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How to Cook, Lesson 1: Know Your Ingredients

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The best way to learn about ingredients is to go to the market and see the various cuts of chicken, pork and beef, and kinds of fish, seafood and vegetables. And you will have to visit the market more than once to absorb everything. It’s a never ending learning process.

My story

Let me tell you a bit about my own learning process.

Whole fish with mushrooms and vegetables

One day when I was in high school, I decided that I seriously wanted to learn to cook. I mustered the courage to visit the neighborhood market by myself. I marveled at the varieties of fish I saw but, for the life of me, I couldn’t locate where the meat section was. Never mind, I told myself. Fresh fish was good.

So, I bought fish. I asked the fishmonger to clean it for me because removing the gills, guts and scales was beyond my skills. Plus, I thought it was gross. I watched though and paid attention to the process and tools used for the job.

I went home and cooked the fish with sweet and sour sauce. It was bad sweet and sour sauce. And the fish was soggy. But my mother and brother didn’t complain. How could they? They didn’t cook. I might be a lousy cook at the time but I was still better at it than them.

I repeated the routine several more times. Buy fish. Cook fish. Repeat. Each time, it was a different kind of fish and a new way of cooking it.

After two weeks or so, my dear brother asked when we would have chicken or pork. And I couldn’t answer. Because I still hadn’t been able to locate the meat section of the market. I’ve tried. I’ve gone through every corner of the market. I’ve found the vegetables, I’ve located the dried fish, the eggs, the fruits… everything except the meat.

Then, my grandmother saved me. The meat section is in a separate building, she said. Exit the fish section through the side entrance leading to the parking lot, cross the parking lot to see the side entrance to the meat section.

I did as she said. And, true enough, I found the meat. Pork, beef, chicken… The names of the pork and beef cuts confused me. It would take another few weeks to tell the difference between pork shoulder (kasim) and pork butt (pigue) just by looking at the meat.

By that point, I was comfortable being inside the market. It was a good start.

The first cooking lesson does not involve cooking at all

When you read a recipe, what usually comes after the title? The list of ingredients come before the cooking procedure, right?

It’s not by accident that recipes are written that way. You have to have the correct ingredients first in order to proceed to the actual cooking. Otherwise, what will you be cooking with?

Where do you get the ingredients?

Go to the market

Markets differ from one country to the next. In some countries like Spain, markets sell everything from meat to seafood to ham, cheese and wine. That’s not the case in every part of the world.

The thing is, you have to visit your neighborhood market or the one that you plan to do your regular shopping in to see what is and what isn’t sold there.

Inspect the seafood section and know that fish go by different names

It’s kinda useless to dream about cooking a fish dish if you can’t find fish that fits the recipe, right? A recipe might call for mackerel scad, for instance, but no one’s heard of it in your neighborhood market.

Sea salt

Fish go by different names. Mackerel scad goes by more than a dozen names in the Philippines alone, including matang baka. It is known as chicharro in Cuba, Venezuela and Puerto Rico. It is gurapau, garapau and gurapu in Brazil. It is also known as purse-eye scad and goggle-eye scad in other parts of the world.

If the world sets universal names for fish, they’d have to be referred to by their scientific names. Would you remember the name Selar crumenophthalmus more easily than matang baka or purse-eye scad? Unlikely.

The trick to knowing fish is to know what each one looks like (you can search Google images) and then go to the market, find it and know by what local name it is known. Next time you need a particular fish for a recipe, it will be easier to find and buy it.

Another thing about fish is that not all fish are sold whole. Some fish are so huge that it will take an army to eat all of it. Big fish are sold by part (steak, fillet, belly or head).

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Locate where the meat section is, know the cuts and which part of the animal they come from

I’m using the term “meat” very loosely here to include fowl and poultry. Depending on where you are in the world and what your culinary traditions are, “meat” might include pheasant, goose, rabbit, horse, goat, dog, guinea pig and whale.

