Tricks of the Trade

by Brenda Shafer

Up your cooking game by getting advice straight from the experts. These Chattanooga culinary pros share their years of acquired acumen with us here. 
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Tricks of the Trade Mellow Mushroom Chattanooga Jason Jones Owner & Operato

Jason Jones, Owner & Operator, Mellow Mushroom Chattanooga

How to Make Homemade Pizza

  • 1 1/2 cups warm water
  • 2 envelopes (1/4 oz. each) active dry yeast (not rapid-rise)
  • 2 Tbsp. molasses
  • 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil, plus more for bowl and brushing
  • 2 tsp. kosher salt
  • 4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour (spooned and leveled), plus more for dusting
  1. Pour 1 1/2 cups warm water into a large bowl; sprinkle with yeast and let stand until foamy, about 5 minutes.
  2. Whisk molasses, oil, and salt into yeast mixture. Add flour and stir until a sticky dough forms. Transfer dough to an oiled bowl and brush top with oil. Cover bowl with plastic wrap and set aside in a warm, draft-free place until dough has doubled in bulk, about 1 hour.
  3. Turn dough out onto a lightly floured surface and gently knead 1 or 2 times before using.
  4. Form the crust by squeezing the dough toward its center to remove any excess air bubbles. Use the fingers of your dominant hand to press down into the dough, about 1/2 inch from the edge, working your way around the entire perimeter. Push against the remaining mound, working the entire ball flatter and larger in diameter. 
  5. Pick the dough up off the table and stretch it back and forth, pulling with one hand across the knuckles of your other hand. Alternate back and forth between hands, taking care to stretch evenly. The goal is a round shape. When the desired size and thickness are both reached, add ingredients and bake at 400⁰ until golden brown and melty. Rotate 180⁰ halfway through the bake. 
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Tricks of the Trade Parkway Pourhouse Marcus Willis Chef

Marcus Willis, Chef, Parkway Pourhouse

Preparing a Pan Sauce

I don’t make any dish at home without first preparing a pan sauce. It adds depth and flavor to the recipe and is also an easy way to make a simple dish something special. Begin by sautéing onions and minced garlic together with vegetable or peanut oil over a medium-high heat until tender. Note that you will not want to use extra virgin olive oil as the low smoke point will cause it to burn. You will then want to add something acidic, like a white wine or lemon juice to the mixture, and then reduce (cook on low heat until reduced in volume) it by half to a syrup-like consistency. Add 6-8 oz. of chicken or seafood stock, followed by salt, pepper, and fresh herbs. Let that simmer and reduce by half before turning off the heat. While the pan is on the stove, add butter and stir until you achieve a smooth consistency that is thick enough to coat the back of a spoon. Finally, taste the sauce and adjust your seasoning as needed.

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Tricks of the Trade Tremont Tavern B.J. Hightower Chef & Co-owner

B.J. Hightower, Chef & Co-owner, Tremont Tavern

Create the Perfect At-Home Burger

Creating the perfect burger is an art. It requires a combination of ingredients and flavors, along with time to create something noteworthy.

First, begin with the patty. Select a chuck roast with a high fat content to add flavor. You will want to work in 1-lb. batches, cubing your meat, and passing it through a food processor to create the grind for the patty. Build a thick patty, and season with salt, pepper, garlic, and coriander to create a unique flavor.

When cooking your meat, treat it as a steak. Cook your beef on 375⁰, producing a nice sear on each side. When cooking your meat on the grill, avoid flare-ups that will char your meat. For at-home cooking, grilling is typically the most convenient option; however, if you have proper ventilation, searing your meat in a cast iron skillet produces a beefier flavor.

Also, don’t let the bun become an afterthought. Use a sturdy bun that will not only hold its integrity but has a good flavor that complements
the meat.

Creating the perfect burger at home requires patience but when done well, creates a tasty combination of flavors and a rewarding experience.

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Tricks of the Trade Café on the Corner J.R. Crutcher Chef

J.R. Crutcher, chef, Café on the Corner

How to Make Grit Cakes

At Café on the Corner, we love our South Carolina stone ground grits. For anyone who grew up in the South, a breakfast of bacon, eggs, sliced tomatoes, and fried grit sticks was as common as today’s grande double-shot vanilla latte. Our grit cakes form the base of several menu items, including “The Memphis” (grit cakes topped with over easy eggs and Benton bacon tomato confit sauce) and our shrimp and grits.

We prepare our grits as usual, and while they are still hot, we pour the grits onto a sheet pan. The grits are then cooled to room temperature. Once cooled, we refrigerate overnight, so they get nice and firm. The next day the grits are cut into 4-inch squares, then diagonally cut in half to form 2 triangles. Then, we lightly batter each triangle. We dip each in seasoned flour, then egg wash, and then seasoned panko crumbs. The cakes rest for 1-2 minutes before they are gently dropped in 400⁰ frying oil for 1 minute.

