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Top Chef Challenges You to a Taste Test

Becoming a chef starts at home, and with the contents of your refrigerator.

Top Chef Challenges You to a Taste Test

According to former New York Times food critic and Gourmet editor-in-chief Ruth Reichl on the foodie website Eatocracy, "There are two types of people in this world: those who care what is in their refrigerator and those who don't."

You can perceive that statement a few different ways, one being, "There are two types of people, those who have time to cook and those who don't," or, the one I favor, "priorities matter".

'I don't have time to cook,' is a phrase I hear often from the lips of take-out meal enthusiasts, and maybe for their priority set nothing could be more true.

But, if you want to become a chef, chances are cooking at home already matters a great deal to you, as do the contents of your fridge.

This week, I propose you take that passion to the next level.

Being a chef requires you to pay rapt attention to every nuance of your palette. Learning how your taste buds work takes a lot of practice in order to decipher sweet, salty, bitter, sour and umami (the savory element, found in food like cheese and soy sauce), in a single bite.

In order to practice, you must first start with good ingredients, so you can taste the way they are meant to. Below I have listed recipes for two tomato sauces, one with fresh ingredients and one with non. Fresh tomatoes are not required in the winter, as the canned variety have more acidity when tomatoes are not in season.

It's not winter, however, it's spring, hence the perfect time to start comparing and contrasting. Of course, you think, the fresh is going to be better, duh. Yes, but what makes it so? What distinct elemental differences raise the sauce's bar? 

Give them a try and decide for yourself. You might be surprised by your own results.

Fresh Tomato Sauce

Adapted from The Professional Chef cookbook

2 lb. Fresh tomatoes, cored, blanched and peeled

4 - 6 oz. minced garlic and small diced onion

4 - 6 basil leaves, chiffonade (stack the leaves on top of each other, then roll up tight and slice through with a knife)

4 fresh oregano leaves, rough chop

1/4 C white or red wine

1 - 2 oz. olive oil

to taste, salt

to taste, pepper

Optional: 1/2 C Vegetable stock, 2 T tomato puree, 1 parmesan cheese rind, smoked meat such as 1 ham bone.

Heat the oil in a saute pan over high heat, then turn down to med. heat. Lightly caramelize the garlic and onion in the oil. Add the wine and simmer 1-2 min. Add the tomatoes and simmer. As the sauce cooks, taste and adjust by adding stock, or tomato puree. The cheese rind, if used, should be cooked in the sauce after adding the tomatoes, to be removed at the end, as should the ham bone if used.

Add the basil and oregano about 5 min. before the sauce is done cooking. Look for a balance of sweet and acidic when adjusting the seasoning of the sauce. Save the salt and pepper for the end: as you reduce a sauce, you concentrate its flavors, so don't want to end up with a product too salty or peppery.

Non-Fresh Tomato Sauce

1 can tomatoes

1 1/2 T garlic powder

1 1/2 T onion powder

1 T dried basil

1 T dried oregano

1/4 C white or red wine

to taste, salt

to taste, pepper

Optional: 1/4 C pre-grated parmesan cheese.

Heat the tomatoes in a sauce pot. Add the garlic, onion, basil, oregano and wine. Simmer about 5 min., as the canned tomatoes are already cooked. Add salt and pepper, and parmesan if used.

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