with bones, you need to allow time for seasoning to penetrate the carcass, so make sure you rub the chicken with salt, pepper and herbs at least 2 hours before, or overnight for better results. Some cow’s butter pushed under the skin, brushed over the skin or shoved inside the cavity with a chopped onion and garlic will also help turn a tasteless chicken into a store-bought delight. All you need to add is lots of baked or boiled root crops and vegetables, rice and a sauce for a complete meal.
- Blanching vegetables I once tried to get my resort staff to eat crunchy vegetables, because they’re more nutritious when not overcooked, only to be told they’re weren’t cooked enough and too hard. But that is the point! Crunchy vegetables provide fibre to aid in digestion and keeping them semi-hard retains their vitamins and minerals. Blanching is a fast process by nature, as you just want to dunk the raw vegetables into a pot of salted hot water for a short time. You want to only cook vegetables for about one or two minutes and then shock them in ice or a cold water bath to retain their colour and crispy texture. Be mindful that some vegetables take longer than others, so sort them into separate batches first. Hard vegetables include cauliflower, carrots and root crop vegetables. Vegetables requiring shorter times include cabbage, beans, okra and all the local leafy green vegetables like moca, ota and bele. Once blanched, you can toss them in a bowl with a little salt, pepper and butter (if you like).
- Marinating meats for a barbecue One of the biggest mistakes most barbecue cooks make is to not marinate their meats long enough to allow the flavour to penetrate the fibres. Thinking ahead is key for a successful marinade – the longer you marinate meat, the better it’s going to taste. Most barbecue stands use a mix of dark soy, tomato sauce, sweet chilli sauce and grated ginger, but there are hundreds – if not thousands – of meat marinades. Try to not use sauces with too much sugar as the meat will caramelise and burn quite fast. American barbecue recipes mainly use dry rubs during the cooking process and then baste on a sticky barbecue sauce towards the end. Chinese barbecue meat recipes are delicious when marinated in special sauces like char siu, hoisin, Chinese barbecue, chilli bean or brown bean sauces. If the cut of meat is tough, add natural meat tenderisers like strong black tea, wine, citrus juices, vinegar, raw pawpaw or pineapple as they will soften muscle fibers and add flavour too. When you’re ready, prepare a barbecue or frypan, drain off the excess marinade and start cooking. The smells will be amazing!
- Preparing a stock Many recipes call for a stock to create a sauce or gravy, or to allow raw ingredients time to cook. Using off cuts of chicken bones, wings or drumsticks, or fish carcasses is easy to prepare but you need to plan ahead and do this well in advance. Stocks can be made on a lazy day and frozen into portions for later use. They are also great to make an instant soup as most of the flavour is already in the stock. All you need is a pot of water and aromatics including onions or spring onions, garlic, ginger and carrots for sweetness. Boil these together with the bones for no longer than 2 hours, strain and portion. When you’re ready to use the stock, add a little salt and pepper, along with whatever vegetables, meats, seafood or noodles to create a fulfilling meal. If all else fails and you don’t have time to make a stock, do what I do when I’m filming onlocation, use coconut bu water instead!
- Make a vinaigrette for salads The key to getting the family to eat more leafy green vegetables is to learn how to make the perfect accompanying dressing, especially vinaigrettes. As the name implies, vinegar is its base instead of mayonnaise, which you’d use in potato or root vegetable salads. The trick to a good vinaigrette is to get the balance between sour, citrus, salt, sweet, heat and savoury right. The vinegar is the obvious sour base, so slowly adding the right amount of citrus juices, sugar or honey, salt, fish sauce or soy, chilli and herbs or mustards to suit your taste is key to a tasty dressing. Vinaigrettes are also a great way to get the digestive juices started in your stomach, which is why some cultures eat a dressed salad first.
- Learning how to pickle vegetables Pickling is a fantastic way to preserve an excess of fruits or vegetables as pickling prolongs their shelf life. In addition to creating a different accompaniment on the table, the pickling juices are also a great digestive addition to the diet. There are plain pickling recipes or the more complex Indian recipes with lots of heat and spice. Quick pickling recipes are ideal for the busy cook because all you need is water, sugar, salt and spice, which I’ve used with cucumbers, ota and kai clams. They also make a great snack food.
- How to make gravy You can cheat gravy making by using packet powdered or gravy mixes, but if you are already roasting meats or pan frying them, the resulting juices in the bottom of the pan can be transformed in a silky sauce that’s full of fl avour. All you need to do is skim off the excess oil and deglaze the pan with some water, wine or coconut water, then thicken with a slurry of corn or rice fl our.
- How to cook rice Buy an electric rice cooker for best results! Rice is an everyday staple that deserves to be prepared properly. If you don’t have a rice cooker then you can easily use a pot with a lid and the same absorption method as you’d use in a rice cooker to produce perfect, non-gluggy rice. In either pot or rice cooker, cover the raw rice with enough water to cover it up to the first joint in your finger (or enough to cover your flattened hand.) The secret is not to remove the lid as the water is evaporating and once all the water has cooked off, fluff the rice with a fork and put the lid back until ready to serve.
- Cooking a stew Stews are made for the Fijian palate because they have plenty of gravy to mix with steamed rice or dip with boiled root crops. For meat to stay succulent and juicy when it’s cooked in a stew, it needs to be sealed first. Browning meat is a simple technique of briefly pan-frying until the outside is seared to give a richer flavour and tender meat before cooking further. Once you’ve sealed your meats, it’s a matter of frying some onions and garlic, throw back in the sealed meats and add raw vegetables, herbs, favourite sauces, sugar/honey and a liquid. Cook for an hour or two and season with salt and pepper.
- Cooking a Chinese restaurant-style stir fry Who doesn’t love Chinese food, but to get restaurant quality taste you’ll need to invest in a high-pressure gas burner, a Chinese steel wok and long handled utensils. Then it’s off to a Chinese shop to buy a collection of stir fry sauces. For the basic kitchen, it should have oyster, light soy, dark soy, sesame oil, Chinese rice wine and sesame oil. The more exotic sauces may include black bean, hoisin, chilli bean or chilli garlic sauces. Then it’s just a matter of slicing meats and marinating them in light soy, sesame oil and a touch of white pepper. Cook the marinated meats in oil or water first, then you toss with in a very hot wok with onions, ginger, garlic and a stir fry sauce. Then you can add whatever vegetables you have and presto – you are serving Joji’s at home! Well not exactly, but with some practice, you can create your own style of chop suey using as many coloured vegetables that fit in the wok.
Lance Seeto is the host of FBC-TV’s “Exotic Delights” and owner of KANU Restaurant in Nadi.