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Tricks of the Trade The Read House Hotel and Bridgeman’s Chophouse Dao Le Executive Chef

Dao Le, Executive Chef, The Read House Hotel and Bridgeman’s Chophouse

Perfecting Pan Searing

You must have a hot pan. I like using either stainless steel or carbon steel pans. Cast iron works great too. Add your pan to the heat; once the pan starts to smoke you know it’s ready.  

For oil, I tend not to use olive oil. I prefer either canola oil or sunflower oil, since it has a higher smoke point and doesn’t burn while cooking. Do not add oil before the pan gets hot. This will make your oil burn before you add your protein. This is a common mistake that home cooks make and will cause the food to burn and become bitter.

Your protein must be dry. Pat dry your protein to allow a nice sear. Moisture will cause your protein to steam and not sear properly. Season your protein well as some of the salt and pepper will fall off during the cooking process.

Once you add your protein (skin side down, if there’s skin), leave it alone. A lot of cooks have the urge to move the protein and want to flip it after a minute or so – don’t do that. Adjust your temperature to medium-high once the pan is hot enough. This will create a caramelization to the protein. You will be able to see some medium to dark brown caramelization around the edges.

After about 6-7 minutes, flip the protein. If your protein will not release from pan, then you know it’s not ready to be flipped. Once flipped, cook it on the other side or finish in the oven. Once the protein is almost done, I like to add a few knobs of whole butter, thyme sprigs, and crushed garlic to give extra flavor. Allow your protein to rest for at least 5-10 minutes before cutting to allow juice to return to the protein.

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Tricks of the Trade Fiamma Pizza Company Brion Voges Chef & Owner

Brion Voges, Chef & Owner, FIAMMA Pizza Company

Master Your Marinade

Try marinating your meats and veggies before cooking them. Marinades ensure tenderer, flavorful cuts of meat and add a layer of intrigue to veggie dishes. There are three parts to a good marinade: enzymes (proteins that aid in tenderizing meat), fat (oil, buttermilk, etc.), and seasonings (herbs, spices, etc.). Spend some time online looking at recipes and choose a few that appeal to you. Plan ahead. Meat can be refrigerated in a sealed plastic bag and, depending on the cut, will likely be best after 12-24 hours.

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Tricks of the Trade Formosa Seng Chai Chef

Seng Chai, Chef, Formosa

Add Salt the Right Way

Salt is a staple in practically every dish. Even sugary pastries have salt added to them. Although ultimately the right amount to add is up to your taste buds, a helpful guideline is to add salt slowly and regularly. Adding it little by little helps to ensure you won’t over salt the dish. Also, adding it at different stages will improve the cooking process and allow flavors to meld. Always remember: the more fat a dish has, the more salt you will need to really bring out maximum flavor. If you accidentally over salt a dish, you can add more of everything or try adding a starch to soak up the sodium. You could also try adding sugar or acid to counteract it.

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Tricks of the Trade Feed Co. Table & Tavern Tim Macera Chef

Tim Macera, Chef, Feed Co. Table & Tavern

A Better Braising Technique

Braising is a combined cooking method of searing first with dry heat and then deglazing, covering, and cooking with wet heat. Not only is braising economical, since you are able to use tougher cuts of meat, it is also filled with flavor and creates rich, well-seasoned vegetables. Cuts of meat like shanks or short ribs are ideal candidates for braising since they require longer cooking times.

To braise meat, start by lightly dredging (coating a wet food in a dry ingredient) the cuts of meats in flour. Remove excess flour, and place in braising pan over high heat with a fat source, such as cottonseed oil or olive oil to sear your cuts on each side. After achieving a nice sear on all sides, set meat aside. Add carrots, celery, and onions, as well as red wine and water to your braising pan. Return meats to the liquid and vegetables. Cover braising pan with parchment paper and top with aluminum foil. Place the dish in the oven at 250⁰ for 3 to 6 hours, depending on the cut of the meat. The meat is finished when it is fall-off-the-bone tender. Let the dish cool and separate the meat from the liquid, saving the juices to create a bordelaise gravy that will serve as the finishing sauce.

Braised meats are ideal for cooler weather, and when combined with buttermilk whipped potatoes, create the ultimate Southern comfort food.

