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Become a Ninja Chef with Season to Taste

Think Small, Work Big

This month, I want to talk a bit about an idea that runs in the background every time I'm cooking and hopefully you'll understand where it relates to many of the previous posts/ideologies as I explain it. The idea is what I like to call a "Micro-system" and it applies to every little motion, ingredient, tool or technique you do or use in cooking. Working on your micro-systems make everything you do in a kitchen (or beyond) smoother, faster, easier, and better because you have spent a little time learning, paying attention to, and getting better at all the little tiny skills you encounter in cooking. Allow me to explain further so hopefully we can get out of the "meta" realm and get this idea back into your kitchen.

Micro-systems in the Real World

How you hold a carrot to peel it is a micro-system; overhand, underhand, one end touching the cutting board, laying flat on the cutting board, holding it in the air are all variations of simply holding a carrot! How you hold a wooden spoon to stir a pot, or how you actually stir the pot, are also examples; you could hold it overhanded, underhanded, or like a pencil (or differently depending on how thick what you are stirring). Some people stir like their life depends on it (super fast, and really hard) while others don't appear to actually want to mix things or keep them from burning (super light, super slow). Paying attention to exactly how you are stirring to make sure it meets the goal of what you are doing is what I call working on refining your own Micro-systems. Sometimes hard and fast is great (making vinaigrettes/aioli/meringue/whipped cream), sometimes slow and steady is great (combining herbs/spices to infuse in a liquid), it just depends on what you are making. But the simple fact that you are paying attention to (questioning yourself and adjusting when necessary) each little movement in cooking will result in refining them and thus getting better at cooking as a whole.

Look for Pearls

I've said (and thought) many times that being a good cook is just being good at a lot of tiny little skills. And when looking at the act of cooking as a whole from such a granular view, as from a micro-system level, it certainly seems to be true. That's part of the reason, I believe, professional cooks/chefs are so obsessive about all the little things; because all those little things really do add up!! Whether it's to save time, money, or quality; refining every micro-system you can identify will steadily improve each aspect of your cooking to which it applies. This is an example of the idea of Kai-Zen (consistent incremental improvement in all areas) that I have written about in previous posts. This is also why you should treat every individual with the same level of respect in a kitchen. Because there are so many different little micro-systems that if you don't assume you know everything (and act accordingly) you just might learn something new from anyone (even the newest person) in a kitchen. Often some of the best ideas come from those with the least experience because they aren't yet indoctrinated into the "we do it this way because that's just how it's done" mentality that can come out in many kitchens. Pearls of wisdom can come from anywhere, so always be on the lookout!!

Different Strokes? Same Standards

Everyone is different and because of that each individual's micro-systems may be different while still allowing them to arrive at the same end result. That being said, when teaching others how to cook, you have to teach people something so they have a starting point to begin refining their skills as they grow and learn. This is what many call the fundamentals (or what I teach in the Essential Series). For this reason, there are plenty of industry standards for how to do most things in a kitchen. The idea is to learn the basics, learn that you should consistently refine them, and then refine them to the point that they work well for you. This is how you can learn the basics, more advanced techniques, and still be constantly learning and refining each of your micro-systems to work with your hands, your body, your kitchen, and ultimately create your food. After showing someone something in a kitchen, I occasionally get the question "do you mind if I do it this way (instead of exactly how I showed them)," I consistently answer, "I don't care if you stand on your head and do it, so long as it's fast and comes out the way I want it!" How you get there is less important than making sure you get where you are trying to go, and it's as easy, as comfortable, and as fast as possible. Many roads lead to the finish, take the best one for you!

