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Quick-and-Easy Food Tips from Midwest Chefs

If you're intimidated by the idea of serving a perfect omelet for Sunday brunch or garnishing a plate like a celebrity chef, relax. Midwest food pros share their secrets.
  • Make a 40-second omelet

    Take it straight from the world's fastest omelet maker: Use water with the eggs, a large-enough pan, correct heat and good egg-cooking technique.

    That's the advice from Howard Helmer, senior representative for the American Egg Board, based in Park Ridge, Illinois. He holds the Guinness World Record for fastest omelet maker (427 two-egg omelets in 30 minutes). Here's what Howard recommends:

    Prep eggs For each omelet, whisk together 2 eggs, 2 tablespoons water and 1/8 teaspoon salt (optional). In a preheated, 10-inch nonstick skillet over medium-high heat, heat 1 teaspoon butter or cooking oil until it sizzles, tipping pan to coat. Pour egg mixture into pan.
    Cook quickly When egg edges bubble and set, use a spatula to pull cooked egg from the outside of the pan to the center while tilting pan so the uncooked egg reaches exposed pan surface. Keep entire bottom of pan covered with egg until there is no more runny egg. The egg should still be moist on top. Cooking takes 20-30 seconds.
    Fill and fold Add your choice of chopped or shredded filling to half of the omelet. Then slide spatula under unfilled side of omelet and fold it over filled side. Holding pan in right hand and serving plate in left, flip omelet onto the serving plate.

    For more egg ideas, see our slide show on Beautiful Fresh Egg Recipes.

    To watch Howard make his super-fast omelet, visit the website below and look for Recipe Videos.

    Beautiful Fresh Egg Recipes

    Incredible Egg

  • Brew a perfect cup of tea

    Tim Smith, "chief leaf" and owner of the Tea Smith in Omaha, says the best cup begins with fresh loose-leaf tea and good water.
    Start fresh Use fresh tea; you can't make a great cup with stale or poor-quality leaves. Water quality is also key, because tea is 95 percent water. Tim recommends spring water or filtered tap water. The water should be free from chemical smells and tastes. It should not be hard, but should contain minerals so the tea has something to cling to.
    Boil water Skip heating water in the microwave; it results in flat-tasting tea because there's less oxygen in the water. Instead, bring water to a full boil for 30 seconds. The amount of tea leaves to use varies by type; follow your teasmith's suggestions. Generally, try about 1 teaspoon green or black tea or 1 tablespoon herbal tea for every 8 ounces of water.
    Watch tea time Water temperature and steeping time vary by tea and should be marked on the tea container. Here are Tim's guidelines:

    -- White tea 140° -175° for 3-5 minutes
    -- Japanese green tea 160° for 1-2 minutes
    -- Most other green teas 160° -180° for 3 minutes
    -- Oolongs 180° -208° for 3-4 minutes
    -- Black teas, herbals, fruit tisanes 208° for 4-5 minutes

    For great tea party recipes as well as more tea tips, see our slide show below.

    Tea Party Recipes

    The Tea Smith

  • Cut like a pro

    A good knife and proper cutting technique can make your food prep much more efficient, says Joel Papcun, an instructor and chef at the Great Lakes Culinary Institute, Northwestern Michigan College in Traverse City.
    Keep it sharp You're less likely to cut yourself when the knife is sharp. Sharp knives require less force to slice and will cut through vegetables, such as onions, rather than slipping off. Use a knife-sharpening system to maintain your knives or have them professionally sharpened.
    Hold with a 'pinch grip' To cut with a chef's knife, hold the blade just in front of the bolster (on the blade where it meets the handle). Slightly pinch the blade between the thumb and index finger, and use the remaining fingers to grip the handle. This grip is especially important when cutting dense vegetables such as potatoes because it prevents the blade from rolling over.
    Use a claw hold Joel recommends using the claw hold when cutting produce. Form a claw shape with the hand you use to hold the food you're cutting, tucking your fingertips and thumb under and away from the sharp blade. This technique is shown in the picture at left.

