February 25, 2024 | Rome, Italy

Turning tricks

By |2018-03-21T18:25:15+01:00September 21st, 2012|"Suzanne's Taste"|
The liquid for an insalata al mare can turn an inky black.

aybe no one cares about these things anymore. Maybe take-out, veganism and easily heated frozen foods have wiped out the carnal desire to be a hands-on cook – one who loves to caress the silky flesh of a chicken breast filet after liberating it from its milk-white corset with a perfectly sharpened boning knife; one who delights in whamming the daylights out of this same chicken part until its translucent perfection needs only a dusting of salt and pepper before sizzling on a grill for a minute or two; one who revels in immersing it in a bath of seasoned egg and sprinkling it with parmesan-infused bread crumbs to become a perfect pollo alla parmigiana.

I won’t even mention the sensual pleasures of gutting and stuffing birds, or cleaning calamari with your bare hands whilst marveling at the liquid for an insalata al mare turning an inky black from their silvery sacs.

Maybe you’re only thinking, “Boy, is she weird — I’m never gonna do that!”

At the same time, those who have never cooked or those hesitant to begin might actually need a few easy incentives to heat up a pan or whisk up a sauce, starting with the basic, simple techniques that gives any cook an edge over fear of failure.

I’ve cooked for more years than I care to mention, and in that time I’ve discovered a few little tricks that often cut prep time or can add flavor to an otherwise mundane dish, such as dicing an avocado in its shell or adding a tiny goat cheese, rolled in crumbs and sautéed in olive oil, to the top of a green salad – a 1970s ploy that that’s reappearing at dinner parties because, well, it tastes so good. (It also appeals to vegetarians, if not vegans, who can occupy themselves with this while the others tuck into a bistecca alla fiorentina.)

I’ve learned to halve ripe peaches and nectarines, take out the stone and scoop out the flesh with a grapefruit spoon, which takes far less time than peeling and dicing. You may also serve them this way as a do-it-yourself fruit course.

I never peel my fave/broad beans, loving the texture of their skins, and if you buy them young, the skins are as tender as the interior. This goes for tomatoes, which lose most of their flavor when peeled and seeded, in addition to the roughage they add to healthy diets.

When at lunch and dinner I slice the beautifully crusty bread from our local bakeries, I tip all the crumbs into my salad bowl, thus adding a bit of croutons to the lettuces.

And speaking of croutons, all bread going stale may be cut with bread knife or scissors into little cubes, tossed with olive oil and snips of rosemary or garlic or both, and toasted in and 195C or 350F oven for 15 minutes to make savory additions for soups, salads, or just to serve with cheese for aperitivi or at the end of meal.

Unfortunately, when they come out of the oven and cool, it takes all my willpower not to munch through a third of them, bread-lover that I am.

The avocado trick is this: Cut the avocado in half, remove the seed, and with a sharp paring knife, cut length-wise down the avocado but just to the skin; then cut across the avocado just to the skin, and with a spoon, scoop out the perfect little cubes generated from this method.

A trick for peeling oranges is to cut off a small horizontal circle at both stem and bottom of the fruit. With a paring knife, score the orange lengthwise around its circumference with shallow cuts about an inch or 2.5 centimeters apart. Starting at the stem end, you should be able to peel off these sections of skin easily, keeping the fruit intact and beautiful.

My favorite kitchen tool isn’t my food processor or espresso maker or ceramic knife, but what I call my “frapper,” one of those hand-held purée-ers with which you can make the smoothest soup or sauce imaginable and which also imparts a kind of creaminess to the final product. This great little device can be used right in the pot you’ve used to cook the vegetables for a soup or tomatoes for a sauce, thereby eliminating the need to transfer all to the food processor and then to storage or yet another pot.

I throw everything in the garden — onions, tomatoes, squash, basil, sweet peppers, and the flesh of a potato, zapped in the microwave, cooled and scooped out with the trusty grapefruit spoon — into a large pot with a lid, along with a good splash of olive oil — then add a bit of salt, a tiny red hot pepper and a squeeze of lemon, cover and steam until tender.

When all the ingredients are very soft, I get out my zapper and purée the lot into an essence of vitamins and flavor. If you wish to make this concoction more elegant, add a dash of yogurt, sour cream or cream before serving.

Cooking doesn’t have to be stressful or even perfect. With a few tricks (did you know that you can write with squid ink?), you’ll soon find that’s is far better to have cooked and lost than never to have cooked at all.

About the Author:

Suzanne Dunaway, a longtime major magazine writer and artist, is the author and illustrator of "Rome, At Home, The Spirit of La Cucina Romana in Your Own Kitchen" (Broadway Books) and "No Need To Knead, Handmade Italian Breads in 90 Minutes" (Hyperion). She taught cooking for 15 years privately and at cooking schools in Los Angeles, and now maintains a personal website and a blog. She divides her time between southern France and Italy.