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Weights and Measures

Contributor: © Ronald Fenolio, Chair Veedercrest Estates

(or “In Praise of Nonna”)

Cooking can be a really exciting process, but it can also lead to frustration and panic when working quickly in the kitchen to pull off the perfect rendition of your favorite recipe. There are some techniques that can be used to lessen the stress of worrying about the recipe and let you enjoy your time in the kitchen.

First of all it is very important to understand that we all have different palates, we all experience taste and smells differently due to our own biological make-up. Some diners prefer food salty, some less so; some love spiciness, others want food “tamed down.” Understanding this means that the chef or cook has a lot of latitude when it comes preparing a dish.

Mise en place is a French term meaning “put in place.” In cooking or baking this means measuring and chopping ingredients in advance and placing them in ramekins or bowls so that the ingredients you are working with are at hand and ready to use. Thus you needn’t search for ingredients or measuring equipment at a critical point in the preparation. Just grab the ramekin or bowl with prepared and measured ingredients and pour. Watch cooking shows such as “America’s Test Kitchen” and you will see that this is the modus operandi of all the chefs, teachers and presenters. All the prep work—assembling the ingredients, measuring, slicing, dicing—is all done in advance. It is a good technique to use when your focus is adhering closely to a recipe and you need a predictable result (especially when baking). However, there is more than one way to peel a potato….

In praise of “Nonna” (yours and mine): with her hands and heart, warmth and love, she has fed our bodies and nurtured our souls with her cooking. The most important ingredient is love.

If you are not going to use the mise en place technique for cooking, where everything is measured out and prepped in advance, you must improvise and use your own experience.
(Note that these remarks relate to cooking and not to baking, which requires certain chemical reactions or the baked goods will not come out right. Baking requires precision in measurement, while cooking is not only much more forgiving, it allows for a freer hand in improvisation. Remember this old adage: “Baking is a science; cooking is an art.”)

Let’s say you are working with a recipe that calls for a teaspoon of salt. You can’t find your measuring spoons, and the recipe is going to burn if you don’t get to it right now! So what do you do?

Well, what would Nonna do?

My Nonna was a great cook. She hung around her aunt’s restaurant from the time she was three or four years old and ultimately worked there until she was a teenager and left for America. She was an intuitive cook. She didn’t have to measure because she cooked with her hands.

Start with the idea of a “pinch of salt”: what does that equal in terms of measurement? How far will it shift the flavor of a dish?

There is no way to actually measure a pinch of salt from a salt shaker. Don’t even try it—you will probably end up oversalting. Just take the “pinch” of salt with your thumb and forefinger from a ramekin you keep near the stove.

You can also learn to “eyeball” other measurements. Here are some guidelines.

Take a teaspoon from your set of measuring spoons, fill it “even” to the top with salt, and put the salt in the palm of your hand. How much of your palm does the salt cover? How high is the dome of salt in your hand? Practice this two or three or four times. Then do it with ground pepper. And do it with flour, sugar and cornmeal. Next do the same experiment with the tablespoon from your measuring set. It won’t take long to learn the “palm-measured equivalent” (that is, your palm-measurement) of a teaspoon or a tablespoon, and then, voilá!—you are free from extraneous measuring spoons! You will always have you measuring tools with you!

The palm is also good for estimating how much protein a person needs in a serving. A medium-sized palm is about the same as four ounces of protein (this is, the palm only, not including the fingers). A man or a larger person will need more protein, a woman or a smaller person less. Your palm will be smaller or larger according to your body size, and you can judge how much protein you need for yourself. So at the butcher shop if you are trying to figure out how much meat, fish or poultry to buy for your dinner tonight which is going to have six medium diners. Look at your palm and buy approximately six times that amount in terms of size.

