Monday, May 30, 2011

The Unemployed Geek Cooks – The Basics: Sauces.

I've had this idea for a second blog for quite some time, but I don't have a decent digital camera and the style of blogging demands that you do. The food blog. Besides writing, gaming and other geeky pursuits, the only thing I do that isn't sleeping or looking for work is making food. Now, most of the time, I eat like a bachelor despite being happily married, i.e. eating canned spaghetti straight out of the tin, ramen noodles and microwave treats or frozen entrees. However, either my wife or I cook on occasion, and I've had the time to refine my craft a bit in these last few months, so rather than hold out for a future spinoff blog, I'll take advantage of the Memorial Day holiday to talk about my style of cooking and do some brief discussion about it, while my collard greens for tonight's meal simmer.

Too many men decide from the outset that the only cooking they'll take pride in the noble art of grilling. I have nothing against a well-grilled steak, burger or kabob, but a grill isn't always practical, and I've found there are plenty of masculine styles of cooking that can be done indoors. My personal cooking styles take cues from the American Southern blues musicians/Soul Food, New Orleans-style Cajun food and Mexican-American or Tex-Mex cuisine. These styles have a few things in common. They were first made popular with simple, inexpensive ingredients by poorer people, they use more spice for flavoring than many other styles of cooking, and they are very “manly.”

I know some think he's a huge D-bag, but his cooking and mine are pretty similar. (Guy Fieri, of the Food Network)

In traditional cooking schools, the French method is the most commonly accepted structure and form followed when training to become a chef. This method of cooking involves a brigade system of different cooks with different responsibilities, and under the Head Chef and Sous Chef, the highest stratified position is the saucier, responsible for sauteéd items... and their sauces. Sauces are the thing that you can do right and cover a multitude of other sins in the kitchen, and if you do them wrong, the flavor of the dish is unsalvageable.

I'm not a trained chef, and many of my sauces come out of a bottle, but gathering the basics for my style of cooking and understanding when to use each and how to combine them was key to becoming a good cook. Getting this stuff down is like the difference between memorizing lines and acting, or practicing scales on an instrument and really playing. I could write pages and pages about the history of various sauce types, but I want to focus on a few kitchen essentials: oils, vinegars, savory sauces and hot sauces.

Oil and vinegar are combined to use as a dressing or condiment, and form bases for many, many different sauces. I keep no fewer than three different cooking oils around at all times, as in addition to being ingredients in various sauces, cooking meat is easier with a bit of oil in the pan. I stock at all times olive oil, peanut oil (roasted, in my case) and canola oil. Vinegar gives a distinctive tangy flavor, and is an important component in cooking many meat and fish dishes, as well as an ingredient in virtually every other bottled sauce. I keep bottles of white vinegar, malt vinegar, apple cider vinegar and balsamic vinegar in the kitchen at all times.

One of my secret ingredients, the base oil for cooking chicken and sausage for my Jambalaya.

Many savory sauces are used as ingredient and/or condiment, from the simple tomato ketchup to a wide variety of barbecue sauces and European seafood sauces, most notably Worcestershire Sauce. I prefer to cook and bottle my own barbecue sauce (a process that deserves an article all its own), but I also keep around at least 1 bottle of Sweet Baby Ray's Barbecue, and when I can get it (which isn't often enough) Dreamland Barbecue sauce from Alabama. In addition to the staples listed above, I've recently begun to experiment with a seasoning sauce called Maggi, popular in certain European countries and down in Mexico, but virtually unknown here in the States. It tastes like a cross between a high-quality chinese soy sauce and a well-cooked steak.

If you must use a grocery-store BBQ sauce, you could do a whole lot worse.

Hot sauces. Pages and pages have been written about pepper sauces and their role in cooking, but I'm not interested in heat for heat's sake, so I typically don't bother with the spicer varieties. Anything made out of a habanero pepper is likely too hot to not overwhelm most of what I cook, so the sauces I keep in the house are on the wimpy side of the Scoville heat scale. (All Scoville units below approximate.)

