Every recipe in my cookbook has the heading “READ, PREPARE, ADJUST.” RPA is the acronym.
These three steps can make the difference between cooking with ease and creating really good meals as opposed to struggling to cook something without necessarily getting good results. There is nothing difficult or complicated about practicing these three steps; it is just a different way of organizing yourself before you start cooking and before your finish and serve your dish. If you walk into any chef’s kitchen, you will find that they are implementing all three of these steps.
Read—It is crucial that you understand what you are going to do before you start doing it. Once you have started to cook and the recipe is in progress, it isn’t the time to stop and try to understand the next steps. Before beginning to cook, if what you are reading doesn’t make sense, read it again, and again until all the steps are clear and you understand what you are going to do before you move on to the next step, prepare.
I had a bad habit of just diving into a recipe. I’d read the first step and start. It never ended well. I’d get frustrated, make a mess, and nine out of ten times the final result wasn’t very good. That’s no way to cook and it isn’t fun.
Prepare—means to read the ingredient list and prepare everything that is on the list. Cut, chop, and measure everything needed for your dish. Place ingredients in small containers laid out in the order you will use them in the recipe. This process is called mise en place, a French term (pronounced meeze-awn-plahs). It means everything in its place. Having everything at your fingertips allows you to glide through the cooking process with ease.
Trying to cut, chop, and measure once you have started cooking is a recipe for creating a big mess, a lot of aggravation, and at best a mediocre meal.
Adjust—You need to taste your food. Seasonings may need to be adjusted and the only way to know that is by tasting. Do not ever think a recipe will be perfect as it is written. Taste before you serve your food. That is the time to make your adjustments. Tastebuds vary and you need to make the dish to your liking.
My book, Le Kitchen Cookbook: a Workbook has an entire chapter that talks about flavors and what they will do when added to your food.
Here is an excerpt to get you started:
ABOUT FLAVORS You can’t really be a good cook without knowing this!
THE IMPORTANT COMPONENTS THAT FLAVOR FOODS
BROTH is an important component used to flavor foods. It is a liquid made by cooking assorted vegetables, meats, and bones in water to extract the flavors. Vegetables alone can be used to create a vegetable broth, or fish and vegetables to produce a fish broth.
THE FIVE TASTES:
Saltiness—briny, saline, brackish If dish is too salty, add an acid or sweetness. Sourness—acidity If the dish is too sour, add fats or sugars to counteract.
If the dish is too sweet, add acid. (Do not add salt; it will only highlight the sweetness.)
Bitterness—sharp, pungent, tart
If the dish is too bitter, add sweet, citrus, or vinegar.
If the dish has too much umami, add sour or sweet to brighten the flavor.
HOW TO BALANCE FLAVORS WHEN THEY AREN’T QUITE RIGHT
Rich—you can add sweet or sour to cut the richness of the dish. (Fresh limes, lemon juice, a little vinegar)
Bland—salt can add flavor, bouillon will add a burst of flavor, cheese or strong herbs and seasonings, soy sauce, spicy pepper sauce.
Spicy—sour or sweet will help to tone down overly spicy foods. Adding a spoonful of plain yogurt and a little citrus also will help lessen the spice.
Salty—sweet or sour will help but may not be enough. If possible, try diluting with water. When salting your dish, do so in intervals and taste as you go. Any dish that evaporates as it cooks will cause the flavors to intensify (especially the flavor of salt).
Sour—sweet, salty, or bitter will help take the flavor away from sour.
Bitter—salty, sweet, or sour will help reduce the bitter flavor.
Sweet—sour, salty, or bitter will tone down the sweetness by adding other flavors to distract from the sweetness.
OTHER IMPORTANT COMPONENTS
The texture of the food (crunchy, soft, or hard) as well as the food’s temperature (hot, room temperature, or cold) add to how we perceive the food’s flavor and are important to consider when cooking.
Three Flavor enhancers I won’t cook without
When I need “something” to balance out the flavor of what I am cooking there are three items I go to: soy sauce, anchovies, or bouillon.
Anchovies are also magical. Add them to increase the robustness and depth to what you are cooking. Don’t panic if you are not an anchovy fan; it doesn’t add any fishiness to your dish. Instead, what you will taste is great flavor. I always have a tube of anchovy paste in my refrigerator.
My other must-have is bouillon. It is concentrated flavor that is a must-have when cooking. In the past, broths were made using quality ingredients that were left to mijoter, simmer on the back of the stove for hours. The flavors would reduce and concentrate into an intensely powerful essence that was used to create sauces, stews, soups, or anything to which you wanted to add that burst of flavor.
Nowadays, we generally don’t have all day to create strongly flavored stocks. Using bouillon is a great shortcut to adding that intensity to the foods we cook.
The downside is that bouillon can be very salty. There are three ways I counteract that:
Add the bouillon at the end when I’m adjusting the flavor.
Don’t add a lot of salt as you’re cooking. Add only at the end if needed.
Buy low-sodium bouillon. Try different brands to find the one you like best.
Excerpted From Le Kitchen Cookbook: a Workbook pages 42 – 43