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Boiling The Test of a Good Cook

Let's take a look at one of the most basic forms of cooking - immersing food in hot water. Yes, I know. That includes simmering as well. But I want to look at boiling, some of the different foods involved and the ways in which they are treated. Boiling is really divided into two separate methods. One is to place the food in cold water and gradually heat it to boiling point, the other is to bring the water to the boil first before adding the food.

The first method might be used for potatoes, for example, and the second for green vegetables. A variation on both methods is whether or not the food should be covered while cooking. Let's deal with that right now. Green vegetables should never be covered while boiling - they will lose their color and turn an unattractive shade of gray. Vegetables such as potatoes should be partially covered to preserve vitamins and reduce evaporation. Remember that water will come to the boil much quicker if the pan is covered to start with, as will any other liquid.

Let's take an example Eggs. This may seem too simple, but the truth is you can tell more about a cook by the way they handle eggs and potatoes than just about anything else. I have lost count of the number of times a chef has tested my skills by asking me to boil potatoes or make a simple omelet. So, how do we boil eggs? One way is to bring a pan of water to the boil, put the eggs in and then time them for two, three or five minutes depending on the result you want. But there is a better method. Put the eggs in cold, salted water and bring to the boil on fierce heat.

The salt will not flavor the eggs. It's there simply to make the water boil at a slightly higher temperature. Turn off the heat and prepare your toast. The eggs will be ready when you are and can either be turned out on to the toast or served in their shells. Simple, huh? Very. But there is one thing you have to have to make it work - fresh eggs! If you're one of the countless millions who don't live right next to a chicken farm, then you're just going to have to check your use-by date.

If it's any less than four weeks away, don't buy the eggs! I mean it. Eggs, like vegetables and fruit, need to be as fresh as you can get them. Green vegetables Broadly speaking, we're talking about things like green beans, brussel sprouts, snow peas and so on. Not cabbage, which should never be boiled, and not some of the more delicate greens like spinach and buk choy. Beans and sprouts are best cooked in uncovered, rapidly boiling salted water until they are just cooked - which means they are still firm and cut cleanly.

Drain them in a colander and then plunge them immediately into icy water. You can leave them there until you need them. This is the 'magic' step chefs use to keep greens truly green. Yes, I know they'll go cold. That's not a problem. You see, by using this method you can prepare your green vegetables well ahead of time and not have to worry about them until just before you serve the meal.

When everything else is ready, have a pan of boiling water on the stove. Drop the greens in, count to ten and drain them. They're ready to serve as is, or you can glaze them with melted butter, add nutmeg, pepper or toss them in a little balsamic. Easy? You betcha.

And a foolproof way of ensuring that the greens are ready at the same time as the rest of the meal. About potatoes and rice Wait a minute! What's this? You cook potatoes and rice the same way? Yes! Well - almost. And it's foolproof.

First potatoes. Which are the more difficult of the two to cook. You don't think so? Wait and see. Add your potatoes to cold salted water, bring to the boil and cook until a wooden skewer will pass easily through them without undue pressure. Drain into a colander. Now put about an inch or so of water in the pan, balance the colander (with potatoes) on top of that, return to a low heat and cover.

You can either use the saucepan lid or some silver foil. Personally I use a tea-towel (by far the best) but if you do that you need to make very sure that it goes nowhere near the heat - especially if you're cooking with gas! Now the point is this. The potatoes will keep beautifully in the gently steaming atmosphere while you get on with everything else. They will even improve in texture and be ready to serve whenever you need them. Okay.

What about the rice? Easy. Bring plenty of salted water to the boil. Then add the rice - roughly one cup for every two people - stir once, bring back to the boil and cook for exactly 15 minutes. You will have to reduce the heat slightly to prevent the mixture boiling over and you also need to partially cover the pot to reduce evaporation.

Now drain and follow exactly the same procedure as you did for the potatoes. No panic, no undercooked grains, no expensive electric cooker. Just perfectly separated fluffy rice which is ready to be used when you need it. Can you see what a powerful system this is? It means you can prepare your rice before you even begin to worry about your stir-fry or whatever else it is that you're going to prepare.

Incidentally, don't be afraid to add a little color to your rice by dropping some chopped up red or yellow bell pepper into the water about five minutes before you finish cooking it. Or serve yellow rice by adding saffron or turmeric to the cooking water. Once you know this technique, the results are limited only by your imagination. Pasta Cooking pasta couldn't be simpler. You boil it in salted water for however long it says on the packet.