  • Garnish food with style

    A few easy techniques will help you present your food with flair. Here are tips from Charles Worthington, the food stylist behind many of Midwest Living's® photographs.
    Peel veggies and chocolate You can use an all-purpose vegetable peeler not only to make cucumbers into strips, but also to make easy chocolate curls from a milk chocolate or white chocolate baking bar. If the bar is cold and crumbles, set it out for 15 minutes on a warm kitchen counter so it curls when peeled.
    Use a citrus zester Long, thin curls of lemon or orange peel (aka zest) add color. Avoid the bitter white membrane when scraping the tool through the zest. Some zesters, such as the one pictured at left, also have a channeling tool that cuts a wider strip of citrus. We used one to cut strips from cucumber before we sliced it and piped it with filling.
    Top with herbs Crown sweet or savory food with fresh herbs. Some herbs wilt faster than others. A delicate dill works fine on a plate served immediately, while sturdier sage might do better on a buffet table. To store herbs, trim 1/2 inch off ends and stand stems in a small jar of water. Cover loosely with a plastic bag and refrigerate. Keep basil at room temperature.

  • Make a cocktail

    “The key to a great cocktail is balance between your spirit, sweet and sour (or citrus) components,” says Charles Joly, chief mixologist at the Drawing Room in Chicago. “Begin by using fresh, homemade ingredients.”
    Mix a simple syrup A key sweetener in many cocktails, it's equal parts sugar and water. Heat slowly in a saucepan to dissolve sugar. Refrigerate in a sealed container. You can flavor simple syrup with spices, herbs or fruits.
    After the sugar dissolves and the mixture is still hot, add your flavor component; cover and steep up to 2 hours. Strain syrup through a sieve.
    Make sour mix Charles prefers a mix of 2 parts lemon juice to 1 part simple syrup. Squeeze fresh juice; strain with sieve. Refrigerate up to 5 days.
    Muddling basics A muddler is a long pestle used to press and twist herbs and fruit to extract oils. When muddling, you don't need to shred herbs, only bruise them (like for a mojito). Charles says to look for a heavy, flat-bottomed wood muddler.
    Crushing ice Open a clean linen napkin; top with a couple scoops of ice. Pull corners up and beat ice with muddler or meat tenderizer to crush. The tiniest pieces that quickly dilute a drink melt in the napkin, leaving larger ones.
    Shake well Give cocktails a good, hard shake. “When your arms start to get sore, you're on your way,” Charles says. “You can justify extra calories in that drink by shaking off a few.”

    Try Charles' Midnight Mary Cocktail, pictured at left: Muddle 6 halved grape tomatoes, 4 large basil leaves, 3/4 ounce simple syrup and 3/4 ounce lime juice. Add 1 1/2 ounces pepper-infused vodka. Shake; double-strain into a chilled glass. Garnish with tomato and basil.

    For more cocktail recipes, try the links below.

    Vanilla Vodka Creamtini

    Batitas

    Summer Fruit Daiquiri

    Indian Summer Cocktail

    The Drawing Room

  • Peel tomatoes and squash

    Most veggies peel easily, but slippery tomatoes and tough-skinned butternut squash can be a challenge. Here's how to get a grip on those vegetables.

    Give tomatoes a hot-and-cold bath Use a paring knife to cut out the stem and to cut a small “X” in the bottom of the tomato. Place tomatoes in boiling water for 20 seconds or until skins begin to split. Using a slotted spoon, remove and place in a bowl of ice water. When tomatoes are cool, peel skins; they should easily slip off.

    Get firm with your squash Cut off a piece from the top and bottom of the vegetable to keep it from rolling around. Peel the squash from top to bottom with a strong, high-quality vegetable peeler or knife. Cut in half lengthwise, scoop out seeds and cut as needed. (If you don't want to peel raw butternut squash, cut it in half, seed it and cook it cut side down in the microwave. Once tender, the skin will peel off easily.)

    For delicious Midwest Living® vegetable recipes, see our link below.

    Do you have a favorite food prep tip or technique? Share your ideas in the Comments section below!

    (A version of this story appeared in Midwest Living® March/April 2009.)

    Fruit and Vegetable Recipes

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