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Celebrity chef Michael Symon serves up some advice for cooks

By Sylvia Rector
Detroit Free Press
Food South Beach Burger Bash
Jeffrey Boan - ASSOCIATED PRESS, 2012 photo
Michael Symon holds his Porky Burgers during the Burger Bash at the Food Network South Beach Wine & Food Festival in Miami Beach, Fla.

For those who want to be better cooks and chefs, Food Network chef Michael Symon’s main advice is to learn when enough is enough.

“Less is more,” he told his audience at a recent appearance in Detroit. “Don’t outsmart the food. … Some chefs put 472 products in (a dish) and we forget what we’re eating.

“The greatest lesson any cook – home or restaurant – can ever learn is restraint. The ones that are best … are now confident enough in themselves to say, ‘That’s perfect. I don’t need to put anything else on there just to prove a point.’ Once that confidence happens to a chef or a cook and that lightbulb goes off, that’s when they become really special,” he said.

Symon stars on ABC-TV’s “The Chew” daily talk and cooking show and on “Iron Chef: America” on the Food Network. His latest cookbook, “Michael Symon’s 5 in 5: 5 Fresh Ingredients + 5 Minutes = 120 Fantastic Dinners” (Clarkson Potter, $19.99), offers recipes that cook in 5 minutes.

In real life and in his restaurants, he says, “I like to keep it clean, I like to keep it simple and I like flavors on that are on the aggressive side.”

His heritage is Greek and Sicilian.

“As a general statement, the foods of Greece and Sicily are very, very simple. It’s a product, it’s acidity, it’s a little bit of fat, and it’s something crunchy. That’s how they cook. And in Sicily, it’s a little more sweet and sour, like agridolce. That’s how I like to eat, so that’s how I like to cook.”

When he was growing up in Cleveland, he said, neighbors thought his family was like the one in “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” where the house was full of friends and relatives, people were always cooking and eating, and animals were roasted on spits in the yard.

It wasn’t clear whether he was joking about the yard. But he does roast pigs and goats on a spit in the dining room of his award-winning Roast restaurant in Detroit.

He has a lot of opinions on food:

Salt: Viewers of “The Chew” sometimes complain that he uses too much salt as he cooks, but they are wrong, he says. When people brag they don’t use salt when they cook and their families love the food, he says, “No they don’t. They’re lying to you. It’s not good. There’s no way in hell it could be good,” because salt is essential for bringing out flavors. The amount of salt he adds to fresh food as he cooks it is “one-10th or less the amount of salt in something you would buy in a box or bag,” he added.

Flavor: There are only three things, he says, that open up the palate and allow it to fully taste flavors, and they are salt, acidity and horseradish. The first items brought to the table in a Japanese restaurant are soy sauce and wasabi – salt and horseradish.

Grilling: The biggest mistake amateur grillers make is repeatedly turning the food. “Don’t flip it around. If you keep flipping it, it will never char and you don’t get the caramelization. … It will steam, and steamed food sucks,” he said. The food will tell you when it’s ready to be turned. “If it sticks, it isn’t ready.” When it turns loose easily, it has caramelized and can be flipped.

Dressing a salad: “A mistake people make is they take the dressing and dump it right on top (of the salad) or they put the dressing in the bowl and then mix the salad. Or the worst offense of all, is they put the salad on a plate and dump the dressing on top of that.” Salad greens should be lightly, evenly coated. He pours dressing in a circle around the inside surface of the bowl above the ingredients and works the greens into the dressing.

Dressing pasta: “My Sicilian grandmother would come out of her grave if she saw someone put cooked pasta on a plate and then ladle sauce on top of it. It’s supposed to be dressed. It’s supposed to be tossed.” The pasta should be flavored with the sauce, not overwhelmed by it, he said.

Recipes: Cooking techniques, such as how to grill or seasoning food as you go, are rules that should not be ignored. “But recipes are completely up to interpretation, and you should let your palate guide you through a recipe,” he said. If you hate cilantro, don’t use it, even if the recipe calls for cilantro, he said.

Produce: “Get caught up in the seasons. Look at what’s prevalent in the market, and use those ingredients. … It’s very exciting.”

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