Convenience products—a reality in today’s kitchens—are actually platforms from which to create signature dishes.
By Adam Weiner
For economic reasons, there are very few kitchens in the country that cook almost everything from scratch. Mixes, precooked items, packages and containers can be found in even the best kitchens. The problem with many young cooks is that they just open up the packages and cans, dump them into a pot or hotel pan, heat them, and slop them on a plate. They lose the passion for their craft. They become disillusioned and bitter, hating and then quitting their jobs.
These young cooks have not been taught that these products are not the “be all” and “end all” of their cooking. No one has taught them that convenience products are a canvas waiting to be painted with their own culinary style.
Although I have been teaching for more than six years, I just recently came up with a creative idea on how to teach the skill of augmentation. The Navy has a program called “Adopt A Ship” in which civilian chefs and culinary instructors are sent to bases and ships at sea to teach new skills to the Navy’s Culinary Specialists (CSs). In July, I taught a group in New England that simply because you have some prepared food in packages doesn’t mean that you have to abandon your culinary training. I explained that they could “play with the food” and that they needed to “twist and alter the package contents to make them” their own. They weren’t grasping the idea, thinking that the food has to be how it comes out of the package.
I tossed and turned that night, and in the morning I stopped at the Navy store and bought up all of the chicken wings in stock. I went into the galley and fired up the fryer. I cooked off one batch with nothing on them. Everyone agreed the taste was boring. I then took another batch and dipped it in soy sauce and a third batch in hot sauce. Everyone agreed they were more interesting. I then added cilantro and sesame seeds to the soy sauce and honey and brown sugar to the hot sauce. The CSs thought these wings were brilliant.
Now, to drive home the point, I told them that each had to make five different styles of wings using only ingredients found in the galley. I would give them the fried wings (just as if they were prepared convenience products) and they would have to finish them. They couldn’t use hot sauce or soy sauce as the base. The beauty of this procedure is that wings cook quickly, are inexpensive and are a good palette for different sauces and seasonings.
Within minutes I literally had about 100 different types of wings to try. The CSs had learned that with a few creative touches they could take something pre-done and make it their own. Oh yes, all of this took just 45 minutes!
Chef Adam Weiner teaches a 20-week Introduction to Cooking program for JobTrain and the Sequoia Adult School on the San Francisco Peninsula.