Then you drain it and it all sticks together in one inedible lump! Well not any more. Here's the solution (and it's not adding oil during cooking) Just before cooking ends, remove about half a cup of the cooking liquid and reserve it. Drain the pasta in a colander, return it to the pan in which it was cooked and add back in the reserved cooking liquid. Stir it, and add about a tablespoon of olive oil.

That's it. Done. The oil and liquid will combine to give your pasta a smooth, creamy finish.

No more stuck together lumps. No more dried out bits. And you can add any sauce you like. If you're serving it plain and it seems a little sloppy, adding some grated parmesan or pecorino cheese will quickly solve that problem for you, as well as injecting some welcome flavor.

Boiled Beef The expression 'boiled beef' probably arises from the fact that it's easier to say than 'simmered beef' - which is what it really is. Salted, pickled and corned beef (or pork) amount to the same thing and are cooked by immersing in a bouillon (posh name for stock) which is kept just below boiling point. Cooking time varies with the size of the piece but it's going to take at least an hour and more likely two or more. The great thing is that it's pretty hard to overcook it, so making it the center of your main dish saves hugely on stress. It's also delicious. You can serve it to anyone with confidence.

Nobody that I know pickles their own meat these days. Buy it from your butcher or supermarket, allowing around six ounces of meat per person. Trim the fat off.

Unlike roasting you don't need any fat to keep the meat moist. Put it in a pot only slightly larger than the joint, cover with water (no salt) and bring to the boil. Then drain the meat and discard the water.

Add fresh, some salt, a peeled onion into which you've stuck a couple of cloves, three or four carrots and a tablespoon of vinegar. Bring this mix to the boil and then reduce the heat to a simmer. Give it about 20 minutes to the pound and serve it with your favorite mash and greens.

Oh yes, and don't forget to reduce the liquor you cooked it in to make a moistener for the meat. Easy caramel If you boil condensed milk, in its tin, for around 45-50 minutes, it will turn to caramel which you can then use as a base for desserts. Just stick the tin in boiling water and wait. Of course you may have to add extra water from time to time to prevent drying out. To easily get the caramel out after allowing it to cool down, open the tin at both ends and push it through with a wooden spoon or similar kitchen item. Here's a simple method of using it: Crush some cookies into crumbs, either by putting them between sheets of cling-film and beating the living daylights out of them with a rolling pin, or in a food processor.

Mix the crumbs with melted butter and press this mix into the base of a spring-form cake tin. then chill it in the fridge for around an hour. Spread your caramel on top of the cookie base (warming it slightly will make this easier); pile sliced fruit on top of that (banana is perfect); then pile on whipped cream to which you have added some vanilla essence and a little fine sugar.

Grate a little dark chocolate onto the finished tart. Chill, remove the spring form case and serve from the base. Now is that easy or what? And you can make it the day before if you want. Do you need a recipe for that? Of course you don't.

The way your version turns out is just the way it should be - and it will taste every bit as good as mine, if not better. Parboiling I've included this as a cooking method because it's a useful way for the savvy cook to remove excess fat from various meats in order to get a crisp finish when barbecuing or grilling. The sort of things I'm talking about are spare ribs, chicken wings, and even duck prior to roasting. All you do is plunge whatever you're cooking into boiling water (no salt needed) and leave it there to partially cook. You'll see the fat floating to the surface as scum, which needs to be skimmed off. If you are going to parboil you need to do it in good time, because you want the surface of the meat to dry out before you go on to the next step, which will be a marinade (to put back lost flavor) followed by your barbecue, the broiler or an oven.

The amount of time the meat needs to spend in the water depends on the thickness of the fat, but think in terms of around 15 minutes for most things. Will nutrients be lost? Yes, there's no escaping that, but the trade-off is that you will have seriously reduced the fat content as well, which will in turn have reduced your cholesterol intake. For most people, the second part far outweighs the first and of course the protein content will be more digestible - so you even get an added bonus. Copyright Tingira Publishing 2004 All Rights Reserved.

Michael Sheridan is an acknowledged authority and published writer on cooking matters. His website at http://thecoolcook.com contains a wealth of information, hints, tips and recipes for busy home cooks.

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