A couple posts back, I wrote about my old roommate, Rene, a chef who taught me how to cook. At the time, I knew nothing about cooking. The first dish he taught me was pasta and a cream sauce.
To make a cream sauce, you start by chopping onions, peppers, mushrooms, and sautéing them. Then you add stock and cream, reduce, and finish with fresh herbs and balsamic.
Simple concepts, but within that process was so much detail.
It started with knife skills. I never before knew the difference between a sharp chef's knife and the dull set I had in my drawer. Rene taught me how to shop for a knife at the restaurant supply store. He taught me to put a wet paper towel under the board to keep it from slipping. To curl my fingers under and use my knuckles as a guard. He taught me how to chop an onion into even sized pieces – otherwise some undercook while others burn. He taught me how to open up a pepper and lay the knife flat to remove the pith.
Rene taught me the concept of mise-en-place – getting your things in place – and the concept of working clean. He taught me to do things slow, so that you can do them right, so you can do them fast. He taught me about deli containers.
He taught me that thick-bottomed pans are better than cheap ones, because they more evenly distribute heat. That everything's better when cooked in butter. That you should salt the veggies when they first hit the pan, and that you need way more salt than you think you do. That salt extracts water, and that the water has to evaporate before the veggies will brown. That you pull them off when they get GBD – Golden Brown Delicious.
There were about six months when I made pasta and cream sauce twice a week. Sometimes I'd dice the onions instead of julienning them. Sometimes I cooked the veggies low-and-slow, sometimes I blasted them. Sometimes I didn't have butter, and had to use whatever oil we had on hand.
If you came over to my house back then, you ate pasta with cream sauce. It didn't always turn out how I wanted, but it was rarely inedible. Most nights it was very good by bachelor standards. Every once in a while, it was sublime. It was the only thing I knew how to make, but I could make it at a professional level.
Then, one day, Rene showed me how to make fajitas.
To make fajitas, you start by chopping onions, peppers, mushrooms, and sautéing them...