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Griffin to Go: Take a Tip or Two from the Professionals

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Get together a hastiness of cooks (yup, that’s the collective noun for those apron-clad folks) and you’ll likely learn more than a few tips to make your kitchen life easier.

Such was the case at the recent Latin Flavors, American Kitchens conference at the Culinary Institute of America’s San Antonio campus.

Here are few of the tips as well as some of the opinions and a few little-known facts that filled the demonstrations and seminars.

Vinegar isn’t vinegar

Not all vinegars are the same.

When you try a recipe from Mexico that calls for vinegar, don’t just grab your white vinegar and start to pour.

According to Iliana de la Vega, Mexican/Latin cuisines specialist for the CIA, white vinegar in the United States is made from potatoes. White vinegar in Mexico is made from cane sugar. The flavor of the former is more acrid, while the latter is sweet.

So, if you don’t have Mexican white vinegar on hand, use mirin or rice vinegar instead. Either is closer to the flavor that the recipe calls for.

Grill sense

“When grilling, tongs are better than your fingers.”

Sometimes, a little common sense goes a long way. Chef Robert Del Grande from Houston offered up some sage advice for grilling before making Beer-mopped Rib-eye Steaks with Bacon, Onions and Garlic.

Don’t build your fire until the entire grill, he said. If you do, you won’t have any place to move the meat. So, he likes to build the fire at the back of the grill for searing at  the beginning. As the cooking process goes along, he will move the meat to the front to finish it off.

This way you can manage the fire without letting the fire manage you.

The fire in the outdoor pit tried to get the best of Del Grande as he was demonstrating his recipe for Redfish Grilled on Banana Leaves with Avocado and Queso Fresco Relish. As he was speaking, the banana leaf caught on fire. The chef simply moved the fish to a cooler spot on the grill and tamped out the flame.

Using banana leaves on the grill does more than impart an flavor to the fish. It also prevents the fish from falling apart. Add a second leaf over the top toward the end of grilling and you’ll create a little oven where you let the fish “steam a little before finishing,” he said.

Herb mops

Herb mops

When Almir Da Fonseca of the CIA’s Greystone, Calif., campus demonstrated the way to make Rio-style Grilled Chicken, he used an herb brush to baste the meat with beer. The bundle of cilantro adds a light herb touch to the chicken.

This was a new technique to me, but not in the culinary world. Del Grande said his grandmother, who was Italian, would often use rosemary branches to baste with.

They have other uses, too. I saw one of the student chefs using an herb brush to brush salt water on the hot rocks used for the pachamanca.

And, yes, you can use an herb mop on Del Grande’s rib-eye recipe.

A little seedy

Roberto Santibañez, chef and owner of Fonda restaurant in Brooklyn, is on a mission to change people’s minds about all those seeds in small chiles.

You may have taken a cooking class or two in which the seeds and the veins of a habanero or serrano pepper were removed to make its heat less intense. That isn’t accurate, the chef said. If the heat of a small pepper is too hot, just use less of it. (Not large peppers like guajillos or anchos, he added.)

To seed or not to seed? That is the question.

“When you choose small chiles for any purpose, you choose it for its heat,” he said.

Removing the seeds removes flavor and half of its nutritional value, he said.

The seeds in chiles de arbol, for example, will cook and produce a different flavor, he said. If you find the seeds indigestible, simply pulverize them in a blender and you’ll be able to absorb the nutrients better.

Santibañez couldn’t get this message across to all of the students, some of whom seeded the chiles for his demonstration. “And again and again and again and again — do not seed the peppers,” he said.

It’s wasn’t entirely the students’ fault, as not every other chef at the conference agreed with this approach. The recipes from the women chefs of Guadeloupe all called for the chiles to be seeded before using.

Don’t want a lot of heat in your dishes but want some of the chiles’ flavor? Don’t cut them, de la Vega said. Use them whole and remove them before serving.

Salt, pepper and …

Think that the end-all of seasoning is salt and pepper? Not so, said noted Florida chef Norman Van Aken, who has long promoted Floribbean cuisine.

Salt, pepper and lime juice are the real foundations of seasoning, he said.

This is one we knew from eating at plenty of taquerias and taco trucks that include a bowl of lime slices next to the salt and pepper shakers. But it’s nice to hear it verbalized by a professional.

Chicago celebrity chef Rick Bayless was one of many more to sing the praises of fresh squeezed lime juice, as opposed to the stuff in the plastic green bottle or even the stuff in the market that was bottled earlier in the day.

Lime juice begins to change quickly, so its freshness is elusive. “Always take the time to squeeze your lime juice,” he said.

Another seasoning Van Aken used was yellow curry. It’s a spice blend that has its detractors. The chef tries to get around that by toasting it to let it cook out its raw flavor. You don’t want it to burn, so if you feel your saucepan is getting too hot, just pick it up off the stove and give it a good shake, he said.

Handling okra


Okra is one of those divisive vegetables that people either love or hate. And it’s easy to see why: it’s the mucilage that is sometimes produced when you cook it.

But there are ways around the mucilage, culinary historian Jessica Harris said.

One is to not cut the pods but cook them whole. Another is to soak them in an acid, such as lemon juice, before cooking. A third is to cook the okra thoroughly until it turns an olive green.

If the latter is unappealing, then divide the okra in half. Cook half “to the point of disappearing,” said Cuban-born culinary historian Maricel Presilla. Then add some blanched okra that had been soaked in lemon juice at the end.

Why is the mucilage “that thing that everyone in the United States seems to hate,” while the rest of the world loves it, Harris asked.

It’s cultural, of course. Yet that aspect of okra is what acts as the thickener that binds everything in the pot together and gives it extra body, Presilla said.

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