Techniques to Create Food Converts

One thing that I love to do as a chef is convert people into liking food that they’ve disliked since childhood. Take vegetables, for instance, or fish and other seafood. Or mushrooms. There’s always at least one person in the classes I teach at the New York Wine & Culinary Center who raises a hand when I ask, “Is there anyone here who doesn’t like mushrooms?” But I find it’s easy for me to change their minds – I simply teach them how to prepare them a different way than they’re used to.

Recently, an old fishing buddy of mine confessed that he didn’t like mussels (one of my favorite “bivalves”) or mushrooms either, due to their texture. He hasn’t eaten Brussels sprouts since he was about 10 years old, when his mother served them boiled.

But he always jumps at the chance to have me cook for him. Later that day, we went to the grocery store to buy some ingredients for dinner, and I purchased Brussels sprouts, mushrooms and two big bags of mussels. My friend looked at me and said, “Didn’t I just get done telling you I don’t like any of those things?”

I replied, “Be prepared to like them all when I get done cooking.” And he did.

The moral of this story is that the technique you use is much more important than your recipe. Once you master all of the five major cooking techniques – grilling, roasting, braising, sautéing, and poaching (or steaming) – you will be well on your way to becoming a gourmet chef.

The key to four out of the five techniques is searing, and the most important part of searing is patience. For instance, all proteins should only be flipped once and cooked equally on each side. When you sear meat, fish and chicken, the rule of thumb is to keep it very dry. Pat it dry with a towel, place a large pan on high heat for about four minutes and then add vegetable oil. Try to stay away from olive oil due to its low smoking point. Season with kosher salt and fresh cracked pepper, place the protein in the pan and sear until dark golden in color. Flip and sear again. Finally, place some fresh herbs, like thyme and rosemary, on top of the meat and baste with a little butter. Keep basting until cooked to the proper temperature. Oven finishing is totally acceptable with larger cuts of meat or chicken.

So try your hand at searing, and serve up a meal that even the most stalwart haters of Brussels sprouts, mushrooms and mussels will enjoy.

Pan-Seared Brussels Sprouts
•vegetable oil
•2 cups Brussels sprouts (cleaned, trimmed and cut in half)
•1/4 cup chicken stock
•2 tablespoons butter
•1 tablespoon shallots (minced)
•kosher salt
•fresh cracked pepper

Start a large sauté pan over high heat. After about four minutes, add oil. Place the sprouts individually into the pan, flat side down and sear until golden brown. Flip and sear, then remove to a dry paper towel. Repeat until all sprouts are cooked. Then add them all back into the pan along with the remaining ingredients and cook for an additional 4 to 5 minutes. Season to taste with kosher salt and fresh cracked pepper.

White Wine Steamed Mussels
•1 bag mussels
•1 carrot (small dice)
•3 stalks celery (small dice)
•1/2 onion (small dice)
•2 cloves garlic (smashed and diced)
•1 cup of Finger Lakes white wine (I like Riesling)
•kosher salt
•fresh cracked pepper
•fresh herbs (finely chopped) optional

Start by soaking and sorting the mussels, pulling off any beard from the side of the mussels. Add them to a large stockpot. Place the vegetables and garlic on top and add the wine. Cover and turn on high. Cook for about 5 minutes, or until the mussels open. Try not to cook them too long after they open as they tend to get tough. (Maybe that’s why some people don’t like them.) Finally, give them a quick stir and season generously with kosher salt and fresh cracked pepper. At this point, other chopped fresh herbs such as parsley, thyme or tarragon can be added for flavor.

Crispy Mushrooms
•vegetable oil
•2 cups mushrooms (sliced)
•1 tablespoon shallots (minced)
•1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves
•kosher salt
•fresh cracked pepper

Start a large sauté pan over high heat. After about four minutes, add oil and about a cup of sliced mushrooms, depending on the size of your pan – just a flat layer of mushrooms should cover the bottom of the pan. Sear until crispy, then flip and sear the opposite side. Do not stir. When seared, remove from the pan and pat dry on a paper towel. Repeat the process with the remaining mushrooms. Return all mushrooms to the pan with the shallots and thyme leaves. Season to taste with kosher salt and fresh cracked pepper.

by Chef Eric K. Smith

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