Kitchen essentials

Kitchen essentials

Brent Owens
13 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
Mark Roper

You don’t need to be the chef of a three-hatted restaurant to cook well. A lot of great chefs use the same techniques that you would use in your own home kitchen every day. The difference is, chefs just become very good at these techniques because they practise them all the time.

Before going on MasterChef I didn’t have a lot of tips and tricks but, while on the show, I picked up things from other contestants, from the judges and from doing a little bit of reading. I realised I needed to build on my base techniques to broaden my range. Learning little ratios and formulas and perfecting a few basic recipes helped a lot too.

You can simply read a recipe and cook it and not think about it too deeply, but when you understand the building blocks of food and cooking – why you cook ingredients a certain way, and why things like resting meat are important – that’s when cooking becomes fun. That’s when you can start being creative.

This chapter contains a few guidelines and tips to help you cook better, get the best flavour from your food and to present your dishes well. I’ve also included a few of my favourite basic recipes that I use all the time.

Get the best flavour from your veggies

There’s so much more that you can do with vegetables other than just boiling or steaming them. Think different! Here are a few ideas that you can incorporate into your everyday cooking to get the best from your veg.

Roast it

There are so many vegetables that you can roast. Roasting generally brings out the sweetness in a vegetable. You can roast carrots, beetroot, pumpkins, parsnips, cauliflower (it goes nutty), potatoes, Jerusalem artichokes, garlic, sweet potatoes, capsicums, onions and tomatoes. Try them all out. Simply drizzle with a little olive oil and, for extra dimension, add a few bruised garlic cloves, a couple of sprigs of herbs (like thyme, rosemary or sage) and even a sprinkle of spice, such as cumin, smoked paprika (my personal favourite) or an interesting spice blend like Moroccan ras el hanout.

Smoke it

You can smoke just about anything, even vegetables. There are two types of smoking – hot and cold. See further down for how to smoke your veg.

Pickle it

There are so many different pickling solutions. I work from a basic one-third water, one-third vinegar (generally apple cider vinegar or red wine vinegar) and one-third white sugar. I bring the mixture to the boil then remove the saucepan from the heat, add the ingredient and leave it to cool down and pickle in the liquid. Pickles add a delicious acidic punch to a dish, which really helps when you have a lot of rich flavours.

Curry it

We don’t need meat every night. Have a ‘meat-free Monday’ and make a delicious curry from pumpkin, sweet potato, eggplant, tomato, cauliflower, potato or sweet potato.

Sweeten it

Modern desserts often include savoury vegetables – beetroot, parsnip, pumpkin and carrot are favourites. Slow roasting brings out the sweetness in these ingredients and, paired with sweet elements and salt, they make a delicious, almost savoury dessert. You generally need to puree, or at least roughly mash, the vegetables before using them. Try adding grated carrot or pumpkin to cupcakes or grated beetroot or zucchini to chocolate desserts.

Perfect vegetable purees

Purees and creams are used often in recipes, especially in restaurants. Do you ever wonder why the ones you eat when you’re out taste so great and have so much flavour? It’s pretty simple, really:

Cook the ingredient in its own juice – instead of using stock for cooking carrots, juice a carrot and cook the carrot in the juice before pureeing. This method really accentuates the flavour of the ingredient in the final puree.

Start with a base. Generally for purees I make with mains, I start with an eschalot (French shallot) and garlic base.

Make your own dips

It’s so easy to make your own dips. Just grab almost anything from the pantry that you think works together and blitz it all together. Think of flavours you love, things that work together and Bob’s your uncle!

First choose a base – something that has bulk, like a vegetable you can cook and puree (such as pumpkin, eggplant or sweet potato), a tin of your favourite beans or lentils (such as cannellini beans, chickpeas or brown lentils) or a lovely ripe avocado.

Add some flavour - lightly sauteed eschalots (French shallots) and garlic are always a great start. Add a touch of spice for impact and fresh herbs for freshness.

Balance with a splash of acidity – lemon juice, lime juice or your favourite vinegar (red wine, sherry or champagne vinegar). Season to taste.

Swirl through some cream – yoghurt, sour cream, creme fraiche or maybe mascarpone for something a little richer and creamier.

Finally top with some texture, some crunch – toasted nuts or seeds or dukkah.

Think beyond opening a packet of dry bikkies when serving your deliciously fresh homemade dips. Instead of crackers from the supermarket, try the following:

Fresh tortillas or pitta bread cut into long thin wedges – or take them a step further and bake in a 180°C oven for 5–8 minutes until crisp

Thinly sliced sourdough baguette (toasted or chargrilled if you like)

Breadsticks (grissini)

Baby vegetables

Vegetable sticks – cucumber, red and yellow capsicum, celery, baby carrots, or even raw or blanched broccoli or broccolini

Cooking with meat

Cooking red meat sometimes scares people, but it’s really not that difficult. If you understand what cut of meat you’re using, then you’re halfway there.