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Tricks of the Trade Longhorn Restaurant Shirl Posey Head Cook

Shirl Posey, Head Cook, Longhorn Restaurant

Fried to Perfection

To fry the perfect egg, you’ll first need a fresh egg at room temperature (the fresher the egg, the better it holds its shape). Then drizzle 1 Tbsp. of your favorite oil on a hot skillet, or use bacon drippings if you have any leftover. Fry on medium heat for 2 minutes and then flip, letting it cook for another 2 minutes. Serve with scattered hash browns for a perfect pairing. When making hash browns, make sure they aren’t too wet when you shred the potatoes – that will ensure they are crispy on the edges!

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Tricks of the Trade SideTrack Jason Greer

Jason Greer, SideTrack

Use Fresh Herbs

Selecting ingredients is very much about less is more. I think chefs and home cooks alike get overwhelmed with the amount of ingredients we have available to us these days. I look for simple, fresh, and complementary flavors, and there is no better place for that than with fresh herbs. If you really want to step up your ingredient game, take a page out of grandma’s playbook. An herb garden is your best friend. At all of our restaurants, we have our very own herb garden on-site to select from. Our staff loves walking outside and clipping off fresh rosemary or thyme to use in sauces. Our bartenders even use fresh herbs in our cocktails and for garnishes. The flavor impact pays serious dividends in the end result of your dish.

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Billy Sparks, Director, Café 7 at Rock City

Bigger Is Better

Size matters and, generally, bigger is better. A restaurant kitchen is filled with great big pots and pans, large bowls, and large cutting boards. The reason for this is not just that we are preparing larger quantities of food. In order to keep your work space neat and your food safe, choose a cutting board large enough to hold whatever you are working on, so nothing falls to the floor or gets pushed onto your dirty counter. That paring knife you tend to use for everything? Put it down. You need a larger knife to cut carrots, slice tomatoes, dice an onion, etc. It’s faster, neater, and produces a more consistent result.

One of the first things I have to teach a new cook is that in most cases, it is impossible to choose a bowl that is too large. When dressing a salad, the bowl must be able to contain ingredients while they are gently stirred to get a light, even coating. When making a cake, you want to thoroughly incorporate your wet and dry ingredients, so that your flour doesn’t end up clumped at the bottom of the bowl or splashed all over you, the counter, the floor, or the walls. And finally, choose a pot or pan appropriately sized for the task. For instance, to brown a pound of ground beef (and not “gray” it), you need at least a 12” or 14” sauté pan. When food is crowded in a pan, it steams instead of sears – so in this case, again, bigger is better.

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Tricks of the Trade Hi-Fi Clyde’s Mike Monen Owner

Mike Monen, Owner, Hi-Fi Clyde’s

Smoking Meat

Dry-brine or rub your meat with a 1/2 tsp. of kosher salt per 1 lb. of meat, at least 2 hours prior to cooking if not the night before. Feel free to add whatever other seasoning you might like for flavor, but adding kosher salt ahead of time helps the meat retain more moisture during the smoking process.

Slow and low is key. Smoking is a labor of love. Spread that love out over a long period of time, and don’t cook at too high of a temperature. This will keep the meat moist, and get it nice and tender. We personally like to smoke just about everything at 225⁰. There’s also a difference between having a nice bark and it just being burnt. If your rub contains any sugar, keep in mind that sugars don’t hold up well against higher heats and will easily burn.

Don’t over smoke your meat. You don’t need to go crazy with the wood. Remember, the meat should provide the bulk of the flavor. The smoke and rub are just the supporting cast. I would suggest not smoking it for any longer than half of what you expect your total cook time to be.

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Tricks of the Trade Eleven at the Doubletree Warren Singleton Executive Sous Chef

Warren Singleton, Executive Sous Chef, Eleven at the Doubletree

Hors d’oeuvres – Easy as 1-2-3

Hors d’oeuvres don’t have to be difficult. Turkey and ham rollups are easy to create yet delicious and visually appealing. 1. Place a tortilla on a cutting board and spread bibb lettuce evenly across the tortilla. 2. Layer with several pieces of ham and turkey. 3. Roll from one side until completely rolled into a log, and then slice vertically and arrange on decorative platter. Serve with several dips such as ranch and honey mustard on the side. For a festive touch, use colored tortillas!

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Tricks of the Trade Mojo Burrito Tonya Smith Catering Coordinator

Tonya Smith, Catering Coordinator, Mojo Burrito

Picking Produce

Food is only as good as the love and ingredients you put into it, so always choose fresh and local products when possible. When picking fresh produce, look closely at the surface of the vegetable to make sure it’s consistent, firm all the way around, and evenly colored. Vegetables like cucumbers, peppers, and onions should be as firm as possible. Fruit, on the other hand, needs to have a little give. Softness in specific areas (in vegetables and fruit) is generally an indicator of slow rotting or bruising, even if you don’t see anything obvious that would indicate spoilage. Lastly, take time to prepare food that you are proud to serve to everyone…even grandma.

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