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Flavour Guy: Lessons I learned at the frying pan

I am an analog guy adrift in a digital world. Adrift, but not yet lost. I have my computers and a not-so-smart phone. I tweet, check Facebook and linkup on Linkedin; yeah, I’m hip to the jive. But that doesn’t mean I want to live there.

Work requires that I spend much of each day at a keyboard. Then I move from the screen to the kitchen where App stands for aptitude not application, and learning demands that knowledge be experienced, not just acquired.

Learning in the kitchen does not come from the big tools: the Cuisinart, the blender, and the multi-function toaster oven. All of these require user manuals and on-line searches for more information. Almost any problem that I might have or question that needs answering can be found on-line: “Does anyone know how to make ice cream in a toaster oven?” or “Why can’t I use my coffee grinder to make mayonnaise?”

I have also found that I am never the first to get “error code H-134” on my dishwasher. An on-line search brings me to a quorum with the same problem, although, dishearteningly, some have been waiting years for an answer.

Rule # 1: The more gadgets in the kitchen, the more time I spend on-line trying to figure out how to use them.

Rule # 2: The more specific the gadget, the less use it gets. Does anyone really need a $350 Margarita Maker? More importantly, does it come with those cute little paper umbrellas?

Rule # 3: Kitchens require labour. The bigger the space, the more I have to move around. I love those IKEA catalogue kitchens with unlimited space. Stove, sink and dishwasher are a quarter mile apart. Where’s the fridge? Oh, maybe on the next page. IKEA catalogue kitchens are wonderfully healthy, not just because they are Swedish, but to use them, we have to sprint from one counter to the next. There should be a TV reality show that takes place in one of these. Contestants would cook a 4-minute egg and run a 4-minute mile at the same time.

The corollary is to keep things to a minimum. Start with a frying pan. Cast iron is preferred. Teflon coated aluminium pans may heat quickly and let an omelette slide off without butter, but they don’t last. And frankly, an egg sans beurre is only a facsimile of an omelette. Butter and eggs were made for each other. Why keep them apart? Family farms have chickens and cows. In making breakfast, we simply replicate the natural order.

A cast iron frying pan is demanding. It requires diligence: maintaining a rust-free well-oiled base, letting it come to the proper heat on its terms, cleaning it quickly after it has been used. It rewards the cook with nicely browned onions and braised meats, seared steaks and spaghetti sauce, and perfectly fried eggs.

What more does a cook need than a good frying pan, a decent sized pot and a sharp knife? The downside for many people is that this all takes time.

I realize that Uncle Curmudgeon is talking. Keeping the knife sharp and the frying pan seasoned are skills that we acquire from use and repetition. Learning within limits, we become sharper cooks and then acquire what we need.

Tofu, anyone?

I have been cooking more with tofu lately. On its own, it is tasteless but it does acquire flavour nicely. A dish that I now make regularly is, for lack of a better name, fried tofu bits.

Drain a block of firm tofu and cut up as much as you want into bite-size squares. Leave these on paper towels or a dishtowel so that they are as dry as possible.

On low heat, slowly heat a quarter cup or more of olive oil in a frying pan. The oil should easily cover the pan. Add a large minced garlic and, as the garlic softens, a few chili flakes and spices that you like. Garam masala would give this a nice Indian flavour. The oil should become infused with flavour and ensure spices and garlic do not burn.

Raise the heat slightly and add some of the tofu in a loose layer. Sauté until all sides are golden. Remove the tofu with a slotted spoon letting as much oil as possible return to the pan.

Put the cooked tofu on paper towels as you cook the rest. Sprinkle with salt.

These look like croutons when finished and will keep for several days in a covered container in the fridge. They are tasty additions to salads, stir-fries, mixed with scrambled eggs, or just munched on their own.

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