Good regional cooking methods?
October 31, 2015 7:27 AM   Subscribe

After years and years of not getting the pasta right, everyone in my circle of friends and beyond seems to know that you need to finish the pasta in the sauce, including some of the cooking water. It's such a vast improvement. Do you know similar simple "tricks" or methods from other regional cuisines? I remember reading this thread about Japanese and Korean cooking with great interest, but I'm curious about other cooking styles across the World as well.

I'm very curious about Asian food, from the Bosporus to the Pacific, but all continents are interesting to me
posted by mumimor to Food & Drink (21 answers total) 125 users marked this as a favorite
I grew up in an ethnically North Indian household and a lot of that cooking involved the same basic curry structure: sauté onions with cumin seeds, then add in sliced ginger and garlic, then turmeric powder, then your main item (e.g., chicken, cauliflower), then tomato paste, then salt & pepper. My mom talked about how the combination of ginger, garlic, tomato, and onion provided a simple contrast of tangy and sweet that made dishes dynamic and pleasing. Most of the dishes I make now just start with this, or involve some modification.

Here's a similar description: Link
posted by mrmanvir at 7:38 AM on October 31, 2015 [64 favorites]

For what it's worth, the bit about finishing the pasta together with the sauce is really more of a restaurant technique than an entrenched regional technique of home cooking.

Ditto for splashing some of the pasta cooking water in the sauce while finishing the pasta. Sure, it's great to adjust the tightness of the sauce, but that pasta water really doesn't contain enough starch to make much of a difference. The cooking water in a restaurant that does a lot of pasta, on the other hand, contains a lot of starch and therefore not only helps to add some richness of mouthfeel but also helps the sauce to fully emulsify. A good way to have access to this at home is to boil the crap out of some pasta, then run the pasta and cooking water through the blender, freeze it in ice cube trays and keep it in a ziplock bag. Then you can just chuck in a cube of "restaurant-style pasta water" when you're finishing a sauce. Makes a big difference.

A similar trick is to swirl in some fat off the heat at the last second. This is good to do with either a very high quality extra virgin olive oil or a blob of butter or, yanno, both. Having canned around 50 pounds of heirloom plum tomatoes at the end of the summer, I've been on a bit of a spaghetti pomodoro kick lately, and have used a similar technique that I ripped off from Scott Conant: I crush the tomatoes with a potato masher and simmer them by themselves; but off to the side I have a little pot with basil, garlic and red pepper flakes warm-infusing on the stove. At the end, after I have finished the spaghetti with the tomato and some starch water, I turn off the heat and dump in the strained oil. Makes a huge difference, and of course could be done with any aromatic (fennel seeds would be amazing, for example).
posted by slkinsey at 8:30 AM on October 31, 2015 [26 favorites]

When using a ginger grinder, cover it with plastic wrap. Works just the same, but much easier to clean up.

Always toss the garlic in after your other aromatics, otherwise the garlic will brown too much and be bitter.

When stir frying, first do the veg mostly through, then remove that from the wok. Then start the meat and return the veg at the end.
posted by humboldt32 at 8:57 AM on October 31, 2015 [2 favorites]

I stumbled on this explanation of how to judge the temperature of tea water by eye. My teas have been tasting much better! I'm not from a serious tea-culture, so I can't speak to the method's authenticity. It's worked for me.
posted by Jesse the K at 10:21 AM on October 31, 2015 [5 favorites]

Fried rice is much easier to make when you start with chilled rice. Spread it out on a cookie sheet, then put it (uncovered) in the refrigerator until ready to cook. The grains separate much better that way.

Stir-fried meats are so much more tender if you toss the meat slices in some cornstarch first before marinating or cooking them. Using this method, you usually don't need to add cornstarch at the end to thicken the sauce.

I can't vouch for the ethnic authenticity of these methods, though. I just know they work.
posted by DrGail at 11:35 AM on October 31, 2015 [5 favorites]

Take the pan off the heat before adding spices - that way they won't burn.
(Learned that one from someone in India and it's made my curries much better)
posted by girlgenius at 8:15 PM on October 31, 2015 [2 favorites]

Stir-fried meats are so much more tender if you toss the meat slices in some cornstarch first before marinating or cooking them. Using this method, you usually don't need to add cornstarch at the end to thicken the sauce.

I can't vouch for the ethnic authenticity of these methods, though. I just know they work.

