Learning about a country or region’s culture is one of my primary goals as a traveler. Food is an essential window into the culture, so when I travel, I frequently take cooking classes to learn more about my destination’s local way of life.
Even when I’m staying at home, I find occasions to take cooking classes from chefs who offer courses on the cuisine of their native land. These classes provide opportunities to expand my horizons before I go and plan what I might want to experience when I’m in the country or region.
Here are seven of my favorite cooking tips from cuisines worldwide that I use frequently. If you don’t travel to these regions but want to enjoy their food, you’ll find these tips helpful.
Some tips mentioned in this article were learned as part of hosted trips, while others I took at my own expense.
1. Take Safety Precautions When Working With Chiles
Southwestern, Mexican, Or Asian Cuisines
I mention this tip first, as it recently slipped my mind, 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 chiles are a regional favorite in cooking in the southwest United States. Although I enjoyed the roasted green chile-sweet corn chowder made with Hatch green chiles at La Plazuela Restaurant in La Fonda on the Plaza, I ate it almost daily during my trip. This dish spurred me to learn more about cooking with various local chiles.
Chiles are hot because a compound called capsaicin is in the membranes that contain the seeds. Capsaicin is odorless and colorless but can pack a big punch in your mouth and other sensitive areas, like your eyes. So you’ll want to avoid touching your eyes after working with chiles. The best way to safeguard against the burn is to wear plastic gloves, careful not to inadvertently touch your eyes or other sensitive areas. Plastic bags can work as a substitute if you don’t have gloves. Even after using gloves, wash your hands with soap to avoid any issues.
2. Creating A Dark Roux Takes Patience
Cajun And Creole Cuisine
Roux is a mixture of fat (oil or butter) and flour, taking on a variety of shades, from white, blond, brown, and dark brown. Each color is appropriate for a particular type of dish. For example, you’ll find light roux in sauces like béchamel. A dark roux is the foundation of 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 about 15 to 20 minutes, but standing and continuously stirring so it didn’t burn seemed like forever.
Finally, I would ask if it was ready, and the instructor would say, “No, keep going.” Then, finally, it reached the deep, flavorful brown critical to a tasty gumbo.
From experience, to have a successful dark roux, you need to take the heat low and slow so that 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 using the Holy Trinity. The Trinity is a classic mirepoix of carrots, onions, and celery. But in Cajun cooking, they change things up a bit and use green bell peppers instead of carrots as the vegetables in gumbo. This is important because using carrots rather than green bell peppers will change the dish’s flavor, and you won’t have the same taste as the dish you experienced in New Orleans. Also, dice the veggies in a uniform size so they will cook evenly in the same amount of time.
4. Caramelization Equals Flavor
I was doing some menu planning for a small dinner party, and the topic of steak came up. My teen daughter advised against it, saying, “Steak isn’t your best dish.” From then, I was determined to learn to cook a great steak. I attended a webinar with three Omaha chefs and learned some techniques to up my game.
First, up to 12 hours before cooking, season the steak with a liberal amount of fresh ground black pepper and salt to impart the most flavor. Then, let the meat stand at room temperature for almost two hours before searing it.
Then, dry the steak with a paper towel to avoid excess moisture. Starting with a dry steak helps to caramelize the steak. Water causes it to steam and turn gray.
Get the pan screaming hot. Using oil in a hot cast iron skillet, sear the steak creating caramelization and a crust on the surface of the steak. Making the crust takes about two and a half minutes on each side. That’s what creates the crust. Check the cooking times on this chart for your preferred doneness.
Once the steak has a nice exterior crust, let it rest for 5 to 7 minutes. Then finish the steak in a hot oven, about 450 degrees, for about 5 minutes until you reach the desired internal temperature. Finally, rest the steak for about 15 minutes — the larger the steak, the more rest time.
5. Steak Is More Affordable When You Stretch It
Chef Colin Duggan of Kitchen Table taught how to make steak, which is often a luxury item, to stretch, so a single steak can serve four or more people while still appearing lavish.
First, make one steak into breakfast burritos for four or more. Then, dice the steak, and stir it into cubed potatoes, scrambled eggs, some cheese, and Mexican toppings like sour cream and guacamole.
Turn it into a lunch for a group by creating a Philly cheesesteak pizza. Top the pizza dough with a light spread of pizza sauce, and add diced steak, tri-colored bell pepper strips, and mozzarella cheese for a delicious pizza. Alternatively, bulk that steak up with the same ingredients, add it to a sub roll instead of a pizza crust, and create a Philly cheesesteak sandwich. Finally, add some French fries for a complete meal.
For dinner, lay sliced ribeye across a large family-sized salad, add some hard-boiled eggs for additional protein, and have that for a summer soup and salad dinner.
If you’d like to try some other types of restaurants while you’re in Omaha, check out this article.
6. Remove The Bands Before Cooking Lobster
Nova Scotia’s Seafood Cuisine
February is peak lobster season along Nova Scotia’s South Shore. 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, the Kilted Chef, Alain Bossé, conducted a one-hour cooking demonstration titled “Lobster 101.” I learned several tips for cooking lobster during this session. One of the most important 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 rubber imparts a rubbery taste to the lobster.
To do this without the claws pinching your hand, use one hand to cross the lobster claws, use your other hand to remove the elastic bands, then put the lobster headfirst into the boiling water — cook the lobster for 12 to 15 minutes.
7. Add Salt But Not Oil To Pasta Water
During a cooking class at The Local Epicurean in Grand Rapids, Michigan, we learned to add salt to the water to 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 using a slotted spoon rather than draining it, or you’ll lose the coveted pasta water down the drain. I’ve done this on more than one occasion, leaving me without the starchy addition to my sauce. Instead, reserving the salty pasta water adds flavor to the dish and allows you to adjust the sauce’s consistency.
For more information on cooking classes, check out these articles: