Thinking small can prevent big problems


Sometimes it's the little things that get in the way. Like ruining your makeup while chopping onions, with guests only an hour away from arriving. Or buying freshly cooked crabs to find that no one is willing to pick them. Or planning to serve guacamole when the avocados aren't ripe.

To keep the frustrations down in the kitchen, we've cataloged simple techniques for 20 oft-performed cooking chores. There may be multiple ways to tackle these tasks, but these are our preferred methods for each. Some make the food taste better, while others head off disaster; still others save time and streamline culinary expertise.

* Ripen an avocado: Buy avocados three days before you are ready to use them. Choose hard ones. Place them in a brown paper bag and set them in a dark cabinet or pantry. In three days, they should be softened and perfect for use in salads, guacamole, etc.

* Peel a shrimp: To peel a raw shrimp, first pull off the head. Then starting with the tiny legs underneath, peel about half the shell off from the head end of the tail. Gripping the tail fins, slide the tail meat out of the rest of the shell. To devein, cut a short slit on the top of the shrimp. Run a knife under the vein and slip it out; then entire vein should come out from both sides of the slit.

* Peel a tomato: Heat a pot of boiling water on the stove top. Plunge tomato into water for about 30 seconds. Remove from water with a slotted spoon and drain. Hold the tomato with a paper towel to keep from burning your hand and begin to peel the tomato with a knife and your fingers. The skin should pop off in large sheets. The tomato will not cook in this short time.

* Dry fresh herbs: The microwave oven makes this a simple task. Simply sprinkle about 1/4 cup leaves of herbs such as basil, mint, tarragon and oregano on a paper towel. Microwave on high (100 percent power) for several minutes, depending on the size of the leaves (try 1 minute for small or thin leaves such as thyme or cilantro; 2 to 3 minutes for larger leaves). Rotate herbs every 30 seconds or so, examining them as you go for dryness. When they appear to be dehydrated, remove them from the oven and cool before storing in airtight jars at room temperature.

* Clean mushrooms: Do not wash them. Rinsing mushrooms under running water tends to damage their delicate taste and texture. After trimming off the hardened stem tips (about 1/8 of an inch) wipe the mushrooms with a damp paper towel to remove any debris. This rule applies to most edible mushrooms including the white ones sold in supermarkets. There are exceptions such as wild-growing chanterelles, which are sturdier, often caked with mud and need rinsing.

* Cook pasta: Use 4 quarts of water per pound of pasta. Bring water to a rolling boil, add salt to taste and stir in the pasta. Once the water returns to a boil, it will move the pasta without your stirring. Adding 1 tablespoon of oil keeps the water from boiling over and helps keep pasta separated. The key is to avoid overcooking pasta. The best test is the taste-test. When the pasta begins to look transparent, begin tasting little pieces until it becomes al dente (to the tooth) or just right for biting. This can take anywhere from 1 minute for thin, fresh pasta to 25 minutes for thick, dried pasta. When ready, quickly drain.

* Pick a crab: Break off the large claws first and set aside. Then open the flap underneath and pull off the back shell. Using a knife or your finger, clean out the the center and cut off the gills along the sides. Cut off mouth parts and eyes. With a sharp knife, remove sockets where the claws were attached. Starting from the back of the crab body, and with the point of the knife angled slightly downward and pointed to the center of the body, make a cut across the top of the legs on one side of the crab. Set the resulting piece aside. This cut must be properly made so as to open the body chambers and expose the meat.

Rotate the crab in your hand and cut the other side. Now, holding your finger over the lump meat, cut off the small legs. You should have the body with meat exposed and two small pieces with meat exposed. With your knife, carefully pry out the backfin or lump meat in one large piece. Then remove meat from the other opened chambers. Do the same with meat from the two pieces. Crack the claws near the pinchers with a nut cracker and remove claw meat.

* Roast a pepper: The idea is to blacken or char the outer skin of a bell or chile pepper. On a skewer or fork, hold it over or in the fire on a stove-top burner, turning occasionally until all sides are black. This takes a few minutes. Or, place peppers on a baking sheet and under the oven broiler about 3 inches from the flame. Turn, until charred all over. When blackened, place peppers in a brown paper bag or a zip-lock bag for a few minutes, closing the top and allowing them to steam. Then, rub off the charred peeling, holding peppers under water if necessary. The skin should slip right off, leaving a slightly cooked, tastier and brightly colored pepper.

* Chop nuts: Nuts are easier to chop when they are warm. Before chopping, heat them in a microwave oven on high (100 percent power) for 2 to 3 minutes or in a conventional oven at 325 degrees for 5 minutes. The easiest way to chop them is in a food processor. Pulse on and off, about 1 cup at a time until desired size is reached. Adding 1 tablespoon of flour will help keep pieces separate, if desired. Toasting nuts intensifies flavor and adds crunch; toasted nuts are not as likely to sink in cakes when baked. To toast, spread on a baking sheet and place 4 inches under the broiler for a few minutes, checking often and turning as they reach golden brown.

* Melt chocolate: Place chocolate in a microwave-safe bowl and heat on medium (50 percent power), checking occasionally. Timing will vary with ovens and type of chocolate. If large amount is heated, stir occasionally. A 1-ounce square of chocolate can be melted right in its paper wrapper in the microwave on medium (50 percent power) in 1 1/2 to 2 minutes; 2 squares in about 3 minutes, and 3 squares in about 4 minutes. Leaving paper wrappers on saves cleanup.

* Trim an artichoke: Slice off the stem, leaving a flat bottom. With a sharp knife, slice 3/4 inch off the top of the artichoke with one horizontal cut. With scissors, snip off the tip of each remaining leaf to eliminate thorns and give the artichoke a more attractive appearance. The artichoke is now ready for stuffing or steaming. If you want to remove the choke, this is easiest to do after cooking. Just reach in the center with a spoon, scoop out the smallest leaves and the choke. Don't forget to peel and cook the stem; it tastes good, too. (Use a stainless steel knife and scissors to trim an artichoke; carbon blades will darken the flesh. If you're not cooking the artichoke right away, brush the cut edges with lemon juice to prevent discoloration.)

* Shuck an oyster: Before shucking oysters, clean off the mud and grime under running water, using a scrubber, if necessary. You'll need an oyster knife, available at supermarkets, hardware stores and seafood stores. Wearing heavy gloves, hold the oyster, hinge facing out, in one hand and the oyster knife in the other. Insert the tip of the knife into the hinge of the oyster, twisting sharply, to pry the shells of the bivalve apart. Once opened, run the knife under the oyster, severing the muscle attached to the shell.

* Chop onions: If you have a gas stove, turn on a burner and peel the onion on a chopping board next to it. The flame will keep the onion fumes from burning your eyes. Slice the onion in half, root to stem. To chop, place flat side down, slice off the root and stem ends and discard. Slice vertically, then horizontally.

* Peel a grapefruit: When you want perfect grapefruit or orange segments without that irritating membrane, first slice off the stem ends and peel the fruit of all peeling and pith (the white part). Then, with a sharp knife, slice between each segment and its membrane; two cuts and a segment falls free.

* Grate lemon: Grate only the brightest-colored part of lemon or any citrus peel. The white pith below is bitter. When you use a hand grater, much of the peel gets stuck between the grater's holes and is wasted or clogs the grater. To avoid this, place a piece of parchment paper over the grater and grate as usual. You will get more grated peel and have less cleaning up to do.

* Make bread crumbs: Tear toasted bread into pieces and pulse in a food processor until desired size and consistency. One untrimmed slice of bread makes about 1/2 cup fresh bread crumbs. To make dry bread crumbs, dry the bread first by placing a single layer of bread slice on a baking sheet and baking at 300 degrees until dried and lightly brown. Cool, break into pieces and process in a blender or food processor until fine. One slice dried bread equals about 1/3 cup crumbs.

* Cook asparagus: Hold an asparagus stem in both hands and snap off the tough end; it should break at the point where toughness begins. Asparagus with tough ends removed should cook evenly if microwaved or steamed. Cook just to the point of doneness. Do not cover with water or overcook or asparagus will turn a dull color and lose texture. If you wish to cook asparagus whole including the tough ends, peel the tough part with a sharp knife.

* Cleaning hot chili peppers: With very hot peppers, such as habanero, it is best to wear gloves when handling. Slice them open, stem and use a spoon to remove membranes and seeds, which contain most of the heat. Rinse under cool water. Be careful not to touch your hands to your eyes, nose or mouth until you have washed them thoroughly. If you are not wearing gloves, washing you hands may not remove all of the irritating oil and your eyes will still burn if touched.

* Soften ice cream: When ice cream is very hard, microwave at medium-low power for 15 to 30 seconds for 1 pint, 30 to 45 seconds for 1 quart, and 45 seconds to 1 minute for 1/2 gallon.

* Season a cast-iron pot or skillet: Wash pot or skillet and dry well. Rub it liberally with oil such as vegetable oil and place it in a slow oven (250 to 300 degrees) for about 3 hours. Wipe out excess grease and cool. When using a seasoned pot, try not to let food burn in it. After use, wash it lightly and dry it thoroughly. Do not put it in the dishwasher or use an abrasive scrubber on it. If this happens, you'll have to season it all over again.

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