Tips from Chef Rob

GW University Chef Robert Donis offers helpful tips and answers to various food- and cooking-related questions.

Q: I'm sure you're a busy guy, but even chefs probably don't eat gourmet every single night of the week, right? So, what’s your ultimate quick meal or favorite comfort food?

A: Truer words were never written. Most chefs rarely eat "gourmet" meals any night of the week. They  might taste components of "gourmet" meals they are putting together that day.  Some may sit down at the end of the service period and enjoy one of their dishes, though not very often. More often, chefs will gobble down meals standing up when they get really busy.  Many Chefs in restaurants will eat what is called "family meal" with their staff members.  These meals are usually composed of scraps, leftovers, rice or pasta, and the parts of salads you didn't use for the paying guests.

My ultimate quick meal is a typical chef's salad with lemon juice and good olive oil, or I'll make a "margherita style" pizza on a flour quesadilla with fresh mozzarella, home grown tomatoes and basilabout 6 minutes total time.  Comfort food for me is a roasted chicken, mashed potatoes, sautéed mushrooms, a green salad or roasted vegetables, an overcast, drizzly, cold Sunday, some decent wine, family and a scoop of vanilla ice cream I'll soften a bit to put over some sautéed apples or fruit pie. I love comfort food with high quality ingredients. The less time to put together the better, meaning prep work. It can take all day to cook in my slow cooker as long as I don't have to be there to watch ityou've inspired me to make some pot roast tonight and I'll make sure to eat it sitting down.


Q: Can eggs be kept outside of the refrigerator? 

A: Eggs need to be refrigerated in the coldest part of your refrigerator, meaning the back of it, next to your well-wrapped butter, and, certainly not in that oh so chic egg holder by the door, and not at room temperature for longer than 2 hours.

Eggs are susceptible to bacteria when left out. It is always a good idea to keep them just as they arrived, in their sanitized carton. Now you have more space on your countertops to keep bananas or that ceramic country rooster you've been pining for. What to do with that newly found refrigerated space you might ask? I keep my hot peppers, baby eggplants, and basil there.

Egg facts you need to know:

  • Check the side of the box for three numbers. This number represents the day the eggs were packed (f.e., 010 means the eggs were packed on Jan 10th. The eggs are good for about 30 to 40 days after this date).
  • When you crack open the egg, look for the yolk to stand up. Color of the yolk has to do with chicken feed more than freshness.
  • Have you ever noticed that the egg carton is one of the most dizzying items on the supermarket shelf (like, Times Square on a carton). I, personally, want to purchase eggs that carry the Animal Welfare Approved label. If I can't find these, I buy certified organic. All the other programs are there to catch your eye and make you feel good about your purchase.
  • To warm up an egg for cooking or baking I take them out of the back of my refrigerator and place them in moderately hot water for 5 minutes. This solves the problem of egg storage. No yolk, that's what I do.


Q: What is your favorite method for poaching eggs?

A:  There are a few easy to follow steps to poach eggs properly. The simplest of details makes a huge difference when poaching eggs. The most critical and first step is to buy the freshest eggs possible, because the whites of older eggs tend to spread through the poaching bath and will not envelop the egg yolk properly.

The next step is to bring a few inches of water to a boil in a wide mouth pot.  Do not fill with much more water then it takes to completely cover the eggs. How much water depends on the size of your pot. To start the cooking process boil the eggs in their shell for 30 seconds.  No more no less.  Take out the eggs with slotted spoon, leave the water in the pot, and place the eggs in an ice bath (8 ice cubes to a pint of cold water shall do) to cool down.  Now, some people like to add vinegar to the boiling water at this point because it helps firm up the white around the yolk. I don’t because I can taste the vinegar in the finished product.  If you must add vinegar it is about 3T of rice vinegar to about 1.5 qt. of your previously boiled water.  Break the chilled eggs into a small shallow saucer or bowl.  Turn down the heat of the water so it isn’t at a rolling boil.  Gently slip the eggs out of its individual saucers at the level of the water. Now, very gently create a gentle wave next to the borders of the egg white to aid in covering the yolk. Cook the eggs for about 3 minutes (here is where personal taste comes into the picture) and remove with a slotted spoon onto a serving plate.  Dot the eggs gently with paper towel or a very thin tea towel to soak up any excess water on the egg and on the plate next to the egg. Do not cook more than 3 eggs at a time.


Q:  I cook quite often, and I have become comfortable with roasting and grilling a variety of meats. However, I would like to experiment with duck, since I absolutely love it but am afraid to try to cook it on my own.  Any tips for cooking duck at home, either on the grill or the stove? 

A:  Cooking duck is not any more difficult than cooking other meats, so fear not. Before you get started cooking duck, you need to identify the type of duck it is. Examine what you purchase to see how much fat covers the flesh, total weight and proportion of its parts.  We’ll concentrate on the three commercially available breeds: Moulard, Pekin, and Muscovy.    

The Moulard is used for its magret (breast), because it is larger than other duck breeds. It should be cooked on the rarer side, because if you cook it too much, its meat will get stringy and taste and feel like rubber bands.  Pekin (Long Island Duck, and not Peking Duck, which is a style of preparation) is the most popular that I see in the markets. It is milder in flavor than the other two breeds we are discussing, and its meat is tender. They are usually about 4 to 5 lbs. in weight. They will shrink in the oven, due to their high fat content. Do not expect to feed the same amount of people as you would with a chicken this size. Finally, the Muscovy duck (Barbary Duck) is leaner than Pekin and Moulard ducks. Their meat is redder and stronger in flavor. The average weight of a male Muscovy duck is 7 to 8 lbs. (a female Muscovy is half this weight) and its breast accounts for 2 lbs. of this weight.  The breast is protected by less fat, too.  It takes almost twice the amount of time to breed than Pekin, so it will cost more.  It is the only domesticated breed that is not a descendent of the Mallard.   

Now that you have chosen which duck to prepare, here are a few tips:

1) Make sure your bird is dry before cooking. You can leave uncovered over night to help the bird dry off. 

2) Don’t think of cooking a duck breast like a chicken breast; it needs to be cooked like a steak. Slash only the fat of the breast making little diamonds all over to help in the rendering process, cook in a very heavy pan, skin-side down, until the fat crisps up, about 10 minutes for a Pekin and 14 minutes for a Moulard, flip over and cook for 2 minutes more, rest and serve. 

3) When grilling a duck breast, make sure the heat is indirect so that burning fat doesn’t start a fire and char your duck.

4) Cook duck legs separately by browning on the stove and then braising slowly in a 325º oven until the meat is tender and coming off the bone.  Cooking duck is all its quacked up to be--hiss--which is what Muscovy ducks do!


Q: When I was growing up, my mom never kept the butter dish in the fridge, so we always had soft butter that was easy to spread. I’ve continued to do that now that I live on my own, but it freaks some of my friends out when I serve butter that hasn’t been refrigerated. Is it safe to use unrefrigerated butter?

A: Does mom really know best, or is there a misguided old wives’ tale somewhere that warns against the perils of room temperature butter? Well, for 20-plus years, I’ve worked in kitchens and bake shops that also kept pounds of butter out at cool room temperatures. I needed to make sure these are safe practices, so I consulted with the FDA food safety division.

This is what they told me: “There is no evidence that using butter without time/temperature control is unsafe.” Why?

Butter is composed of mostly fat (European-style butters are usually higher in fat), little amounts of water, and sometimes salt. For salted butter, the proportion of salt to water is nearly 10%, which helps fight bacterial growth.

Although keeping the butter dish outside of the refrigerator is safe, the best place for butter storage is in the freezer, wrapped tightly. When butter is exposed to air, it may oxidize, take on odors or change in quality.

Here’s a tip to satisfy your freaked out friends: take your very well wrapped butter out of your freezer or the back of your refrigerator and microwave for 5 seconds intervals on 30% power until softened.

So, it is safe to store your butter at a reasonable room temperature though if you see mold, throw the butter out). You may need to consult with an etiquette columnist on the best method to convey this to your friends and still keep them!


Q: I am frustrated that the food I buy doesn’t stay fresh for long. I am deterred from buying fresh produce, etc., because I never can seem to use it all before it goes rotten and I must throw it out. Are there any helpful tips or techniques to storing food to keep it fresh and safe to eat for longer?

