DIY Gourmet

* 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. 1

Skip 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.

Paul Nelson

No. 1

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.

No. 2

CHOP, SLICE, AND DICE RIGHT

What 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).

How to do it:
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.

 

No. 3

PLANT A KITCHEN HERB GARDEN

Fresh basil for your pesto? $5. Fresh thyme and tarragon for your bouquet garni? $6. It adds up. But snipping these herbs off your own plants? Well, that, as they say, is priceless.

“Start with things you use in the kitchen every day, things you’ll actually use,” says Mike Hibbard, a horticultural advisor with Bachman’s. Fresh basil, a particularly forgiving plant, is a good one to begin with.

What you need: Small plastic pots, potting soil, 2-3 basil seedlings, a full-spectrum grow light (optional).

How to do it:
1. Clean pots thoroughly with soap and water. Allow to dry.

2. Fill pots two-thirds full with potting soil. Remove seedlings from plastic container and loosen roots gently before placing it in pots. Cover roots with additional potting soil and pack gently.

3. Keep soil moist, but not soaking wet.

4. Place basil in an airtight window where it will get sunlight for as many hours as possible.

5. Pinch off top of plant at first, to encourage side growth. Water regularly. Fertilize lightly once a month. Rotate pots to encourage symmetrical growth.

6. When leaves on side of plant are big enough, harvest them. And enjoy lashings of fresh pesto all year round.

Turn it up a notch: Try other herbs, like rosemary and thyme. Or start your herbs from seed.

No. 4

MAKE GRANITA

Homemade ice cream can be delicious. But most recipes require an ice-cream maker, which kind of runs counter to the whole DIY spirit, don’t you think? Thankfully, there are ways to make cold treats that pack just as much punch as ice cream, but don’t require a machine to produce.

Ices—mixtures of water, sugar, and liquid flavoring, like fruit or coffee—are a good substitute. In fact, don’t wait until dessert to serve up scoops of shaved ice. What about a beet sorbet as a starter? Try mint and lingonberry ices with the main course. If you’re set on making dessert, try espresso granitas. They’re rich, refreshing, and, in execution, practically fool-proof.

What you need: 3 cups hot fresh espresso (use a stovetop maker); 1/3 cup sugar; whipped cream or 1 small can condensed milk.

How to do it:

1. Mix espresso with sugar. Allow to cool at room temperature.

2. Pour mixture into a shallow dish and place in freezer to chill.

3. Every 20 to 30 minutes, break up ice crystals with a fork. Mixture should turn solid within 5 to 6 hours.

4. Scoop into chilled dishes and garnish with whipped cream or drizzles of condensed milk.

Turn it up a notch: Experiment with more exotic infusions. In a saucepan over medium heat, dissolve 1 cup sugar in 3 cups water. Remove from heat. Add 3 bags of green tea or 15 sprigs of thyme or rosemary and allow to steep. Follow steps 2 to 4 as noted above.

Paul Nelson

No. 5

SMOKE MEAT

Smoking means preservation and flavor—and the equation is simple: red meat plus fire plus lots of fiddly equipment equals a foodie hobby with more than a little swagger.

David Axtell is a local enthusiast who swears by his Kamado, a custom-made ceramic barbecue. “I love to cook outside,” he says, “and I thought, ‘How can I make this great part of summer even better?’” He uses real hardwood charcoal (save the Kingsford for the burgers and brats) or extruded coconut charcoal, supplementing with small chunks of hardwood, like cherry or apple, in the first few hours of smoking (call your local orchard and see if they’ll sell you a bag of applewood chunks).

But, as Axtell says, “This isn’t just a red-meat excursion.” Think about a smoked turkey. Scallops smoked over tea leaves. Smoked mozzarella cheese. Corn on the cob, smoked right in the husk.

Before you plunk down $1,000 for an outdoor smoker, why not try a practice run indoors? You can spend about $50 on a stovetop smoker, or just dust off the wok and make smoked salmon on your own.

What you need: 1/3 cup loose tea (Darjeeling works well); 1/3 cup brown sugar; 1/3 cup dry rice; 2 to 4 salmon steaks (about 6 to 8 ounces apiece).

How to do it:
1. Line wok and lid with foil, leaving a few inches of overhang at edges.

2. Combine tea, brown sugar, and rice in the bottom of wok and blend.

3. Put rack in wok. Arrange salmon steaks on a piece of foil and place foil in center of rack. Cover wok with lid and crimp foil to make tight seal.

4. Turn kitchen fan to the highest setting. Place wok on stovetop and heat. You’ll see smoke in about 3 minutes. Reduce heat and let salmon smoke for about 15 minutes. Remove when center of fillet is no longer translucent.

Turn it up a notch:
When that rich, smoky flavor has really grabbed you and you’re ready to spend all summer smoking, you may want to acquire a high-end ceramic barbecue like the Kamado or the Big Green Egg.

 

No. 6

PICKLE VEGETABLES

Why did your grandmother pickle? Because it was an economical way to preserve summer vegetables for the long winter. Why should you pickle? Because it creates layers of flavor—salty over sweet, smoky over sharp—that wake up tired combinations of meat and starch and really stand out on a plate of cocktail snacks.

