Cooking 101

Food, Hometown Cooking
on November 8, 2011

As Chef Gusteau from the movie Ratatouille proclaims, "Anyone can cook!" It's true; you can cook, no matter what culinary catastrophes you may have encountered in the past. Novice cooks can prepare delicious dishes confidently once they understand a few basic cooking techniques.

Four cooking terms commonly referred to in recipes are mash, puree, steam and stew. Each is a basic culinary technique that can be mastered by even the newest cooks.

Mash. In cooking, mashing means just what it sounds like—crushing food into a smooth and often creamy texture. Perhaps the most commonly mashed food is potatoes, but other root vegetables, such as turnips, parsnips and carrots, can be mashed as well.

When mashing, cook the vegetables first. Peel, wash and chop the vegetables into chunks, and place them in a pot filled with water. Bring to a boil, and let simmer for about 30 minutes until the pieces are tender. Drain in a colander. Place the vegetables in a large mixing bowl. Using a potato masher, crush to an even texture. Hand mashers may be stainless steel, heat-resistant nylon or durable plastic.

Puree. The Foodies Handbook defines puree as "a smooth blend of food. Derived from the French word purer meaning to 'squeeze out.'" When a recipe calls for pureed food, it generally refers to fruit or vegetable puree. Parents also can puree fresh produce to create homemade baby food.

Before the convenience of kitchen gadgets, foods were pressed through a fine sieve to puree. Today, pureeing is made easy with the use of a blender or food processor. To puree whole tomatoes for homemade spaghetti sauce, wash the tomatoes and cut them into quarters. Use the food processor's steel blade with the speed set to high. Immersion blenders are ideal for pureeing hot soups. Simply immerse the blender into the soup as it's cooking and blend to create a creamy meal.

Steam. Steaming, a moist-heat cooking technique, can be done in a pot with a steamer basket, in the microwave or in a bamboo steamer. Steaming can help foods retain their nutrients and flavors better than boiling.

Steam cooking is ideal for vegetables, fish and rice. To steam vegetables on the stove, fill a pot about one-third with water and bring it to a simmer. Place veggies in a steamer basket that suspends above the liquid. Cover the pot and steam until veggies are crisp yet tender.

Stew. Stewing is a slow cooking method in which food is simmered for a long time, covered with a liquid. Stewing can tenderize tough pieces of meat.

The Reluctant Gourmet says there's little difference between stewing and braising. When stewing meats, chunk the meat into cubes. Braising requires leaving the meat whole. Stewed vegetables is a quick and easy side dish or meatless meal. Combine tomatoes, celery, carrots, onion, potatoes, eggplant and zucchini with spices and vegetable stock and slow cook in a slow cooker.