Some of my favorite Micro-systems

Become One with the Wrap

Plastic wrap seems to be one of the biggest nemeses of many home cooks for one understandable reason; home plastic wrap sucks!!! It comes out of the box whenever you go to use it (and thus not where the cutter is), it doesn't stick that well (to itself or anything else), and because of those two reasons, you end up fumbling with it, getting it wadded up, not covering what you are wrapping, and/or using twice as much as you need. BUY A BOX OF 12" PROFESSIONAL PLASTIC WRAP!!! It is a bit of a big box (about the size of 4-6 boxes of regular plastic wrap) but it will change your (plastic wrap) world when you need it! Simply because the box is big, heavy and keeps the roll in place, you can just put what you want to wrap on the counter in front of the box, use both hands to keep the wrap straight when you pull it out, and then securely, easily, and quickly wrap whatever you want to! Alternatively, you can put the box on the back of the counter then with both hands, pull out the wrap to keep it straight and let it nicely fall to the counter, place what you want to wrap on the plastic covered counter, then just cover it from what's extra towards you and/or pull out more to cover what you are wrapping (or roll what you are wrapping if it is solid and stiff). Simple as that! You have just won the fight with an inanimate object of frustration. Get a professional box of plastic wrap to refine your Plastic Wrap Micro-System and put an end to the fumbling and the fighting so you can become one with the wrap. Plus, it'll probably be the last box of plastic wrap you'll ever need to buy because it's 2000' long!

LeapFrog Cooking

Many people are amazed to hear that I cook pretty much every one of my families’ meals while running a small business, taking care of the house, and now being a parent of a small baby! I utilize many various micro-systems (I could literally write all day about this topic, but I’ll keep it reasonable for y’all here) and one that pops up all the time is what I call LeapFrog Cooking. Basically whenever I cook anything, I cook much more than I need for any one meal and then roll that into the next meal with different ingredients, spices, or as a different form so I don’t have to make, say rice (or a starch) every meal. I just make enough rice for 2-3 meals, then save the extra and turn it into something else. For example, I’ll roast a chicken one night and put it with rice and some roasted veggies. I’ll take the extra chicken and rice, add some fresh veggies and turn that into stir fried rice the next day or night. If there’s any extra chicken, I’ll make chicken salad and put that over some greens with any left over roasted veggies from the night before for a quick lunch. Or I’ll roast potatoes and use that as a base for a quick sauté of protein and veggies. Save the extra potatoes and mash them into gnocchi for the next night. Save the extra gnocchi in the freezer to pull out anytime in the future. Pickle some veggies whenever and leave them in the fridge to pull from to add into a salad, sandwich, or rice bowl (this can slant Asian/Latin/Mediterranean/???) with a fried egg or some leftover protein… Or when in doubt, turn any leftovers into taco/burrito/quesadilla/enchilada night! Or they can become stars of a brothy Asian soup, pasta, frittata, quinoa or grain bowl! That way you aren’t starting from scratch every night or day and you have a starting point with that dreaded question of “What’s for dinner??” Let past you do the prep work for future you and utilize efficiency of motion to make cooking easier for you as a whole with this micro-system!

Bleach for the Win!

Another little micro-system that has changed my cooking is keeping bleach based sanitizer spray in my kitchen. When mixed to the proper strength (1 teaspoon to 1 qt of cold water), this spray will kill all germs in 7 seconds and will evaporate fully. Plus it won’t stain your clothes at that strength! What this allows you to do is to keep a very large cutting board out (and preferably your knife as well) and not need to actually wash it after every meal. Simply keep this board for your fruit and veggies and keep your protein (cooked or raw) on a separate cutting board and use your bleach sanitizer spray with every use! This means your cutting board stays sanitary and you rarely need to actually wash it! This keeps you always ready to cook and has you one or two steps ahead whenever it’s time to cook!

Using a large cutting board allows you to keep all your cut up veggies in one place and not dirty up any extra plate while you cut up all your veggies or not slow the cooking process by cutting things one by one as you clear your board. Do all your knife skills at once if you can! Plus you can have better knife skills when you have a little space to work which makes your food taste better and your cooking easier! And when it’s time, simply slide each veggie, one by one (based on cook times) into your pan, pot, or bowl. And this whole system only works if you have bleach based sanitizer spray out and ready!

And that protein, cut that up on a separate cutting board that is dishwasher safe (preferably), then when your done, just toss that in the dishwasher, wash your 1 knife, and keep that big cutting board clean and sanitary as well as your cooking smooth, efficient, and easy! Bleach for the win!!

Ninja Chef in Training

Most people think of Ninjas as being smooth (read silent), fast, efficient, and extremely effective (read deadly). You can learn to become your own Ninja Chef by adopting the growth mindset of continual learning, attention, and refinement of every one of your Micro-Systems to make every move as smooth, fast, efficient and effective as possible. Think about the process. Refine the process. Become a Ninja Chef. A thousand mile journey begins with a single step. You can do it!! And we're here to help!!

Thanks for reading!!

Happy Cooking!

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