That second one, with the cornstarch, is apparently very common in Chinese cooking. The version of the marinade I usually see in recipes is cornstarch, egg whites and rice wine.
posted by nebulawindphone at 9:21 AM on November 1, 2015 [2 favorites]

We just made lovely, homey, warming, wonderfully comforting Greek chicken soup the other night, so I will mention avgolemono, an egg and lemon sauce used in many Greek dishes: cooking techniques here.

We keep some chicken in the freezer and always have eggs, rice, and lemons on hand, so can easily and conveniently make our avgolemono chicken soup any time the weather turns bitter, or we need comfort food, or haven't shopped for supper.

Our super simple convenience recipe: put a frozen leg-thigh chicken piece and breast piece in a big soup pot, fill a bit over half way with water, and boil until the meat is nearly falling from the bone, then take out the chicken and set aside to cool a bit, and add rice to the pot – 1/3 to 1/2 cup. Remove the chicken meat from the bone, and add back to the pot. When the rice is cooked, turn off the heat and allow it to cool a bit so it's not boiling hot ... but is still hot enough to make the egg addition safe. Vigorously whip one or two eggs (depending on how creamy you want the soup) in a bowl and while still whipping, trickle in the juice of one juiced lemon (or two if they're extra small or stingy lemons). Once the lemon is incorporated and the mixture is pale and frothy, begin to add hot broth from the soup in small increments so that you don't cook the egg, stirring vigorously all the while, until the mixture is near the temperature of the soup, then finally add the mixture to the soup pot, while making traditional kissing sounds to persuade the egg not to curdle, and also to confuse your dog who will think you are calling her to get a treat. In order not to disappoint the dog, you can give her edible bits of the chicken remains that didn't go back into the soup. Salt and pepper! Serve with a simple green salad and crusty bread that you break into bits and soak in the soup. Bask in the delicious warmth and comfort! :)

Another great technique to learn and treasure is how to make roux, Louisiana style. The secret to blow-your-mind-gumbo versus pale imitation gumbo is in the roux. I have an old gumbo recipe here, and of course, there are many, many recipes for roux and gumbo online. I recommend sticking close to the source for Creole and Cajun cuisine though. And now that I mention it, I think some delicious gumbo definitely needs to be on our menu this week.
posted by taz at 10:02 AM on November 1, 2015 [29 favorites]

Response by poster: Wow, taz, now I know what to cook the next week!

Thanks all for the suggestions. Keep them coming! The main thing for me is simple techniques and base principles - right now I started out making some fusion of empanadas and fatayer. I think they will be good, but even though the proportions of aromatics and spices are the same as those I've found in Latin American and Lebanese recipes (which are very similar), I don't really think the taste has the same depth as in their countries of origin or if I buy fatayer at the Lebanese joint down the street (no good Latin food here).

For Christmas, I'm thinking of cooking Chinese food for the first time ever, for a party. And I'm studying cook-books and blogs all the time, but I'm worrying I don't get the basic methods right, because they are different from what I am used to. So thanks for the tips about cornstarch - I had no idea and must have overlooked it.
posted by mumimor at 11:12 AM on November 1, 2015

So thanks for the tips about cornstarch - I had no idea and must have overlooked it.

Two other things that have really upped my stir-fry game:

- get your pan and oil on the highest heat you can (open the windows!)
- For protein, add it on its own, and let it sit, undisturbed, for a full minute, then finish it by madly stir-frying for another minute or so. If you're cooking it with other ingredients, remove it before you add anything else. This will give you that maillard reaction magic with the corn starch that you want.

Also, I've learned in my own research that it's pretty uncommon for Chinese stir fry dishes to mix protein and vegetables. It's more common to serve meat and vegetables separately. I usually go ahead and do it anyway and expect that the end result may be a bit soggy. But if you're cooking for a party, you'll probably get better results by cooking them separately and letting guests mix and match.
posted by lunasol at 1:29 PM on November 1, 2015 [3 favorites]

I just figured this one out prepping for a party this weekend:

When making an aioli (specifically, though it usually is, with nice EV olive oil), don't use a blender, or even a whisk to form your emulsion, but a wooden spoon. Supposedly*, a blender or whisk can "bruise" the olive oil and give it a bitter edge. I made two batches back to back, one with a blender, one with a spoon, and it makes a clear difference. The emulsion seems significantly more stable as well.

