Kitchen Witch - Tricks are for cooks

M.F.K. Fisher's 'Shook Potatoes'

Time flies when you're chopping chives; this year makes 10 since I received my blue-ribbon diploma from cooking school. It was there that I learned, among many other things, how to bone a quail, make a sauce and cook eggs more ways than I cared to know.

Ten years hence, I've not boned another quail and I've left my egg-coddling skills somewhere along the side of the road with my boning knife.

As much as I appreciate my culinary education, I am not the cook I am today because I know how to butcher 80 lobsters or the difference between a beurre manié and a roux (raw versus cooked). I am that cook because of the boot-camplike intensity of a commercial kitchen, which instilled a do-or-die sense of purpose and confidence and forced me to acquire the organizational and time-management skills of a CEO.

And I am that cook – simply put – because of the tricks learned along the way, the things not found in textbooks but passed on from those who have been around the chopping block a few more times than myself.

Despite what the commercial says, tricks are not for kids; they're for cooks, and they're indispensable to getting things done in time, whether you're cooking for 80 or for your brood on a school night.

Tricks also make you feel smart and competent, which inevitably makes your food great, wins you praise and makes you hungry to learn more. A bag of kitchen tricks is like a pot of ... gold.

Take, for instance, peeling ginger. How the heck do you peel that knobby, tough-skinned beast without losing a year of your life – or the tip of your thumb? One word: teaspoon. Cut off the hunk you need, and simply peel away with a spoon, which saves time, body parts and the root itself.

Chopping fresh basil without it turning black is another stumper. Pile those fragile leaves into a little pillow, roll up into a cigar shape, then gently cut on a diagonal. This method, called chiffonade, yields still-green shreds rather than unsightly bruised leaves.

And one for the road: Transform boring boiled potatoes into sublime spuds simply by salting the water and shaking them in a pot when done. The starch that's released combined with some butter or oil yields a creamy sort of sauce and gives potatoes a new lease on life.

I don't know much about dogs, but it's never too late to teach an old cook new tricks.

M.F.K. Fisher's "Shook Potatoes"

Adapted from West Coast Cooking by Greg Atkinson

2 pounds red or yellow thin-skinned potatoes (approximately 4-6 medium potatoes; estimate 2 per person)

6 cups water

1 teaspoon salt

4 tablespoons fat – unsalted butter cut into 1/2-inch dice, or olive oil, or a combination thereof

1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley and/or chives

Black pepper to taste

Salt to taste

Scrub potatoes and cut in half, if necessary. Place in a heavy saucepan with water and salt. Cover pot and cook on high heat until water is boiling; lower heat to a simmer.

Cook potatoes until very fork-tender, about 20 minutes, and remove from heat. Drain most of the water by tilting pan over sink. Leave a little cooking liquid in the pan (just enough to cover bottom surface).

Add butter and/or oil, chopped herbs, and salt and pepper. Shake pan vigorously to break up potatoes and combine with other ingredients. Serve hot.

Makes 2 to 3 side-dish servings.

Culinary questions? Contact Kim O'Donnel at kim.odonnel@creativeloafing.com.

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