Chef J. P. Samuelson of jP American Bistro in Minneapolis does a lot of pickling. “In a restaurant, where the profit margin is so thin,” he says, “it buys us time with perishable foods. It also adds flavor and different texture components, reinforcing an ingredient in a dish.

“Pickled pineapple is incredible,” Samuelson says, “especially when you add sweet onion. Mango is terrific. We do it with sashimi—you’ve got that saltiness working with the natural sugars. Pickling really works with fruit. You’ve got the acid, so it’s not all sugar.”

Crunchy, sweet, sour, and spicy, giardiniera (from the Italian word for gardener), a pickled salad of mixed vegetables, is a great place to start pickling. Plus, a jar of giardiniera makes a great gift.

What you need: Roughly 2 pounds vegetables, cut into bite-sized or slightly bigger pieces (cauliflower, carrots, celery, and bell pepper work well); 2 cups vinegar; 2 tablespoons salt; 1 tablespoon sugar; and 3 tablespoons pickling spices (available at Penzeys, 612-824-9777, or make your own blend); water.

How to do it:
1. Blanch vegetables in boiling water for about 3 minutes, then plunge into a bowl of ice water to stop cooking. Drain and set aside in a non-metallic bowl.

2. Combine vinegar, salt, sugar, pickling spices, and 2 cups water. Boil gently for 5 minutes.

3. Pour hot vinegar mixture over vegetables. Cover and refrigerate overnight.

Turn it up a notch: When you’re ready to graduate to long-term preservation, pick up Mason or Ball jars at any grocery store and check out the University of Minnesota Extension Service’s great resources on canning. (Search “canning” at www.extension.umn.edu.)

No. 7

MAKE CHEESE

“People are very surprised that they can make cheese,” says Jodi Ohlsen Read, co-owner and cheese maker at Shepherd’s Way Farms in Nerstrand (she’s also the Sustainable Farming Association of Minnesota’s advisor on artisanal cheese-making).

Recipes for homemade ricotta and American mozzarella can be found in many cookbooks, but if you’re looking for something just as impressive—that doesn’t require special ingredients—try this easy-to-do fresh Indian cheese, known as paneer.

What you need: 8 cups whole milk; 3 tablespoons white vinegar; 1 teaspoon salt; 1/4 cup red onion, finely chopped; 1/4 cup fresh mint, finely chopped; 2 teaspoons caraway seed, toasted.

How to do it:
1. Bring milk to a boil in large saucepan over medium-high heat. Stir frequently to prevent scorching.

2. Stir in vinegar; turn off heat. Let stand a few minutes while milk separates into curds and whey. (It will look like a lumpy mess—don’t worry.)

3. Line a large colander with cheesecloth; place in sink. Pour milk mixture into colander. Lift edges of cloth; briefly swirl in sink to remove excess liquid.

4. Mix remaining ingredients in a small bowl; unwrap curds and knead in onion-spice mixture until evenly distributed. Re-wrap curds in cheesecloth; return to colander.

5. Fill a stockpot or large jar with water, and place directly on wrapped curds (the weight will press out excess liquid). Leave undisturbed 5 to 6 hours to drain in sink.

6. Remove weight. Discard cheesecloth and whey. Cut cheese into strips and serve. The texture should be nutty and somewhat crumbly.

Turn it up a notch: Vary the paneer’s flavor by blending the curds with other ingredients. Try any of these in small amounts: minced garlic, ground cumin, cayenne, crushed black peppercorns, fresh dill weed, chopped walnuts, jalapeños.

Paul Nelson

No. 8

INFUSE SPIRITS

Sure, you can brew your own beer or ferment your own wine. But there are ways to show off your DIY skills without stinking up your basement (or risking an explosion). With some high-quality vodka and a few classy flavorings, you can raise a toast to your own kitchen skills in about a week’s time.

Nearly any fruit may be infused in vodka. Traditional Scandinavian infused spirits, like aquavit, get their flavor from juniper berries and caraway seeds. Want something more exotic? Try herbs, peppers, lemongrass, or garlic. Consider flavors you might mix into a bloody mary.

But novices should test their luck with an Italian classic: limoncello.

What you need: 12 lemons, 1-liter 100-proof vodka, 3 cups sugar, water.

How to do it:
1. With a paring knife, remove zest (just the yellow part, not the bitter white pith) of 12 lemons (preferably organic) in 1/2-inch wide strips.

2. Place zest in a large glass carafe (1.5 liters or larger), add vodka, cover with plastic wrap, and secure with a rubber band. Store at room temperature, out of direct sunlight, for two days.

3. Dissolve 3 cups sugar in 3 cups hot water. Cool.

4. Add sugar solution to vodka-lemon mixture and refrigerate for 24 hours. Strain and serve chilled.

Turn it up a notch: Invest in some fancy glass containers so you can show off your creations or give them as gifts.

Tricia Cornell, a Twin Cities writer and editor, wrote about artisan cornmeal in the November 2006 issue of Minnesota Monthly.

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