Getting to know the culture of a country or region is one of my main goals as a traveller. Food is an important window into culture, so when I travel I often take cooking classes to learn more about the local way of life in my destination.
Even when I stay at home, I find opportunities to take cooking classes with chefs who offer classes on the cuisine of their home country. These courses offer opportunities to broaden my horizons before I go and plan what I want to experience when I’m in the country or region.
Here are seven of my favorite cooking tips from kitchens around the world that I use frequently. If you’re not traveling to these regions but want to enjoy their food, you’ll find these tips helpful.
Some of the tips mentioned in this article were learned as part of hosted trips, while others were done at my own expense.
1. Take safety precautions when working with chillies
Southwestern, Mexican or Asian cuisine
I mention this tip first because it recently eluded me and I suffered the consequences. Chefs use chiles in many cuisines around the world, and I remember learning this tip at the Santa Fe School of Cooking, where chilies are a regional favorite in cuisines in the Southwest United States. Although I enjoyed the roasted green chili sweetcorn soup made from green hatch chiles at La Plazuela Restaurant in La Fonda on the Plaza, I ate it nearly every day during my trip. This dish spurred me on to learn more about cooking with different local chilies.
Chilies are hot because a compound called capsaicin is found in the membranes that contain the seeds. Capsaicin is odorless and colorless, but it can pack a big punch in your mouth and other sensitive areas like your eyes. So you should avoid touching your eyes after working with chilies. The best protection against burns is to wear plastic gloves and be careful not to accidentally touch your eyes or other sensitive areas. Plastic bags can be used as a substitute if you don’t have gloves. Wash your hands with soap even after wearing gloves to avoid problems.
2. Creating a dark roux takes patience
Cajun and Creole cuisine
Roux is a mixture of fat (oil or butter) and flour that takes on various shades, from white, blond, brown, and dark brown. Each color is suitable for a specific type of dish. Light roux can be found, for example, in sauces such as béchamel. A dark roux is the basis of a good gumbo, but it takes patience.
When I was taking a cooking class at the New Orleans School of Cooking, one of the dishes we created was gumbo, and the dark roux seemed to take forever. It may have only been 15-20 minutes, but standing and stirring constantly so it doesn’t burn seemed like an eternity.
Eventually, I would ask if it was done, and the instructor would say, “No, go ahead.” Then it finally got to the deep, flavorful brown that is crucial to a tasty gumbo.
Experience has shown that for a successful dark roux, you need to keep the heat low and slow so it doesn’t burn.
3. Use the Holy Trinity
Cajun and Creole cuisine
Another tip I learned at the New Orleans School of Cooking was to use the Holy Trinity. The Trinity is a classic mirepoix made with carrots, onions and celery. But in Cajun cuisine, they change things up a bit and use green peppers instead of carrots as the veggie in gumbo. This is important because using carrots instead of green peppers will change the flavor of the dish and you won’t have the same flavor as the dish you experienced in New Orleans. Also, dice the vegetables into a uniform size so they cook evenly in the same amount of time.
4. Caramelization corresponds to taste
I was planning a menu for a small dinner party and the subject of steak came up. My teenage daughter advised against it, saying, “Steak isn’t your best dish.” From then on, I was determined to learn how to cook a great steak. I attended a webinar with three Omaha chefs and learned some techniques to improve my game.
First, up to 12 hours before grilling, season the steak with a generous amount of freshly ground black pepper and salt to give it the best flavor. Then let the meat sit at room temperature for almost two hours before searing.
Then dry the steak with a paper towel to avoid excess moisture. Start with a dry steak to caramelize the steak. Water makes it steam and turn gray.
Get the pan screaming hot. Sear the steak with oil in a hot cast iron skillet, creating caramelization and a crust on the surface of the steak. Making the crust takes about two and a half minutes on each side. This creates the crust. Check the cooking times in this chart for your preferred doneness.
Once the steak has a nice crust on the outside, let it rest for 5 to 7 minutes. Then cook the steak in a hot oven, about 450 degrees, for about 5 minutes until you reach the desired internal temperature. Finally, let the steak rest for about 15 minutes – the larger the steak, the longer the resting time.
5. Steak is more affordable if you stretch it
Kitchen Table chef Colin Duggan taught how to stretch a steak, which is often a luxury item, so a single steak can serve four or more people and still look sumptuous.
First, turn a steak into breakfast burritos for four or more. Then dice the steak and stir into diced potatoes, scrambled eggs, some cheese and Mexican toppings like sour cream and guacamole.
Turn it into a group lunch by creating a Philly Cheesesteak Pizza. Cover the pizza dough with a light spread of pizza sauce and add diced steak, tri-color pepper strips and mozzarella for a delicious pizza. Alternatively, you can stuff the steak with the same ingredients, add it to a sub roll instead of a pizza crust, and make a Philly cheesesteak sandwich. Finally, add some fries for a complete meal.
For dinner, layer sliced ribeye on a large family-size salad, add some hard-boiled eggs for extra protein, and you’ve got that for a summer soup and salad meal.
If you want to try other types of restaurants while in Omaha, read this article.
6. Remove the ribbons before cooking lobster
Nova Scotia’s seafood cuisine
February is peak lobster season on the south coast of Nova Scotia. From Barrington (Canada’s lobster capital) to Peggy’s Cove, they celebrate these luxurious crustaceans. I spent a week discovering Nova Scotia during their South Shore Lobster Crawl. When I visited, kilt-in-kid chef Alain Bossé was conducting an hour-long cooking demonstration called Lobster 101. I learned several tips for cooking lobster during this session. One of the top tips was that you must remove the rubber bands from the lobster claws before placing the lobster in the pot. If you don’t remove them, the gum will give the lobster a gummy taste.
To do this without the claws catching your hand, cross the lobster claws with one hand, remove the rubber bands with the other hand, and then place the lobster upside down in the boiling water—cook the lobster for 12 to 15 minutes .
7. Add salt but no oil to the pasta water
During a cooking class at The Local Epicurean in Grand Rapids, Michigan, we learned how to add salt to water to make it taste like the ocean but not oil. Adding oil to the water prevents the sauce from sticking to the pasta.
Then remove the pasta from the pot with a slotted spoon instead of draining it, otherwise the coveted pasta water will be lost down the drain. I’ve done this more than once and left myself without the starchy addition to my sauce. Instead, reserving the salty pasta water adds flavor to the dish and allows you to adjust the consistency of the sauce.