Let’s say the recipe says, “add half a cup of wine” (that is, four fluid ounces). What is your measure? Take an empty 750ml bottle and fill it with water. Pour from the bottle into a measuring cup, counting as if you were counting out the seconds: “one thousand one, one thousand two, one thousand three…” One to two seconds should equal about a quarter of a cup, three to four seconds of pouring about a half cup, six to eight seconds is a full cup. You could also count the “glugs” that occur as pouring takes place. Come up with your own devices but figure out what are the equivalents. There is an added benefit to this—no measuring cup to wash as you never used it! Incidentally, a cup is about one-third of a 750ml bottle. A 750ml bottle (the standard wine bottle) equals 25.4 fluid ounces, so if you need a cup (eight fluid ounces), just pour a third of a bottle. If you need a cup and a half, pour in half a bottle; three cups, the whole bottle. It might not be entirely accurate, but a difference of half an ounce is well within acceptable tolerances in cooking, especially in regard to wine! (Remember though, this degree of variance does not work for the science of baking!)

If you remember these equivalents you also know how many wine bottles to have for dinner. If you are having six guests, and are serving the standard four-ounce pour in an eight-ounce wine glass (leaving half the glass to allow for aeration and bouquet), you need one (750 ml/3-cup) bottle of wine for each six guests if they are each going drink one glass.

Nonna also knew how to measure pasta. Take a pound of spaghetti and divide it equally into four portions, four ounces each. These are “entrée” portions. Pick up one four-ounce portion and wrap your index finger and thumb around it. How tightly closed are the finger and thumb? Remember this for the next time. Do the same with fettucine.

Now do you want to know what is the size of the portion for the Italian “prima” course? Two ounces. Take one of the four-ounce portions of spaghetti or fettucine and divide it in half: voila! You have a two-ounce or “prima portion.” Again wrap your thumb and index finger around these portions of spaghetti or fettucine and mark how it feels. In no time at all you will have no problem measuring the correct amount of pasta to serve for an entrée or prima course. Risotto and polenta? Same type of measurement but this time with the palm of your hand. One palmful per person plus one for the pot. Don’t worry about being too precise.

It is also important to remember that when we use traditional Italian recipes we are preparing refinements of dishes that were developed by farmers and fisherman who could rely only on the ingredients that were available locally or that they could afford. Today this is often called “cucina povera.” If you are making a piccata (sautéeing in a sauce of lemon, butter, and spices) you can make: chicken piccata, veal piccata, pork piccata or turkey piccata, for example—and they will all be very similar. So learn to use what is available. If you don’t have carrots to make a sofrito to start a braise, think “carrots are sweet, red bell peppers are sweet,” and feel free to substitute a red bell pepper. Use what you have on hand with the general idea of your final dish.

Also, “exaggerate”! If a little bit of flavor is good, more, therefore, must be better! If a recipe calls for two cloves of garlic, why not put in four? If a recipe calls for one teaspoon of pepper won’t two teaspoons just ramp up the flavor? If half a glass of wine is called for to be used with water or broth, why not tip in more wine and less of the other liquids? Each decision contributes to the “balance” of the dish and the final flavor experiences of the diners.

Antonio Carluccio, a very famous Italian chef from Piemonte who built a restaurant and television empire in London, once commented, “There are over 3,000,000 chefs in Italy with Michelin stars, and they are all named ‘Nonna’!” Nonna knew how to cook and each of us can learn to do so also. Learn what are reasonable substitutions and use what is available. Learn how to estimate your measurements and don’t become a slave to the exact quantities specified in a recipe. Adjust to make the finished dish pleasing to your own palate. Exaggerate if you want to. And don’t be frustrated if the dish does not turn out “perfectly” or “exactly the same” every time. “Estimation” and “exaggeration” and “experimentation” and “substitution” can all lead to new and wonderful flavor experiences. Try something different! Why plod along in the same old rut just because it is easy and comfortable? It is said sometimes to students in cooking schools that you have to prepare a dish a thousand times before you can get it right. That it is because you can make a thousand variations and you won’t know which works the best until you try them all!

Most importantly, enjoy and have fun for yourself and for your family and friends. The creation of recipes and taste experiences is not a “destination,” it is a journey. Enjoy the journey and ¬¬marvel in the results!

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