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* None of which require mastery of the mandoline, a month in France, a Spago apprenticeship, the ability to drink Jean-Georges under the table, or the purchase of a small, exorbitantly priced, my-god-that’s-hot blowtorch.
Fig. 1Skip the ice sculptures. File away the flambé recipes. to Dazzle your dinner guests and LOOK LIKE a gastronomical genius, ALL YOU’VE GOT TO DO IS learn a few simple kitchen tricks. Then summon your friends to the feast.
COOK A WHOLE FISH
This could be the easiest DIY project you take on all year. Cooking a whole fish is just as simple as popping a filet in the oven—and way more impressive.
“It doesn’t have to be intimidating,” says Ryan Sieloff, retail manager for Coastal Seafoods. “There’s really no trick to this”—other than landing a fresh whole fish. Sieloff recommends starting with a small fish, like a whole tai snapper from New Zealand.
What you need: 1 whole snapper per person (a 1- to 1 1/2-pound fish, minus the inedible parts, will yield an 8- to 10-ounce portion), olive oil.
How to do it:
1. Make sure fish is fresh. Look for clear eyes, red gills, and a nice gloss. Flesh should spring back when pressed. Ask your fishmonger to remove guts, gills, fins, and scales.
2. Make slits at an angle on both sides of fish. If you’re inclined, stuff slits with a mash of garlic, lemon zest, salt, and herbs.
3. Brush both sides of fish lightly with olive oil and bake 12 to 15 minutes in a 400-degree oven until center temperature reaches 145 degrees. (Cut a slit in thickest section to check for doneness. If flesh is no longer translucent, fish is cooked through.)
4. Serve fish whole. Snapper skin is edible. Or you can peel away the skin with a sharp knife.
Turn it up a notch: Go big with a whole salmon or Arctic char. Sieloff notes that you may need to tie a large fish’s tail up toward its head with twine to make it fit in a pan. And remember: the larger the fish, the longer the cooking time.
CHOP, SLICE, AND DICE RIGHTWhat separates the pros from the pretenders? How they wield a knife, the most important tool in the kitchen.
Chef Jonathan Kaye, who teaches Knife Skills 101 at Cooks of Crocus Hill and sharpens the minds of young chefs at Le Cordon Bleu, recommends investing in one good blade—an 8-inch chef’s knife—then buying additional cutlery as needed. (Don’t debone a lot of chicken or fish? You probably don’t need a boning knife.)
“Don’t be afraid to spend money on a knife,” Kaye says. “I have one that I bought when I was a student 23 years ago. It’s still good. There have been nights when I’ve cut up a hundred racks of lamb with it.”
Practice your basic skills with a knife by cutting carrots julienne before you try to pick up the pace. “Technique is more important than speed, especially at home,” Kaye says.
Turn it up a notch: Sign up for a knife-skills lesson at Cooks of Crocus Hill (St. Paul, 651-228-1333; and Edina, 952-285-1903) or Mothersauces Cooking School (Richfield, 612-331-9680).
1. Holding carrot’s fat end, make a thin slice down one side to create a flat edge.
2. Rotate 90 degrees and repeat. Do this again twice more so you have a four-sided vegetable.
3. Keeping knife point on cutting board, cut lengthwise into 1/8-inch planks. Cut each plank lengthwise into 1/8-inch thick strips. 4. Cut long strips into matchsticks or tiny cubes.
Tip 1: Purchasing
Buy the right knife. Look for a forged steel chef’s knife with a tang that runs all the way through the handle. While you’re at it, pick up a steel—the round metal piece that chefs use almost daily to take the burrs off the blade.
Tip 2: Sharpening
Hone blades regularly with a home knife sharpener. Or take them to a professional. Knife-sharpening services are available at Master’s Edge (Minneapolis, 612-379-1300), as well as Lunds and Byerly’s (various metro locations).
Tip 3: Storage and use
Hand-wash and thoroughly dry knives before storing in a knife block, not a drawer. Choose wooden or plastic cutting boards. Glass boards reduce the life of the blade.