Friday, February 19, 2010

Mushy Tomatoes

At culinary school, I was constantly comparing myself, my abilities and my knowledge about food and cooking with the other students. My fellow students varied from 18 year old, newly graduated high schoolers, to guys in their mid-twenties with years of cooking experience. Regardless of what we knew or had learned in the past, the Chef Instructor was always right. It was his kitchen so we did things his way. We quickly learned the militant answer to any question: “Yes, Chef!” Even if you were in the weeds (behind in your work), and the Chef asked if you would be ready for service, even if you didn't think you would be, you shouted, crystal clear, “Yes Chef!” and worked harder, faster and more efficient than you had before. Constantly pushing yourself and striving further than you thought possible, and sometimes failing, sometimes succeeding.

And what helps a person succeed? Knowledge. Knowing the most basic things can make a huge difference in the food you prepare and your experiences in the kitchen.
When I was at culinary school I had an Italian Chef Instructor from Long Island for my Cuisines of the Mediterranean class. He wasn’t nice to anyone. He was a hard man and so explosive, that one afternoon, he had us all stop what we were doing, at our busiest time (preparing dinner for a couple hundred students and instructors), gather around the refridgerator. He ripped a paper bag out of the fridge and tossed it on the table and screamed, “Who put these tomatoes in here? Tomatoes NEVER get refridgerated!” We all were 5-years old again, getting scolded by our Mothers. As I scanned the group, I saw desperate faces. We waited for the person who had put a bag in the fridge, to confess to this kitchen sin. We all knew every moment we stood there, was time wasted. Of course, the guilty person never spoke up. Our group leader did, taking a dive for us all so we could get back to work. We all knew he hadn’t done it for he was one of the most experienced of us all. But nonetheless, we respected him for doing it. Our Chef knew too, and because of that, he allowed the humiliation of the admission be his punishment.
Later, I turned to a friend, one I knew I could trust, who wouldn’t judge me and asked, “Why was Chef so pissed that the tomatoes were in the fridge?” No I was not guilty for the tomato crime, but I felt lame for not knowing what was so bad about a cold tomato! My dear friend shook his head and told me that refrigeration makes tomatoes mushy and mealy. Aha! Okay, I got that lesson learned. Ingrained in my head, I would never mistreat a tomato like that!

And to this day, it pains me so to see a tomato in the fridge. I cringe. Sometimes I have to physically control myself from yelling out, “Tomatoes NEVER get refridgerated!”
As with any industry, there are things that are common knowledge, like the tomato. I have some of this knowledge and would love to share it with you. So I arrive here to write about proper vegetable storage. I know, not the most exciting of topics, but I think many people nowadays are trying to save money and proper storage of goods will help them last longer. Here goes:
Onions, garlic, shallots and potatoes- store in a dry environment, out of plastic bags (being confined in plastic will cause moisture to form and later mold and mildew), once you have cut into them, place in plastic bags in the refrigerator. I suggest removing the papery skins of onions and shallots, to prevent mildew growth.
Lettuces- to make it easy on yourself, I recommend washing them right when you get home for the store, drying them and wrapping in paper towels then plastic bags into the fridge. This way they will be ready when you are. If you buy them from a farmer’s market, or if they are organic, fill your clean sink with water and swoosh the leaves about, and let them sit for a few minutes. This way if there are any bugs, they will be washed away.
Herbs- Cilantro, parsley, mint, chervil: Let soak in bowlful of cold water to release any dirt, and change the water a few times depending on how dirty they are. Next make a new cut at the bottom of the stems and store upright in water, like flowers and wrap plastic around the leaves (oh! same for asparagus.) Thyme, rosemary, oregano, any woody herb, rinse in water and store wrapped in paper towel. Basil is very delicate so pop in the fridge until you are ready to use and wash just before using.
Green onions: fun thing about these guys that I haven’t tried yet: at the end of a green onion, there are roots that can be planted into soil, meaning you can plant one and always have scallions on hand! Or if you aren’t interested in that, I suggest waiting to wash them just before you use them. They tend to deteriorate quickly when washed and if you cut the root end, the different layers of the scallion unevenly expand and lengthen…
Broccoli and cauliflower, wash and store in a paper towel lined bag and wait to cut because the cut ends will turn brown
I like to store mushrooms in paper towel lined plastic bags to prevent them from getting slimey.
Fruit: This is going to sound silly, but my teeth are sensitive to coldness, so I don’t really like my fruit cold. And why would refridgration affect stone fruits like tomatoes? So I keep them out on the counter. But sometimes, you just don’t get to eating them quick enough, so the fridge is inevitable, and that is fine!

So that's that. Good luck in the kitchen. I hope these tips help you, and remember: No tomatoes in the refridegerator!

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