A: There are some helpful tips to store certain items longer. Before I talk about these techniques, I’d start with the idea of thinking about what you are purchasing, planning a meal or a few meals and buying less. Some of the joy I receive from cooking comes from the anticipation of the meal, thinking about the process not as a necessary chore, and connecting to food in a way which brings me closer to the seasons. The planning will be more enjoyable and less wasteful if you think about what is in season (fresher) and how to best use it. You will start to eagerly await the first crop of asparagus, cherries, peaches, apricots, etc. Some tips are as follows:

  • Root vegetables are best deprived of oxygen and light (think sandbox or plastic bag in refrigerator).
  • Cut green tops off of roots before storing.
  • Dry lettuce in paper towel and store in Ziploc bag tightly to prevent air from getting in.
  • Store potatoes and onions (except sweet onions) in a cool, dark, dry place away from each other and never in the refrigerator.
  • Do not refrigerate tomatoes, sweet potatoes or garlic.
  • Store oranges at room temperature
  • Eggplants and peppers hate the cold, so store them in crisper drawer of refrigerator wrapped with paper towels. They damage easily, so use quickly.
  • Keep asparagus in a humid environment in the refrigerator like cut flowers: 1” of stem in water with a plastic bag draped around tips.
  • Unripe stone fruits, melons, and avocados are better at room temperature. When ripe you may refrigerate these briefly.

Get more involved with the process and you will be rewarded with tasty meals and more loot.


Q: I like cooking with olive oil over vegetable oil because it’s healthier, but I find low smoke point can make it difficult to cook things all the way through without them coming out wilted or soggy. Is there a way to avoid this?

A: The idea that “a fat is a fat is a fat” is both true and false. One must consider the extra caloric intake from fat is the same for olive oil, canola oil, peanut oil, butter, and lard, approximately 9 calories of energy per gram. This goes for light olive oil as well--be careful about reading your labels. Now, they differ in their varying levels of saturated, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids. Olive oil is high in monounsaturated fatty acids and lower in saturated fatty acids (not the lowest of all oils). The argument continues over the health benefits of olive oil over, say, canola and flax seed oil, and there is passion on both sides. I like cooking with olive oil for its flavor. The range of refinement and composition of olive oil is insanely large. The smoking point of oils is determined by the level of refining and saturation. Most fats smoke at temperatures much above 400ºF. Olive oil, depending on what type you are using smokes at around 410ºF. This should do the job for you. I need to find out what you are cooking in order to specifically address this issue.

The warmer weather has my mind drifting into baseball analogies. Have you ever watched your favorite baseball player angrily stare down at his bat after striking out? Sometimes he’ll even go so far as to break the bat over his knee. Perhaps, there was a crack in the bat. More often than not he just struck out. It’s the same with cooking. Sometimes you strike out with a dish because of technique, other times you can blame the pan for being too thin, or the ingredients you are cooking for being too large, or the oil for smoking too early. I need video replay for assessing this specific problem so that I may provide you with a hit.


Q: I’m not 21, but when I go out to eat, restaurants serve entrees and desserts with alcoholic sauces (which taste great). What can I do to mimic those flavors at home legally when cooking at home?

A: Have you ever been asked to provide proof of legal age for ordering the beef with sauce vin rouge or the bananas foster for dessert? I didn’t think so. The truth is that cooking does not eliminate all alcohol from a dish made with wine or spirits. In fact, that delicious flambeed banana dessert you just enjoyed may retain up to 75 percent of its alcohol, and after simmering that beef in red wine for 2.5 hours, 5 percent still will remain. I won’t tell if you won’t!

Now, back to your question. Fortified wines (madeira, marsala, Chinese rice wine, sherry) share a nutty quality. I would suggest substituting a little nut oil to finish the dish. For example, instead of finishing a chicken dish with marsala, try a little hazelnut oil at the end of cooking. Also, you can substitute wine with wine vinegar. Substitute 1C of red wine with 1/4C of red wine vinegar plus 3/4C of red grape juice. You can also substitute wine with sparkling cider and sparkling grape juice. Be aware that these items are sweeter, so you will need to balance this out by being judicious in how much you use and by using ingredients that counter this sweetness, e.g., lemon juice, tomatillo juice, etc. Also, reducing apple cider is a good idea for creating a sauce without using alcohol and getting that tart mouth feel in return.

