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Chefs advise on kitchen basics

YOU'VE double-salted the casserole by mistake � would you know how to salvage your dinner?

The meat you're sauteeing for tonight's tagine won't brown � what's the problem?

A white sauce you're whipping up for a lasagne is lump-free but tastes floury � how do you avoid this happening next time?

This kind of basic kitchen know-how used to be passed on from mother to daughter, because most families cooked and ate at home. But since the advent of ready meals and a dip in numbers taking home economics or food tech at school, many people have lost touch with what used to be second nature

As more of us head back to the home kitchen to cook meals from scratch, for economic and health reasons, these gaps in our basic cooking knowledge are coming home to roost.

"These little hints and tips are really important," says chef Dominique Rizzo, who runs the Learn, Cook, Dine cooking school in tandem with a television career as celebrity chef on Ready, Steady Cook.

"You can pick up a magazine or cookbook and learn techniques but the old-style, tried-and-true tips are a dying art," she says. "In the current economic times, it's good that we're veering back in the direction of using cheaper cuts of meat, making casseroles and pies, using cheaper vegies to bulk out meals."

But, as many are discovering, to make the best use of cheaper produce you need to know your way around your pots and pans.

Rizzo says she loves teaching the use of grains and legumes in her classes, showing a new generation how to make a cheap and highly nutritious staple into flavoursome dishes with a modern twist.

Back to basics

Chef Tony Ching is also enthusiastic about passing on his culinary knowledge, particularly about the basics.

He takes a range of classes at Black Pearl Epicure, the Fortitude Valley cooking school which brings many of Australia's top chefs to Brisbane.

Ching says the glamorous classes are always popular but the school's hands-on kitchen confidence sessions are full, with a waiting list.

"It's so sad. Many students can't do the simplest things. I take my hat off to them because they want to learn, but there's a sad lack of knowledge," he says. "Both my parents were great cooks and they fed us on a shoestring making everything go the distance."

While he didn't always appreciate it as a child, Ching says there was always hearty food on the table, his time-poor parents adept at making the most of each cooking session.

"My mother would cook twice the amount of everything, so it would do for three days. She'd space out the three days so there was always one great meal and two cheapish meals."

He recalls his Chinese father using the now trendy twice-cooked method 30 years ago. "He'd poach something first and we'd eat it poached that night and then another night he'd deep fry or grill it which changes the flavour and texture, so it was the same meat but different."

Slow Food

You might expect Slow Food members to know their way around a kitchen but Vanda Evison, president of Slow Food Queensland, says that's not always the case.

"Some don't have the knowledge but I'm glad they are coming because hopefully they will pick it up," she says.

Evison, a passionate foodie, used to run a cooking school and says she was always hanging around her mother's kitchen when she was a child.

"I'd be doing my homework and she'd be cooking and I'd ask, 'why are you doing that?' and she'd just tell me. It was a great way to pick up knowledge."

If you weren't lucky enough to experience the kitchen wisdom transfer, read on. The Courier-Mail has asked some experienced kitchen hands for their top tips.

Vanda Evison
1 If you're making gravy and need to degrease your roasting pan quickly, get an ice cube and run over the top. The fat will collect on the ice cube.
2 Oil your honey spoon and the honey will pour off easily.

3 Get to know your oven.

4 Rub cut lemon on smelly cooking hands to remove odours.

5 Use lemon and salt to scour and sterilise wooden chopping boards. Wash off with warm water and pop in the sun to dry.

6 Don't keep washing the barbecue, use some salt to scour the bars, then oil and you're ready to go.

7 If your raw chicken feels a little lacklustre, give it a quick wash in some salted water.

8 Wash your vegetables with a couple of tablespoons of vinegar added to the water. This helps break down any water-based chemicals.

9 Cheaper cuts of steak such as skirt respond well to fast cooking on the barbecue to rare or medium rare, or to long slow cooking.

10 A squeeze of lemon brings out flavours in a range of food and also cuts through grease and fat.

Suzanne Quintner, food consultant and owner of Suzanne Quintner Fine Foods.
1 If you've over-salted your casserole, try adding a raw potato to absorb the excess. You can also try adding a spoon or two of plum jam. This adds a richness and piquancy.

2 Don't rush making a curry. Make sure the temperature isn't too high and keep tasting as you go along. Curries (and casseroles) always taste better the following day.

3 If you're sauteeing meat, do it in small batches. If you try to do too much at one time, it will not brown. Cook your tagine in the oven at a low heat for a long time. Don't be impatient. You'll be rewarded by greater flavour and meltingly tender meat.

4 Always read a recipe several times from beginning to end so you can make sure you have all the necessary ingredients to hand before you start.

5 Try to prepare as much as possible before you start to cook.

6 Learn how to make your own stocks. They will be preservative free and you'll know exactly what's in them. It makes a big difference to a dish like risotto.

7 If you're making a white sauce, be sure to cook the roux (butter and flour mixture) properly. Otherwise your sauce will taste floury.

8 Try infusing onion and some cloves in the milk that you'll be using for your sauce. This adds great depth to the finished product.

9 Making mashed potatoes? Always heat the milk before adding. This makes an enormous difference to the fluffiness of the mash.

Tony Ching
1 Buy a thermometer to check your oven. Even on a new oven, the temperature gauge can be a million miles out.

About $6-$7 will buy a thermometer from a kitchen equipment shop.

2 Don't be tempted by el cheapo equipment. Scanpan is a reasonable mid-range option.

You need a range of heavy-based pots to use.

3 Go for gas rather than electricity for your hob. It's cheaper and easier to control.

4 Buy some good knives and get familiar with how to use them and keep them sharp. You can do amazing things with your knife. Don't buy cheap, bendy ones and don't be afraid to ask for advice.

5 Multi-task in your oven. If you're cooking bread, do a pie and scones at the same time.

6 One-pot cooking is fantastic. It keeps all the nutrition in the dish, saves energy and allows you to play with the children or go for a walk while it's cooking.

7 If you're making pastry, the better the quality of your butter, the better your result.

8 Keep the extra-virgin olive oil for dressings. Use cheaper peanut oil which deals better with high temperatures.

9 Cook pasta until al dente or just under and mix through your sauce before serving. This enables the pasta to suck up the flavour of the sauce.

Dominique Rizzo
1 Soup too salty? Add a raw potato to absorb the extra salt.
2 If a recipe requires buttermilk, use full cream milk with a little vinegar added.

3 A good substitute for cream can be made by whipping milk, a little butter and flour.

4 When spooning pancakes or a pikelet or crepe mixture, dip the spoon in milk or water first. The pancake batter will drop off the spoon easily.

5 Not sure if your spices are fresh? Prick them with a pin. If good, the oil will instantly spread around the puncture.

6 Cakes tending to brown too quickly? A bowl containing four cups of water, set in an oven when baking, will prevent pies, cakes, cookies from becoming burnt.

7 If your homemade cake sticks to the pan, set it on a wet cloth for 5 minutes and the cake can be easily removed.

8 Want your omelets to be light and fluffy? A little boiling water added to an omelet as it thickens will prevent it being tough.

9 If you're separating eggs and drop a portion of egg yolk into the whites, moisten a cloth with cold water, touch to the yolk and it will adhere to it.

10 Cooking pastry? If your kitchen lacks airconditioning, night-time is always better because it's cooler.

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