A prime cut such as beef rib eye, has less fat throughout and therefore has a little less flavour. It's lean and it's quick-cooking, but it’s as expensive as hell! Tougher cuts, which are cheaper, have soooo much more flavour. Long braising is the best way to tenderise cheaper cuts, but it’s well worth it for the melt-in-your-mouth texture.

Checking for doneness

To keep meat moist and juicy, it should be pink in the centre once cooked. You want red meat to stay below 60°C but above 55°C. If you don’t have a thermometer, you can use the hand trick. Hold out the palm of your hand and press on the pad of flesh below the thumb. It feels soft like raw meat. If you touch your thumb together with the tip of your little finger on the same hand and press on the pad, it feels hard, like well-done meat. If you touch your thumb with your ring finger, the pad feels like medium meat. Touching your middle finger and thumb together makes the pad feel like medium-rare and touching your first finger and thumb together makes the pad feel like rare meat.


It’s vital to rest any meat after cooking. The rule is, whatever the cooking time, rest it for at least half that time (plus about 30 minutes for large roasts). Resting allows the meat fibres to 'relax'. If you cut a piece of meat without resting, the juices will run away. If you allow it to relax, most of the juices will be retained and your meat will be juicier, more tender and flavoursome.

Cooking with fish

There’s no bigger showstopper than serving a whole fish at a dinner party. Not only does it look great, but it tastes amazing. Cooking fish on the bone gives it more flavour, keeps it juicier and it has a completely different texture from a fish fillet. Once you’ve made fish on the bone, you’ll cook it again and again.

Checking for doneness

Cooking a whole fish can be intimidating if you don't know how to do it. But the simple truth of testing it is that you unwrap the fish, move a bit of the flesh and see if it's cooked. Don't just take it out of the oven, leave it covered and hope that it’s cooked – check it. The best ways to see if a whole fish is cooked are by pushing the flesh away on the thickest part of the fish to see if it's opaque and cooked, or by looking at the fish's eyes, which should be white and slightly sunk into the socket. Also remember that fish will continue to cook for at least 2–3 minutes after being removed from the heat source. I recommend you remove your fish just before it's done and let it rest for a few minutes to be perfectly cooked through.

Crispy skin

Fish fillets, such as snapper, rockling or salmon, are best when they have crispy skin. If they don’t then part of the eating experience is incomplete. For crispy skin, salt the skin and cook the fish skin side down, in a little olive oil, for three-quarters of the cooking time. Rest the fish with the skin side up and exposed. When serving, don’t cover the skin with anything like a sauce, as the skin will go rubbery again.

Smoking food

Now this is a favourite technique of mine. You can smoke anything from a carrot to a piece of fish. Smoking meat adds depth of flavour. Delicate meats like salmon will need less time than a rack of pork ribs or a piece of steak. You don’t want to oversmoke food though, or the flavour will be overpowering. There are two types of smoking – cold and hot.

Cold smoking

With this method you smoke the ingredient before cooking. You do this with a smoking gun (available from kitchen supply stores), which adds the smoke flavour without having to cook the ingredient in smoke.

Hot smoking

This is the wok method, which actually cooks the ingredient in the smoke. It doesn't just impart a smoky flavour, it cooks the ingredient too. You need to be careful with this method because it’s easy to oversmoke an element, which can overpower your dish.

For hot smoking, line a wok with foil, add your soaked smoking chips or fine smoking sawdust to the bottom along with any whole spices or flavourings that you want. I generally use about 1 cup of smoking chips. I like to add fresh tea leaves to the mix, along with whole spices such as cinnamon sticks, cloves and peppercorns for a bit of an Indian twist. Cover the wok with a lid until smoking, then add your ingredient on a rack 4–5 cm above the smoking mixture to smoke for 3-4 minutes. Check the flavour – if it's not quite smoky enough, smoke it a little longer.

The art of reinvention

I’ve always loved reinventing classic dishes. I like to think of a dish and look at the flavour profile and how I can mix it up. I also think about how it’s traditionally cooked and served, then I work out how I might change it, add some surprise elements and take it to a whole new level.

Think about an old-fashioned favourite like the ’80s apricot chicken, for instance. How could you transform it from being a simple stew to something new and exciting? Apricots and chicken would be nice together if they were cold, so why not make the apricot into a cold jelly, have the chicken shredded and then make it into a salad? Then think about what else might go with those flavours - maybe a spice such as cinnamon, cloves or cumin. This is now heading down the Middle Eastern route, so think about that cuisine and its ingredients and flavours. Maybe incorporate some couscous, mint or flat-leaf parsley. Next consider some surprise element in the form of texture – add some crunch from pistachio nuts or some sour pops from pomegranate seeds. You’ve added different elements, different textures and different cooking methods, but it’s all based around the original concept of apricot chicken.

