Secret Kitchen Tips From An Old Cook

Over the years, I've developed hundreds of my own recipes. Each recipe has its own specific requirements. Being involved in cooking on a daily basis gives me the opportunity to work out and discover helpful techniques and tips. Sometimes, through repetition and trial and error, I stumble upon, rather than "invent," pertinent kitchen clues. These are happy accidents! Following are a few things I've learned:

Potatoes can be enjoyed in a wide variety of dishes without spending a lot of preparation and cooking time. Slice or dice them (no need to peel), microwave a few minutes until just tender, then include them in quick-to-cook, one-pan skillet suppers, stir-frys and casseroles finished with a conventional stove. Using the microwave as a tool saves precious time.

In developing recipes for soups, stews and sauces, I experiment with a variety of seasonings and flavors. I've found that a dash or two of Kikkoman soy sauce can add depth and complexity of flavor to countless dishes, not just Asian ones. Try soy sauce in beef stew, in barley and mushroom, chicken and vegetable soups, and surprisingly enough, in spaghetti sauce and vinaigrettes, too.

Many luscious strawberry desserts -- cheesecakes and mousse cakes, for examples, -- start with graham cracker crusts pressed onto the bottom and sides of a springform pan. Here is a trick that makes it easy as pie: Add the crust mixture to the springform pan, then use a round layer cake pan smaller in diameter to press the crust neatly and evenly into the springform.

Salads are my favorites, and I've found that in putting them together, you don't need a bowl for mixing the dressing and another for tossing the salad. Whisk the vinaigrette or dressing mixture in a large bowl. Add the greens and other salad ingredients, then toss to coat with a lifting motion (never packing down) to avoid bruising tender greens.

I've done quite a lot of work using prune purée as a fat substitute in baking. After trying many proportions, I get the best result by eliminating half the fat in a soft cookie, quick bread, cake or muffin recipe, then adding half that amount of prune purée. To make prune purée, add 1 1/3 cups (8 ounces) pitted prunes and 6 tablespoons hot water to container of blender or processor. Pulse on and off until mixture is finely chopped and almost smooth. This makes 1 cup. Cover and refrigerate up to a month.

It's most important to taste as you cook. Many ingredients don't taste the same every time you purchase and use them. Most notably, intensity of flavor can vary in lemons, chiles and garlic. Adjust the amount to your liking.
You can often help a dish along and make the flavor "just right" by adding a splash of lemon juice, a dash of salt or a pinch of sugar. Practice makes perfect. Repeated tasting will help you determine what a dish needs for flavor balance.

Last, but not least, here is a bit of advice that has little to do with your fine cooking skills, but a lot to do with how you feel about time spent in the kitchen. Whenever you're not cleaning up as you go, place dirty pots, pans and bowls in the sink and run water in them. When you go back to them, whether it's an hour or eight hours later, the clean-up chore will be a breeze.

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