*"Bruising olive oil" sounds suspect to me, but whatever the actual explanation, the difference is there.
posted by cmoj at 2:12 PM on November 1, 2015 [3 favorites]

I learned a Spanish technique when simmering fresh tomatoes into a cooked sauce. Before, I was going through the laborious process of blanching the skin off the tomato, coring, simmering whole, then blending till slightly chunky. The Spanish method is you core the tomato then grate the raw tomato, cut side against the grater. The flesh will go through the teeth, leaving the skin behind in your hand to toss. You just grate the toms into the pot you are simmering them in and they turn out perfect without any extra steps.
posted by Foam Pants at 11:28 PM on November 1, 2015 [10 favorites]

As someone cooking on a Western style flat stove, getting wok hei, or that lovely slightly smokey flavor of a well-done stir fry, is very hard. Usually wok hei is achieved by putting bite sized pieces in an ungodly hot wok and tossing them around vigorously so that they singe but don't burn. A Western cooktop will not get hot enough for this. The powerful wok burner gas jet will also wrap around the wok, enveloping a large part of the wok in heat. Again, a Western cooktop will not do this, especially if you are cooking electric. Based on my experience, here is how I get a decent singe on my stir fry:

1. Your set up should be a flat frying pan with sloped sides, the kind most American cooks have in their kitchen that they cook everything in.

2. Don't get a wok or a wok that's flat on the bottom. Western stoves and woks don't mesh. If you get a wok, you will need a wok burner and that's too complicated. Don't get an electric wok. You will never get the kind of heat you need.

3. Your oil should heat up until you can see a vapor coming off. I don't mean the kind where your neighbors are calling the fire department but the oil needs to be slightly smoking. Open your windows because the neighbors might call the fire department before this is all through.

4. Let's say we are cooking pieces of chicken. Put the pieces in the pan so there is generally only a single layer with a little bit of pan showing through here and there. You don't want them cooking in their own juices and crowding the pan is bad. Obviously, you will be dealing with an angry, spitting pan at this point, so, I'm not expecting you to place each morsel exactly.

5. As soon as the raw chicken bits hit the pan and you quickly get them in a single-ish layer, leave them alone. I know you want to toss them around like a wok chef but don't because you don't have a wok. Once you toss them about, they will start weeping and you will have a steaming pot of crap. You want them to pretty much cook over halfway through without moving them so they develop at least one side with a strong sear on it.

6. When you can't stand it any longer, toss them to cook them through. Or you can be crazy like me and turn each piece with tongs while getting burned. When that batch is cooked, put it off the heat in a bowl. Again, you will want to be all wok-chefy and push it to the sides and add more but, again, you don't have a wok. Do the next batch of raw meat.

7. If you have veg, like green beans or whatever, I crowd the pan more but I still leave it alone until it's pretty much burnt a bit on one side.

8. Try to have the ingredients as dry as possible before stir fry. If the meat is in a marinade, put it in a colander to drain. Remember, you are trying to avoid steaming it in it's own juices. Also, really hot oil plus marinade means you better be wearing long sleeves. Ouch.
posted by Foam Pants at 9:35 AM on November 2, 2015 [7 favorites]

For Christmas, I'm thinking of cooking Chinese food for the first time ever, for a party.

I cook Chinese/Thai food nearly every day and I would say the one thing to avoid in this situation is constructing a meal that consists entirely or almost entirely of stir-fries. Many people think entirely of stir-fries when they think of Chinese food, but there's a whole host of Chinese dishes that are done with other techniques: braising and steaming are really common. (Roasting/baking is the one common Western cooking technique that's little used by Chinese home cooks, as most Chinese kitchens have historically lacked ovens.)

When I have dinner parties with Chinese food, I try to have a max of 2 stir-fried dishes, 3 if one of them is very simple, like a leafy green simply stir-fried.

Don't get a wok or a wok that's flat on the bottom.

Also, I will respectfully disagree with Foam Pants on the wok issue, though I'm with her on most everything else. I stir-fry using a flat-bottomed carbon steel wok on a Western gas oven with typical heat/BTU output, i.e. I don't have a special wok burner or anything. (I rent, so I use what I get.) I do agree that electric stoves are really not the best, but I have been cooking Chinese food on normal North American gas stoves for several years now and haven't had any problems.

