NEWTON — All chefs have their own way of doing things: cutting an onion, roasting potatoes, making a basic sauce. And all chefs will tell you their way is the right way.
It’s no wonder then, with so many celebrity chefs, cookbooks, and food personalities on TV, that home cooks are confused about even the most basic of kitchen tasks.
Enter Michael Leviton, chef and owner of Lumiere in Newton and chef and partner of Area Four in Cambridge. Leviton is no stranger to basic cooking instruction: He teaches in Boston University’s culinary arts program, and has worked with young chefs right out of school, so he’s aware what novices know and don’t know. As recent college graduates strike out on their own, and newlyweds settle into their own places, the time to start building a lifetime repertoire of cooking skills is now.
“You master things by doing them over and over,” says Leviton. But cheat where it makes sense. “Look, I’ve got two kids. I don’t want to spend a lot of time in the kitchen when I’m at home.” Translation: Open a can of beans instead of soaking the dried variety, or buy biscuits instead of baking them. Leviton’s list of the 10 cooking essentials covers the basics for many meals.
1. Blanch vegetables
This is a method of quickly cooking something in boiling water, then plunging it into ice water to stop the cooking process and lock in vibrant color. Leviton uses lots of salty water — his ratio is 1 cup salt to 1 gallon of water. “You want it to taste like the North Atlantic,” he says.
To blanch 1 pound of green beans to serve 4, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Have a large bowl of ice water nearby. Working in small batches, add beans to the rapidly boiling water and cook 3½ minutes, then use a slotted spoon to transfer them to the ice bath. Continue until all beans are cooked and cooled. Drain the beans, pat dry with paper towels, and saute briefly in a little butter or olive oil.
2. Dice an onion
You must know how to do this. The best way to get beautiful little cubes involves several steps (a background in origami wouldn’t hurt): Cut off the top of the onion, halve through the root end and peel the halves. Set a half flat-side down on the board, so the root end and stem are at 9 o’clock and 3 o’clock. Holding the knife blade parallel to the board, make a series of cuts ¼ inch apart, keeping the root end intact. Holding the onion together, make a series of cuts from the stem to the root, stopping before the root. Finally, rotate the onion 90 degrees and make a series of ¼-inch cuts straight down across the first set of vertical cuts. Don’t expect perfection your first time out, warns Leviton. “It only takes a few years of practice,” he says.
To avoid crying, says Leviton, forget all the wives’ tales. “The only one that’s really valid is to have a really sharp knife. The odors coming off the onion that make you cry are from cells breaking and chemicals being released. If your knife is very sharp, you don’t beat up the cell wall so much.” He recommends a diamond steel or Chef’s Choice knife sharpener.
3. Sear a steak
One restaurant trick all home cooks should get used to is high heat under the pan. Leviton sears steaks in a heavy, ultra-hot skillet over a high flame. To serve 4, you need 2 pounds of skirt steak. He cooks it two pieces at a time, then lets it rest for 10 to 15 minutes to let the juices redistribute throughout the meat. He slices the meat against the grain and serves it with a pan sauce (see No. 4).
4. Make a quick pan sauce
Cook onion, garlic, and several sprigs of fresh thyme in the pan in which you seared the steak. Add red wine and chicken stock, a little at a time, until the sauce thickens with each addition. When you have about ½ cup of liquid in the pan, stir in a little butter.
“Honestly, if it’s rice, ‘Hello, rice cooker,’ ” says the chef. For something more adventurous, he makes couscous, which looks like a grain but is a kind of pasta. He steams it in chicken stock, lets it rest for a few minutes, then stirs in lightly browned onions.
Braising is cooking slowly in a flavorful liquid. To braise chicken thighs for 4 people, use 4 bone-in, skin-on thighs and brown them on both sides. Deglaze the pan with white wine and simmer the chicken with fresh herbs and chicken stock in a low oven for 1 to 1½ hours. “Your first level of overcooked will be the meat just falling part, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing,” says Leviton. After that, they dry out. Reduce the cooking juices while the chicken sits. “As meat cooks, the muscle fibers seize up and push moisture out,” Leviton explains. “As they cool and relax, it gives a chance for the meat to reabsorb liquid.”
7. Roast fish
Fish 101 for this region is an adaptation of the classic New England baked scrod with Ritz cracker topping. Leviton came up with his version for Restaurant Week a couple of years ago, and now regularly includes it on his menu. “A classic’s a classic for a reason, so we wanted to play with that,” he says. He uses skinless, boneless cod, tops the fish with mayonnaise and panko crumbs that he seasons, then bakes it. Before serving, he broils the fish for a few seconds to brown the top.
8. Kick out a quick dessert
“One of the easiest things is a shortcake,” says Leviton. This recipe for four takes the ultimate shortcut of all — store-bought biscuits! — and dolls them up with berries and cream. In a bowl, he mixes 1½ pints of ripe, quartered fresh strawberries with ⅓ cup sugar and sets them aside for 20 minutes. He beats 1 cup heavy cream with 1 tablespoon sugar and ½ teaspoon vanilla extract to soft peaks, spoons the berries onto halved biscuits, adds a generous dollop of cream, then drizzles it with juices from the
berry bowl, before
sandwiching with the biscuit tops.
9. Make an easy potato dish
Roast 1-inch cubes of Yukon Gold potatoes, tossed with olive oil, salt, and pepper, in a very hot oven until they turn golden brown. “They’re delicious and add great texture to a meal,” says Leviton.
10. Plan the meal
“You go to a dinner party and the host is running around frantically because they haven’t game-planned the whole affair,” says Leviton. Set out knives, utensils, pots, and other cooking vessels. Prep components so it’s just a matter of adding this or that as you cook. And clean as you go. “A clean station is a happy station and a happy station is a productive station,” says Leviton, quoting a well-used restaurant adage. “While it is theoretically possible to create greatness out of a mess, it’s much less likely.”