Professional chefs have some distinct advantages over the home cook - an army of sous chefs and dishwashers, for example, not to mention powerful ovens and access to the best ingredients. But more critical than any of these is culinary know-how. To help you get a leg up in the kitchen this year, we've asked 10 Long Island chefs for their top cooking tips.
JONATHAN CONTES OF MOSAIC, ST. JAMES
"Your freezer is your friend," said the co-chef-owner (with Tate Morris) of the eclectic restaurant whose menu changes every day. "Freeze vegetable scraps for soups and stock, freeze stock in ice-cube trays so you can use just a few spoonfuls." Contes also advises freezing pesto in ice-cube trays "and then you can just throw a cube into a sauce and it's delicious." Contes' favorite use of the freezer may be to prolong the usefulness of ginger. "Most people buy a piece of ginger, use what they use and then a few months later find something green, moldy and festering in the vegetable drawer. 'Oh. The ginger.' " Better to wrap the ginger in plastic and stick it in the freezer. "It grates great when it's frozen, and then you always have the taste of fresh ginger."
DOUGLAS GULIJA OF PLAZA CAFÉ, SOUTHAMPTON
"Build a relationship with a fishmonger so you are getting the freshest possible fish," is the first commandment of fish cookery, according to the chef-owner of the seafood-centric Plaza Café. "Fish should smell like the ocean and not like fish," Gulija said. "And don't frown on frozen fish," he added. If it's been processed and flash-frozen at sea, "it can be fresher than something that's been lying around 'fresh' for weeks." When it comes to cooking fish, "high heat is the key to cooking fish." If your pan or grill isn't hot enough, the fish will stick and you don't get a nice sear. For dredging pieces of fish destined for a saute, "use Wondra flour. It gives you great crispness."
KEITH LUCE OF LUCE & HAWKINS, JAMESPORT
"You need to season food throughout the cooking process," said the chef-owner of Luce & Hawkins, the restaurant at Jamesport's Jedediah Hawkins Inn. "That way it becomes a part of the dish and you only have to do a little tweaking at the end." Luce introduces salt and dried spices (e.g., coriander, cumin, fennel seeds) at the beginning - when searing the meat, sauteing the onions - and then adds fresh herbs and freshly ground pepper at the end. And speaking of seasoning, "it's critical to understand the importance of acid." Luce said that a dash of lemon juice, vinegar or even wine gives food "a fuller mouth-feel that doesn't rely solely on salt. Ninety-nine percent of the time, I finish a sauce with a quick dash of acid."
RICHARD BURNS OF JIMMY HAYS STEAKHOUSE, ISLAND PARK
Seasoned executive chef Burns has been cooking steak professionally for more than 50 years, 18 of them at Jimmy Hays. "Season the steak before you cook it," he counseled. "When the meat is raw, it absorbs the flavors better." Every steak at Jimmy Hays gets a good sprinkling of salt and pepper and then a brushing of oil (a blend of extra-virgin olive oil and vegetable oil). "Brushing the steak with oil will ensure that it doesn't stick or dry out under the broiler." More Burns wisdom: "Let the steak rest for five to 10 minutes so it doesn't bleed out when you serve it."
PETER SPYROPOULOS OF LIMANI, ROSLYN
The executive chef of the luxe Greek Limani considers salads his specialty. "A good salad starts with quality products," he said. "I use romaine hearts, good ripe tomatoes, English cucumbers." Once he's assembled his ingredients, he wants their flavors to shine. "People tend to mess things up with too much stuff in the dressing," he said. "Keep the dressing simple." Spyropoulos doesn't even make his dressings in advance because "whatever you put into it, the vinegar will change the flavor of." Just before he serves the salad he combines in a bowl red wine vinegar, salt and pepper, a crushed garlic clove and some chopped fresh parsley or oregano. Then he whisks in extra-virgin olive oil (the ratio of vinegar to oil is 1 to 3), and that's the dressing.
CHRIS PALMER OF LANDMARK DINER, ROSLYN
As executive chef of a busy diner, Palmer presides over the cooking of hundreds of eggs every day. His secret for success: "For eggs, you need a good, heavy nonstick pan." The pan should be hot enough so that the egg coagulates, but not so hot that it starts to color. "A heavy pan will keep a good medium heat," he said. As breakfast gives way to lunch, burgers become Palmer's focus. He seasons the patties with salt and pepper and sears them over high heat. "Use the thickness of a burger to control doneness," he said. A burger ordered rare is made thick so that the inside is still red when the outside has a nice sear on it. His cooks will flatten out the raw patty for a burger ordered well done so that by the time it is seared, it's well cooked throughout.
NINO ANTUZZI OF OSTERIA DA NINO, HUNTINGTON
Antuzzi, who is also executive chef-owner of Red and Sapsuckers in Huntington and Café Red in Kings Park, is a native of Sardinia and, as such, has been eating pasta since shortly after his birth. His pasta-cooking tips are not revolutionary, but they bear repeating. "You have to cook pasta in a lot of boiling water, and the water has to be salted enough so you can taste it." Dried pasta should be cooked until it is still a bit firm to the tooth, al dente, but "fresh pasta cannot be served al dente; it needs to be done a little more." And please, "don't put oil in the pasta-cooking water."
TONY BELLUCCI OF WINNIE'S COFFEE SHOP, BAY SHORE
The chef and co-owner of this breakfast-and-lunch spot is justifiably proud of his soups. "You don't need a lot of time to make a great soup," he said. "But no matter what the recipe calls for, always sweat the vegetables." Bellucci starts every soup by putting his onions and/or garlic and/or celery and carrots into a pot with oil and cooks them until they are soft. "If I'm making a light soup, I turn the heat very low, and if they start to brown I add a couple of drops of water. For a dark soup, like onion soup, I get those onions so dark you won't believe it. And don't forget the salt. It's the most important ingredient in the kitchen.''
MARC BYNUM, CONSULTANT, M BYNUM CREATIONS
Bynum, who ran the kitchens at Tellers in Islip and Venue 56 in Hauppauge before consulting on the new Deli Boss in Roslyn Heights, made it all the way to the championship round on Food Network's "Chopped." He knows a thing or two about cooking fast under pressure. "Use high heat and a pan with a lot of surface area," he said. "Everything goes faster in a wide skillet than in a narrow saucepan. The food doesn't just sit and steam, and it's easier to regulate the temperature." Another trick of the professional chef's trade is mis en place (French for "put in place"), having all ingredients ready. "Collect those quart and pint containers from the Chinese takeout," Bynum said. "Then measure out all your ingredients and have them ready to go before you start cooking."
GERARD FIORAVANTI OF FIORELLO DOLCE, HUNTINGTON
The pastry-chef-co-owner of this beloved Huntington bakery counsels home cooks to "pay attention the temperature of your baking ingredients." Egg whites should be at room temperature to achieve maximum volume when whipped. Butter destined to be creamed with sugar should also be at room temperature. It's not a bad idea to take eggs and butter out of the refrigerator the night before you plan to bake. But, Fioravanti cautions, "when you are making pastry, the butter should be very cold."