I’ve been missing in action recently, a situation which has presented itself before since this blog’s inception in August of 2009. This time my absence is due to my new-ish job at Haven’s Kitchen, where I work as a teaching assistant and sometimes as a prep cook for catered events there.
It’s been hectic mainly because I’ve been busy learning how to act as a professional cook and not as a home cook. The differences between these two types of cooking are numerous, and I’d like to share with you the top 5 most important things I’ve learned about working in an industrial kitchen, and how it differs from cooking at home.
1. Salt your food. I mean, really salt your food.
- More salt goes into one dish in a night than I’m used to using in the span of a week- to give you an idea of what I mean, take the amount of salt you think is appropriate for a dish, triple it, add a few more pinches, and then you’re just shy of the right amount. I suggest you not eat out anymore if this fact scares you.
2. Time is of utmost importance.
- In my mind, this is the essential difference between a home cook and a professional: at home, you don’t want to spend hours making dinner, but you could if you wanted to. At work, taking a long time to complete a task is a sign of inefficiency and inability to work properly. I’m still getting used to this one.
3. Season as you go. Taste everything, every step of the way.
- I hear almost every teacher say it during classes, and I see chefs doing it during service time for events – every dish should be tasted and seasoned from the very beginning to right before being plated. This might seem strange to those who cook at home, but it ultimately makes sense: in order to control the final result, you need to monitor the dish’s taste along the way. Salt, salt, salt!
4. Be efficient, be tidy.
- This one was hard for me at first, and I can painfully recall having a work station piled high with seven different half-cut ingredients, struggling to find a place on my cutting board to keep working, avoiding the worried glances directed my way. Thankfully, that’s gotten better over time – though I still have a ways to go. While being tidy in the kitchen is important for any kind of cook, it’s certainly less so for the home cook, and we don’t have the ultimate perk of two dishwashers waiting to receive, clean, and arrange all of our dirty utensils for us.
5. Try to keep your wits about you.
- In an ideal world, making delicious, perfectly seasoned food would come naturally to every one of us. However, I think anyone who has spent some time in the kitchen can agree that there are always moments of stress and anxiety, standing dumbfounded and thinking, “oh shoot, I messed this up, how do I fix it?” As far as I can tell it seems to happen in every restaurant kitchen and to most home cooks as well, and the smartest thing to do in those moments is to stay calm and keep moving. You can do it!
It’s been a good learning process, and I think (I hope) that my cooking has gotten better, and I’m excited to share what I’ve learned with you. Here is a recipe for roasted chicken with asparagus and avocado, a favorite vegetable and fruit of mine. The avocado, however, could easily be omitted and/or substituted with something else you prefer – toasted, chopped nuts? Croutons? The choice is yours. And please, may I suggest you steer clear of boneless chicken breasts for this recipe, and allow yourself to enjoy the richness and depth of flavor that chicken bones provide to this simple roast with its easy yet decadent sauce?
Please don’t forget the sauce. Because in this crazy world where so little is reliable, I think I can reliably say that any chicken dish is better when there is sauce.
Lemon Chicken Breast with Asparagus and Avocado – Serves 1
Cleaning asparagus is very easy. Take one stalk in your hand and snap it in half – the asparagus naturally breaks at the point where it’s no longer edible. Discard the stem.
- 1 lemon
- 1 skin-on, bone-in chicken breast
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1 garlic clove, minced
- 1 small bunch asparagus (about 8 stalks), stems snapped off, cut into 1-inch pieces
- 2 tablespoons white wine
- 1 tablespoon butter (optional)
- 1 avocado, halved, one half thinly sliced (save remaining half for another use)
1. Preheat oven to 400F/204C.
2. Zest half of the lemon with a microplane or fine grater. Cut lemon in half. Cut one half crosswise into thin (about 1/4-inch) slices, and leave remaining half intact.
3. Wash and thoroughly dry your chicken (the drier the chicken, the more golden brown its skin will become when cooked). Sprinkle generously all over with salt and pepper. Place two or three lemon slices under chicken skin.
4. In an ovenproof skillet with lid, heat olive oil over medium-high heat. Add garlic and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add chicken breast, skin side down, and cook until deep golden brown, about 4 minutes. Repeat with remaining side.
5. At this point the chicken should have rendered some fat and provided liquid in the skillet. Add asparagus, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and toss with liquid. Cover skillet and transfer to oven, cooking until chicken is heated through, approximately 21 minutes, depending on thickness of breast.
6. Once chicken is cooked, remove from skillet, place in a bowl and cover loosely with foil to keep warm. Return skillet to medium heat and add white wine. Simmer until liquid has thickened slightly, about 3 minutes. Turn off heat, and add lemon zest and butter (if using). Spoon asparagus and sauce over chicken. Lay avocado slices over dish, season with salt and pepper, and sprinkle with juice from remaining lemon half.