  • Frank's Red Hot (870sc) : A Cayenne Pepper sauce most well known for being an essential ingredient in the original Buffalo Style chicken wings (along with butter). One of my go-to sauces in cooking and as a condiment directly on food.
  • Tabasco - Traditional Red Pepper (2500sc), Green (800sc), and Chipotle (1500sc) : The basic Tabasco sauce is little more than vinegar and red pepper, which makes it a better “add heat” ingredient than anything, Green is a much milder jalapeno pepper sauce, and Chipotle is one of the most useful sauces in my whole collection. Very low heat, incredible smoky flavor. I highly recommend replacing any use of “liquid smoke” with this sauce, as the smoked peppers are perfectly balanced in this, and I use it in all three of my cooking styles.
  • Sriacha “Rooster Sauce” (2200sc): A Vietnamese sauce designed to be a condiment on restaurant tables, this combination of red pepper and garlic flavors in a thicker sauce has gotten much love from the internet lately, and the flavor explains why. Since I bought a bottle of this, it is replacing Frank's as the sauce I'm most likely to put directly onto food as a condiment, and my wife (who isn't a “spicy food” person, uses quite a bit of this as well.

    I only really discovered this one this year, since I've been out of work.

I know that there's a whole lot of other sauces out there, even some that fit into my styles of cooking like a molé or creole tomato, even a New Orleans béchamel or other roux based sauces, but I'm more talking about  "stock the kitchen" basics here.  Since this isn't really a proper "geeky" topic, and it is a bit of a stretch to link this to being unemployed, this may be an anomaly as I don't want to regularly go too far outside my niche. Let me know what you think. Want to see more of this as an occasional backup feature when I'm struggling for an idea, or should I say "damn the torpedoes" and try to do a spinoff "Geeky Guy Cooking" blog even without a decent camera?  
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Zombie Ad said...

As someone who eats mostly Paleo (it's a crossfit thing) sauces are my vice. I'm a big fan of Frank's. Like you say - it works great as a condiment too.

Alpha said...

A respectable role player, writer, and chef?

...Are you future me?

Jay said...

for me, good pics would be a big crowd pleaser. :)

A Beer for the Shower said...

I love cooking, and I love all three of those hot sauces, Sriracha especially. They don't have it often, but if you see it, check out Frank's Xtra Hot. It's actually fairly hot (and I love my spicy foods). Highly recommend it.

Bard said...

I like the idea of cooking posts. I think whether it makes more sense to do a separate blog dedicated to food, or if you just post here, depends really just on how frequently you plan to post on cooking, and even then, it's probably more a question of personal choice than anything else. Here or on a spin-off blog, I'll be reading. :)

Anonymous said...

I think posting the food stuff here is fine! Being unemployed means you need to be creative with your food money, and cooking fresh means that you can stay healthy. And good food can be a good "upper" to counter any "downers" from the job hunt process.

I keep olive, sesame, and canola oils; white wine, red wine, rice wine, white, and cider vinegars; white, red, and sherry cooking wines; chicken and beef stock. For asian / oriental cooking, the aforementioned sriacha is in my fridge, but I haven't actually busted it out yet. But I do have soy, plum, fish, and oyster sauces at hand. As far as bbq goes, I tend to just go with the Jack Daniel's bbq sauce. MMMMM!

Having a well-stocked pantry isn't cheap. But when it saves you a trip to the store when you have a new recipe that you want to try, it can sometimes be worth it.

Erika said...

The dude in that photo looks like he should be playing bass in NOFX or something. Not cooking lol.

The Angry Lurker said...

Go for it, like me some cooking blogs, liked his show Diners, Drive-ins and Dives.

Patti D. said...

Very nice! great post,

You can visit my blog here.

Rob said...

That last sauce! The DOOM ROOSTER is what my friends and I call it. Upon first discovery that thing wrecked my mouth due to the amount of doom all over it.

Dave said...

Some of that stuff is sooo hot lol.

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