I prefer using flat-bottomed woks to flatter stir-fry pans such as the one linked to, because I find that especially with bulky items such as leafy vegetables, they tend to fly around everywhere and the higher rims of the wok mean that I don't get spinach leaves or whatever flying around on my stove. This is a smaller point, but I also prefer using a non-nonstick pan (carbon steel must be seasoned) for stir-frying.
posted by andrewesque at 8:19 AM on November 5, 2015 [1 favorite]

Also, the whole point of flat-bottomed woks are that they are designed for use on Western stoves without special wok grates -- woks traditionally have rounded bottoms and that obviously doesn't work on a Western stove.
posted by andrewesque at 8:22 AM on November 5, 2015 [1 favorite]

When I was first learning to cook Louisiana-style food I never knew when the roux was dark enough. Here's a tip: get a bottle of instant coffee (I use Nescafé Blend 43) and compare the roux to the coffee granules. It should be that color.

Also, you can cook a lot of roux in advance and store it in the fridge.

Also also, once the roux has cooled you can mix water or stock in to form a paste, a little at a time. This mixture will blend with your soup or stew much more readily than the roux itself, and it has similar keeping properties. So what I do now is, I make a whole lot of roux, let it cool somewhat, slowly stir in water until it has slackened into a paste (it initially seizes up, but then releases) and then freeze it, flattened, in a Ziploc.
posted by Joe in Australia at 3:37 PM on November 5, 2015 [2 favorites]

Here in Korea, we use scissors for cutting meat. It rules.

(at my house, we also use them for slicing pizza. It also rules.)

The hippest Korean cooking move, though, isn't really even cooking. You see, if you have a fridge full of banchan (side dishes, pickled/fermented goodies), all you need is a bowl of rice and some gochujang (fermented chili paste) and maybe a fried egg and you have a meal, a sort of catch-all bibimbap. Good, good livin, peoples. If you want to level up and make your life permanently awesome and forever bask in the glory of nurungji, you can even pick up a dolsot or two.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 4:25 PM on November 6, 2015 [3 favorites]

I can't vouch for the ethnic authenticity of these methods, though. I just know they work.

Agreed - using old rice from the fridge makes a better fried rice.

Also, add your soy sauce/s to the rice and mix thoroughly BEFORE adding to the wok - again, this goes towards keeping the grains separate and firm.
posted by infini at 10:01 AM on November 7, 2015 [1 favorite]

If you are planning on using cumin in a proper curry or other dish involving a kabillion years of stirring and simmering and resting to let the spice gorgeously merge with the fat, then you are doing god's work, and may go in peace.

If you're ripping off dinner in 30 minutes like the rest of us humans, please PLEASE fry (or roast) your cumin. A few minutes in hot oil (before onions, or even with them) prevents that horrible raw cumin college-hippy-co-op-cooking taste. And the smell is heavenly.

In a totally crazy rush I have actually nuked dry cumin in the microwave for 15 second intervals. It does usually work, but is not recommended because it's easy to accidentally set it on fire (which is an unpleasant surprise) rendering it burnt and inedible (which is an unpleasanter surprise).
posted by synapse at 10:31 AM on November 7, 2015 [4 favorites]

this may actually be anti-ethnic-cooking secret advice, but for dry pasta, you want to start with the pasta in the pot. Add just enough (well salted) water to cover. Stir occasionally as it heats up, and when it boils bring it down to a simmer. This not only minimizes unnecessary water use, but more importantly it gives you that restaurant-caliber pasta starch water that is GOLD for getting your sauces to coat your pasta.

Kenji Lopez even did a thing about this technique. I cannot imagine ever even not doing this for dry pasta now.

For actual Italians-won't-chase-you advice, if you can find tomato passata, buy it and use it. It's basically lightly cooked crushed tomatoes with the seeds and skins filtered out, and works great anywhere you don't need actual chunks of tomato in your finished result. It comes in these 700 ml glass bottles, usually, and it has this great fresh flavor that you can't get from canned tomatoes or tomato paste. I'll just combine a bottle of passata with some oregano or (just before serving) some chopped fresh basil (or shiso! shhhhh) and some of the starchy pasta water, with a bit of butter or olive oil and maybe a shake of crushed chili pepper, and salt to taste. Dead simple and tasty as the dickens.
posted by DoctorFedora at 5:15 AM on November 10, 2015 [4 favorites]

For Japanese cooking tricks, hunt down the NHK World show Dining with the Chef. There's a wealth of useful little techniques in there.
posted by DoctorFedora at 5:16 AM on November 10, 2015 [3 favorites]

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