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Mise-en-place (Chef shortcuts, part two)

Well, you can't say I didn't warn you. I threatened vaguely in the last cooking related piece that when I ran out of ideas I'd probably return to this one.

Well, here I am again, and whilst it's not that I'm out of ideas as such, it's more that the things worth commenting on at the moment are so rage-inducing that I doubt I'd manage anything coherent. And so I retreat back to the safety of my kitchen, to give you a few more nuggets of how I manage to navigate my professional day. I spoke last time of the building blocks: stock, butter, garlic, fat, onions. So I suppose now it behoves me to add a couple of frills to the structure.

Chefs talk a lot about "elevating the dish". A fairly poncy phrase which you would be well within your rights to mock to within an inch of its life. At its worst (anyone on MasterChef: the Professionals) this can come to mean "Taking a perfectly decent dish and fucking about with it to the extent that you can justify charging thirty quid for fish and chips". But as a concept, it's one that the home cook would do well to remember. If you are thinking the right way about the dish "elevating" it means "making the best version of this dish that I can". Be that reducing your stock a bit more for extra oomph for your chicken casserole to actually taking time to scramble eggs properly, it's always worth bearing in mind.

All well and good, you may say, but this is basically saying pay attention, isn't it? Well, yes, it is. But it's not just about that. It's about treating your ingredients with respect. It's about tasting as you go. It's about thinking what might help, those scrambled eggs are elevated by a few snipped fresh chives at the end, or a little chopped parsley, both herbs which are happy growing on a kitchen windowsill. Your Bolognese is elevated by taking the time to brown your meat properly, in batches, not all at once so it steams in the pan. Whilst the first blog was about ways of cutting corners, what I'm saying here is that there are some corners you should not cut. The gravy for the Sunday Roast is elevated by a glug of madeira, amongst other things (a few thoughts on the vexed question of gravy will be forthcoming in a couple of paragraphs time)

Another aspect of professional kitchens which I wish more home cooks would adopt is frugality. Simply put, unless it's walking out of the kitchen under its own steam, you don't throw it away. Everything is useful. Freeze heels of bread for use as breadcrumbs: to bind burgers and meatballs, to thicken soups, to toast and add crunch to pastas, to top macaroni cheese. Freeze undrunk wine (if you have such a thing) for sauces, to deglaze, for marinades. All these are way of elevating your food without spending an extra penny. Supermarket herbs go flaccid within seconds of hitting your fridge, but if you're not using them that day, keep them in oil. They'll last for ever and you'll have a lovely herb oil to make dressings with. We've a box for veg trimmings permanently in our fridge (and a bag of bones in the freezer). Every week or so I make stock, or soup. Parmesan rind is a source of instant umami, just chuck it in and allow as much to melt off as possible.

Speaking of instant umami, there are all manner of condiments which are handy for adding depth of flavour with minimum effort. That great divider of opinion, Marmite, adds unparalleled depth to stocks, sauces and stews (and no, it doesn't taste like Marmite when it's cooked). Likewise, confining soy sauce to Chinese cookery is cutting your nose off to spite your face, few beef dishes aren't improved by a judicious splash of soy. Get it in your pan of Scouse and it's next-level. It doesn't work quite so well with lamb, though, I'd generally go Worcester, there. Miso paste is another sure fire way to add guts to a dish without really trying. Think of it as adding time to your dish, all these ingredients are long-brewed, and can magically add the time it took to distil their flavours to give an effect it would take you much longer to achieve trying to do things by the book.

Now, my friends, we enter slightly murkier territory. All I will say is you'd be amazed how often brown sauce and tomato ketchup wind up in sauces at even the best places. You may choose to use, or ignore this information, but have fun experimenting (It'll perk your chilli up no end). I'm not telling any tales by letting you know that Marco Pierre White's signature Beurre de Tomates is roast cherry tomatoes and butter blended with a judicious splurge of ketchup.

For the record, my gravy at work doesn't contain either, but it does have a good glug of soy sauce in it, and Madeira. I will also confess to redcurrant jelly. I make no apologies, if you've come to the Kicking Donkey for Sunday Lunch, and partaken of the gravy, you will know that I am right. Worcester sauce is a slightly more vexed question, as in these allergen concerned days it contains not one but two of the biggies in garlic and anchovies. In the comfort of your own home, feel free.

Speaking of anchovies, these are, to my mind, a store-cupboard essential. The don't taste fishy when cooked, and there's nothing like them for adding a huge amount of bottom end to a dish. Next to my jar of garlic puree in the fridge, you will often find a jar of anchovy paste made by blitzing three or four tins of anchovies with a splash of red wine vinegar, a couple of garlic cloves and a fair whack of seasoning. I heartily recommend you try it, it comes in handy for all manner of things: we spoke earlier of elevating scrambled eggs, well, a glop of this stuff on the toast and you have Scotch Woodcock, breakfast of champions. Go easy with it though, it's potent stuff.

You'll know which herbs and spices that you do or don't enjoy. But do please allow me to make the case for keeping some nutmeg in your cupboard. Freshly grated, there's nothing quite like it in all manner of dishes. In particular chillies and curries benefit from its soothing, aromatic tones, and a cheese sauce without it is unthinkable. I also get through more allspice than is healthy, but I appreciate it's not to everyone's taste. Whilst on the subject of herbs and spices, you will occasionally read earnest entreaties to bin your old spices, as only fresh is worth eating. This has some truth to it, fresh is generally best, but please don't bin your old spices just because they've lost a little oomph - just use a bit more, it'll still be good.

One last ingredient before I go, and it's one which is often criminally overlooked: water. Water is the one of the chef's greatest allies, rescuing stuck dishes, creating instant sauces from pan scrapings. I've lost count of the times a splash of water has saved my dish at the last second (one tip for burned chillies / curries and dishes of that ilk: a glug of peanut butter works wonders) Season some pork chops and fry in butter, pour some water in the pan, scrape the bits on the bottom off into it and reduce, you've just made pork chops "au jus". That was easy, wasn't it?


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