When cooking for desserts, a substitute for rum is rum extract. Substitute an ounce of rum with 1 tsp. of rum extract and 1 oz. of apple cider. A healthy idea is to use wine that is non-alcoholic for your underage dishes. This ingredient tends to be a little sweeter, so again, you must counter this. Remember substitutions are not always possible, especially if the dish is centered around the wine: think coq au vin or red wine braised short ribs (just cook with a good beef or chicken stock and leave the wine out). Wine is so much more than tart water + alcohol. It contains hundreds of different molecules and associated aromas. It is hard to replicate, even when substituting the same varietal of wine from one vineyard to the next. Successful and tasty cooking can be had without wine. It will just be a bit different.


Q: What’s your best time saver in the kitchen?

A: The biggest time savers in the kitchen is a frequent question people ask. I usually say my hands and my kitchen experience save the most time. For simple tools, I would suggest a sharp chef’s knife, serrated knife, paring knife, a microplane for zesting citrus fruits, and a stick blender(easy to clean, use, and store). My programmable slow cooker saves time from standing over the stove. For the rare occasion when I am cooking for one, the microwave is a handy appliance. I do not like buying precut food or too many processed items. Short cuts for food items: Canned beans are low in sodium and good for salads. I’ll cook with frozen peas and frozen fruit for quick fruit purees and sorbets. I’ll use flour tortillas to make quick pizzas.

There are a lot of tricks of the trade too numerous to mention (there are books on this subject alone). I might add, I am an advocate for relaxing, putting on some tunes, and enjoying your time in the kitchen.


Q: How do I get more flavor out of my food without adding more fat, salt, and sugar?

A: Enhancing flavor without adding more fat, sugar, or especially salt is a good question. There are many ingredients, methods of cooking, and techniques to cover. For this answer, I will cover spices and herbs only, since it is one of easiest and most economical ways to achieve this.

Sharp ingredients can help replace salt if you’re concerned about sodium intake. These are citrus fruits, mustards, onions and garlic. Certain spices enhance sweetness in foods, like: cinnamon, nutmeg, cardamom, allspice, clove, and ginger. These are a few immediate ideas that come to mind. Fat can be substituted by ingredients that have mouth feel and help carry flavor. A few of these are: fromage blanc (lower fat white cheese), quark, yogurt, and vegetable/fruit purees (apples, bananas, prunes, etc.).

Make sure you experiment by adding a little of these flavor boosters at a time, and do not stick to just the same standard flavor enhancers. Visit your local international markets and give lemon balm, lemongrass, epazote, sorrel, and kaffir lime leaf a try.


Q: I love to cook but never really considered going to Culinary School (I like GW too much). Is there a certificate I could get to get a job as a chef, or do I need a culinary degree?

A: It is wonderful that you enjoy cooking. There are no quick certificates I’m aware of that can get you a job as a “chef” outside of culinary programs. You may be able to land a job without a culinary degree and become successful in a professional kitchen. The trick is to show great desire to learn and start off slow, by washing pots and learning how to prep foods quickly. I graduated from an accredited college (very helpful in many ways) then went to the Culinary Institute of America to get my “certificate.” This provided a good starting point and a strong foundation to help “learn on the job.”


Q: I’m always confused when people talk about the fruits and vegetables that are “in season” or not. Can you list the best times/seasons to get certain things? For example, are peaches going to taste a lot better (and be more inexpensive) in the summer than in the spring?

A: There are exact seasons for  when most vegetables/fruits are ready to be eaten. These are specific to the region and the climate you live in. For example, Florida’s tomato season is strongest in March. In our area of the country, most wouldn’t think about planting a tomato in March let alone harvest it. Tomatoes in this area are harvested in July and August. You can find many fruits and vegetables year round in the supermarket. This doesn’t mean it is any good. Seasonal produce is best and most economical at the same time (if the varietal and growing conditions are good) when production is high. Get to know the bounty of the seasons by going to a local farmer’s market, because they are selling and growing what is in season here. This will give you a better understanding of the seasons, and your cooking will adapt to them and become second nature. Often, due to weather conditions, crops change from year to year with regard to what is available from one week/month to the next. And, sign up for my class “The Chef and the Garden.” I will go into more detail on regional and seasonal cooking.