When I think about adding a twist to a dish, I look at the main ingredient and think about three or four different cuisines that use that ingredient and the other flavours used in those cusines. Chances are those other flavours will go with your ingredient and you can build a new and exciting dish. For example, I grew up eating a simple Italian chicken cacciatore that was pretty much just chicken and tomato puree. But when I come to cook it, I think of Italian food filled with flavours of garlic, tomato, pancetta, capers, anchovies, parmesan and basil and I try to incorporate a few of those in the dish. Or here’s another example that’s a bit more out there. Think about blue cheese. The main time people eat blue cheese is on a cheese platter with walnuts, pear or prosciutto. So why not take all of those ingredients and create a dish?

Whenever I construct a dish, I want it to be special the whole way through. I like people to be surprised. I often don’t just include one element, but seven or eight – there are surprises here, there and everywhere. You can do this with the simplest of foods. Take a cauliflower. Most people would either boil it or steam it. But why not think of a few different ways of serving it, within the same dish! Maybe think of a base creamy element like a puree or cream and use part of the cauli for that. Then consider roasting some of the small florets in the oven to introduce some nuttiness. Or finely shave some and have it raw for a crunchy element. You could even smoke a little of it and use the outer leaves for presentation.

Think outside the box and make people ask, ‘What is that delicious flavour?' when they're eating your food. When people are interested, they will want to know more and taste more and they will enjoy the meal more.

Plating food

We might ‘eat with our eyes’, but plating food well is important, not just for appearance, but because if you don’t do it right, it can throw out the proportions in the dish. A lot of the recipes I create are based on contrasts of textures and flavours. If something is out of proportion when I serve it up, the whole dish is out. Good plating can also help to change people’s perception of a humble dish. I cook a lot of barbecued meat and classic comfort food, but give a simple stew the same treatment as a fine dining dish and people enjoy it even more.

When I start a new dish and before I begin cutting up all the ingredients, I think about how I’m going to present it on the plate at the end. I think about shape, height, textural differences and, most importantly, colour contrast. I start with the main element of my dish in the centre, and then build around that. Don't put anything on a plate that’s not there for a reason. Sometimes less is more.

Try to mix up the shapes of the various elements in the dish. If you have a carrot and you already have other finger-shaped or disc-shaped shaped things in the dish, cut the carrot into a cube instead. Try different ways of cutting things, such as shaving or small dicing. Make every bite different.

If you have a straight slice of meat, for example pork, and you’re serving it with a puree, sit the pork on a circular pool of the puree or run a strip of puree either side of the meat. If you have a rich sticky sauce, don’t just pour it over the top. Pour a little bit here and there in the gaps in the dish, or put a few drops decoratively in a line up the side of the plate. But remember that if you want to have leftovers to use for another dish, don’t serve meat on a bed of mashed potato or something similar. You won’t be able to keep it if it’s covered in mash. Keep the mash or sauce separate.

Not everyone has a range of plates, so if you only have round plates try not to always present your dish in round shapes as it can look boring. If you have a steak or a beef cheek that’s round and you have a round plate, slice the meat into strips and lay it across the plate. A lot of the dishes I serve on round plates I arrange in a straight line, sometimes running from one side of the plate to the other – rather than clumping everything in the centre. Contrasts are at the heart of good plating.

You need to think about how people are going to eat the dish, too. Sometimes it’s good to decide if you want people to eat things with a knife and fork or just a fork. If you’ve got a risotto and you have poached chicken on top, slice the chicken into small cubes so it’s not out of proportion with the rice and you can eat the whole thing with just a fork if you want to. Also, if you’ve got a slab of tuna half the size of the plate, you’ve got to have enough ingredients so that in every mouthful you get a bit of everything. You don’t want to have three mouthfuls of tuna and then all the other ingredients are gone and all you have left is the plain tuna.

Garnishes can help add a surprise element and often some texture. It doesn’t take much to jazz up a piece of fennel or some parsley. Fry fennel fronds or parsley first and scatter them over the finished dish. Add some little pops of colour and tang with pomegranate seeds. Micro herbs make a great garnish for both savoury and sweet dishes. Why not crumble some cake over a mousse or pudding instead of serving it traditionally in a slice?

Serve food on wooden boards, in glassware, on tiles, still in the pan it was cooked in or on baking paper for easy clean up. Once I served a dip on an upside-down roasting tray as it added height to the spread on the table and it was also handy for people to reach it and dip their bread in. Put desserts in glasses and drinks in jam jars. I love the rustic look of serving a barbecued steak on the board you rested it on. It’s runny with juices, but it’s so appetising. You don’t need expensive crockery – just go get a beautiful piece of wood and cure it.

Don't ever feel scared of trying something new. It doesn't take much to add a point of difference, but it can really improve your dish. It’s in those moments of experimentation, of trial and error, that you’ll achieve brilliance. What’s the worst that can happen?

Featured Recipes in this Chapter

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