The simple act of cooking. It has taken on meaning that we can barely fathom anymore. Is it a colosseum-type sporting event with chefs running around a kitchen cooking sea urchin and circus peanuts? Is it a Nonna-like chef taking us back with recipes nostalgic for our youth?
The art of cooking comes complete with an anxiety driven by celebrity and pressure to continuously channel your inner Julia Child. We must impress; we must stress over every bite, every swoosh of sauce, every carbohydrate or gram of protein or sugar.
It’s no wonder that so few of us are comfortable in the kitchen these days. I’m here to ask you to set all that pre-tension aside and re-discover your passion for the art of cooking.
As the weather cools and we think of leaving the beach behind and covering the grill for the cold days to come, it’s time to refresh our cooking and take back our health and wellness in the kitchen.
The germ of the article was driven by a new cookbook recommended to me by a dear friend. The book places its focus squarely on those who say they can’t cook or have no time to cook but it also speaks to anybody who has lost inspiration to cook or wants to refresh kitchen inspiration.
By no means plant-based, this book uses the basics of cooking with variations to allow for success for the novice or the most seasoned cook to take their skills to new heights.
It inspired me to write about life in the kitchen from my perspective of making the healthiest choices you can for your family and for you.
My Rules of the Kitchen
Cooking with fresh ingredients turns cooking into the easiest (and most pleasurable) thing in the world as they need little enhancement to be their most luscious. Great olive oil, fresh lemon juice and sea salt are mostly the ingredients I use to bring the best out of any ingredient. And a little parsley. Besides that, there are some things, some nuggets of wisdom that I would love to share with you after a lifetime (nearly…I’ve been cooking since I was a child) of cooking and creating recipes.
To Taste or Not to Taste. Many chefs like to taste and taste often. If that works for you, then taste and do it often. If you don’t cook now, I’d advise you make this a practice until you know what a dish should taste like…or how you would like a dish to taste. After that, you can skip it. When my mother was teaching me to cook, she would slap my hand if I tasted and say, “Use all your senses. There’s more to cooking than tasting the food. Anyone can do that.” She taught me to see the food, feel the food (not literally, but with my intuition), smell the food and listen to the food.
It works for me. I’m not a taster but no judgment if you are one. If you’re new to the kitchen and the art of cooking or you aren’t a confident cook (yet), then taste, but make it a goal to taste less and feel more.
Fresh Stuff. My mother used to say that the best meals came from the freshest ingredients. She was right. My advice to you as you venture into cooking is to buy the freshest ingredients your budget allows. You don’t need to break the bank to buy fresh. Just about every shop, bodega, market, big box store and warehouse club has fresh produce that you can use in your cooking. If you can’t find fresh, grab some frozen veggies as they are most often frozen at the peak of their freshness. No excuses.
Get yourself a timer. Seriously, get a timer. I use mine all the time for all sorts of dishes, from beans to soups to grains and desserts. I use it so that I don’t forget something on the stove if I am cooking a large meal and get lost in another task (which I do…a lot). I use a timer for every single dessert so I don’t over or under-bake. I time beans so they are cooked to their perfect tenderness and are not hard or mushy.
Use leftovers wisely. Simply eating leftovers out of a container might be easy, but man, it can be…boring. