Q&A's with Richard Bertinet
Author of Cook: In a Class of Your Own with Richard Bertinet
What is the best way to sharpen knives?
traditional whetstone gets knives very sharp; however, there is a bit of skill involved. Good cookware stores will show you how to use a whetstone before you buy one, but if you find the idea a bit daunting, you can buy good- quality electric sharpeners with ceramic wheels that are very effective and useful. Sharpening steels always look dramatic when you see chefs using them, but they really give an edge only to a sharp knife—they won't sharpen it if it is blunt.
What kind of vinegar is it best to use for vinaigrette?
I almost always use red wine vinegar, because it has a nice mellowness and gives a rosy color to the dressing. I might use white wine vinegar if I want something a little more neutral, if I were using a strong herb like fresh tarragon and I wanted the flavor really to come through. Cider vinegar I use only occasionally, but it works nicely in a goat cheese salad. I wouldn't use very expensive matured Balsamic vinegar in vinaigrette. If you are going to pay a lot of money for beautiful aged vinegar, just drizzle a little over some tomatoes to show it off at its best. If you do want that sweetness in your dressing, use less expensive Balsamic vinegar.
What do you mean by "good honey"?
There is a massive range of honey around. Cheap honey can be very sweet and not very distinctive tasting because it is usually a blend of different honeys. However, in the same way as you have single estate wines and olive oils, you can also find honeys that come from bees that have collected nectar from a specific plant—heather, hawthorn, clover, etc.—that gives the honey a special flavor, aroma, and color. Even though some climates may not be suited to honey production, local honeys are often available in many regions. The advantage of buying from a local producer is that the honey will usually be less filtered than commercial honey, which is also heated—a process that often removes the pollen, much of the flavor, and also many of the health benefits. In France, pollen is a popular ingredient added to many dishes—in the US, health food stores sometimes stock it. Occasionally, I sprinkle a little over this salad at the end; I like the flavor, and it is supposedly very good for you.
What is the best way to chop herbs?
With herbs, you are trying to keep the essential oils intact, thus preserving all the goodness and flavor, so use a very sharp knife (or a mezzaluna if you are comfortable using one). Alternatively, use scissors. Don't worry too much about how finely the herbs are chopped. The important thing is not to bruise them by using something blunt—when this happens, particularly with parsley or basil, you will see the leaves start to turn black. Always dry your herbs well after rinsing them and before chopping; otherwise, if they are damp, they will become mushy and difficult to chop or snip. And only chop/snip them at the last minute, so that you don't release their flavor too early.
How can you tell if a lime contains a lot of juice?
Limes can sometimes be disappointingly dry. To find the juiciest, look for ones with darker green skins, which are more mature than yellowy-green-skinned ones, and choose thinner-skinned ones that feel heavy.
What should I do if the sauce is lumpy?
If you add your wine and then your milk really slowly and make sure each addition is well mixed before you add the next—as if you were making mayonnaise—it shouldn't be lumpy, but if you do have a problem, just rub it through a strainer into a clean pan.
What is the best way to juice a lemon?
If you want lemons for juicing, look for heavy fruit with smooth, finely grained skins, rather than thicker, more bumpy-skinned ones. Bear in mind, though, that thinner-skinned ones will be harder to zest—and there will be less of zest. Choose really yellow lemons: if they have green streaks, they are not fully ripe and their flavor will be more acidic. If you want only a squeeze of juice, instead of cutting the lemon in half, just prick the skin with a knife and squeeze. If you are juicing a half lemon, there is any number of gadgets you can use. The ones I have are the metal squeezers that you open out; you put in a lemon half and then close up the squeezer and press out the juice. I have different-sized ones for oranges, limes, and grapefruits. It really doesn't matter what kind you go for. The important thing is that it is practical and easy to keep clean—otherwise you won't use it!
What kind of wine should I use?
One of the questions I am always asked in classes is whether you should use good wine or cheap wine, and whether the style of the wine makes any real difference. I would say don't spend more than 5 or 10 dollars if you are buying a new bottle: but buy something you would happily drink. Obviously, if you have any unfinished bottles that you have popped the cork back in, use those. As for the style, yes, a dish made with a big, fruity, oaky New World wine will taste different from one made with a more subtle European one. I tend to avoid oaky wines because they can easily overpower the rest of the ingredients. In winter, I might use a richer, fruitier Cabernet/Bordeaux style of wine; in summer, my instinct will be telling me to go for something lighter.
Why is it important to take meat out of the fridge an hour before you cook it?
It will take much longer to cook from the fridge, because it is cold, and you won't achieve that lovely browned, almost sugary sweet outside and tender inside that you should get from a pan-fried or griddled piece of meat. People often describe this as "caramelization," which really only involves sugar—instead, this browning is called the Maillard Reaction, after Louis Camille Maillard, the French physicist who identified this complicated reaction between carbohydrates and amino acids that produces that lovely browning. The same principle goes for any meat that you are grilling.
What does "reducing" a sauce actually mean?
When you cook liquid, usually containing wine or other alcohol, over high heat, some of it evaporates and, as it thickens, it concentrates in flavor as well as texture. Often recipes say, "Reduce by a third or a half." If you have a dark-colored sauce containing red wine, you can clearly see a "tidemark" around the inside of your pan that shows you how far your sauce has reduced, but it isn't always that easy to gauge, other than by keeping a mental note of the level of sauce you began with. I think it is more helpful to describe the thickness of the finished sauce—which is what I have done throughout this book—so you know what you are looking for, rather than worrying about fractions.
How can I get those perfectly crisscrossed "barbecue" marks?
By using a griddle pan. However, if you are cooking them in a frying pan or broiling them and you want to have the same effect, hold some metal barbecue skewers over a gas flame, then press them onto the meat. You can do this with tuna or scallops, too.
Why do you put the pastry into the fridge before rolling it?
Letting it rest for a while before rolling allows the gluten in the pastry to relax and makes the pastry more elastic and easier to roll. Once it is rolled, if you are using it to line a pie pan or plate, it is also a good idea to put it back into the fridge before baking it—again, this relaxes the gluten and makes the pastry less likely to shrink in the oven.
Is there a technique to whisking?
When you whisk, don't just go around and around in the center of the bowl; you need to get as much air as possible through every bit of the mixture. Use your wrist to lift the whisk upward, away from you, and back around through the mixture in a big circle.