This is not the place for passing moral judgments about what meat people consume. I’m just pointing out that what “meat” is sold in your neighborhood market will differ from the meat sold in a market in another part of the world.

Pork belly

At home, our meat consumption consists mostly of poultry, pork, lamb and beef.

Poultry is the only one in that group that is sold whole although it can also be bought by cut.

Pork (except for suckling pig), lamb and beef are sold by cut and by weight.

What do I mean by “cut” and “weight”?

Weight means buying meat per kilo or per pound depending on the unit of measure used in your region.

“Cut” means the part of the animal. Chicken, for instance, can be bought by weight as chicken breasts, wings, thighs, quarters or even soup bones. Thighs and breasts come bone-in or boneless.

There are more pork, lamb and beef cuts than chicken cuts. That shouldn’t be a surprise because these animals are larger.

Why is it important to learn all these meat cuts? Because every recipe is designed to use a specific cut. Stews, for instance, are more tasty when tougher cuts of meat that require long and slow cooking are used. On the flipside, a steak requires a tender cut of beef.

As a general rule, parts of an animal that get a lot of exercise (legs, for instance) yield tougher meat that are great for stews and other dishes that call for hours of simmering. Parts of the animal that hardly get any exercise (chicken breast, for example) can be cooked at a fraction of the time and still come out tender.

Visit every fruit and vegetable stall

There are more edible plants than animals. What fruits and vegetables are sold in the market is mostly dependent on what grows in your region. In some parts of the world, fruits and vegetables are seasonal. So, what are plentiful, and inexpensive, in the spring will not be plentiful, or might not even be available, in the fall.

Is Haricot Vert the Same as Green Beans?

In the tropics, most vegetables grow all year ’round although fruits can be seasonal. However, prices fluctuate. During the monsoon season when crops are often damaged, the difficulty of transporting the meager supply can jack up prices even more.

If you visit the market regularly, in time, you will be able to see the pattern in supply and price fluctuations.

Speaking of vegetables… When I was a newbie cook, I didn’t even know that there was more than one kind of potato. I thought, quite simplistically, that they just differed in size. Small potato, big potato… It would have sounded alien to me back then if someone explained that some potatoes are “starchy” while others are “waxy”.

What I’m saying is that you might know what a potato looks like from a general sense but there is a lot of room for learning there. You won’t get good mashed potatoes if you use a waxy variety in the same manner that the cubes of potatoes in your potato salad will be too soggy if you use a starchy variety.

The same is true for other vegetables. In some cases, vegetables may look alike but have totally different flavors and characteristics.

Consider the following:

Read also:

Edible Mushrooms 101: Types, Flavors and Preparation

Go through the dry food section with a fine tooth comb

The last section of the market that you should visit and comb through is where dried food is sold. By “dried food” I mean rice, grains and spices like pepper.

As with other sections, what are sold in the dried food section of the market depend on the culinary culture of your region. In Asia where rice is a staple, numerous varieties of rice are mainstays in the market. In regions where bread is the main sources of carbohydrates, you’re likely to find a wide array of flour.

Varieties of rice in the market

Speaking of rice… If you’ve never noticed it before, the length of the grains differ from one variety to the next. The significance? The shorter the length of the grain, the starchier and stickier the rice. They tend to clump together after cooking. Medium-grain rice (like Japanese rice and the Italian arborio) is less sticky. Long-grain rice (like basmati) is the least starchy and, therefore, least sticky. BUT glutinous (sticky) rice is a variety all its own.

When you know your ingredients, cooking is more likely to be a success

Let me end this post right here. If you’re a newbie at cooking (or even if you’re not but you believe like I do that cooking is a skill that requires non-stop learning), you might want to take the next seven days spending time in the market to know what’s there and what isn’t there. Talk to the vendors. They might be able to give you valuable insight about the products they’re selling.

Next Saturday, it will be about why you should get acquainted with your stove (and, on a less extent, your oven), why you should know exactly how to operate it, what it can and what it cannot deliver.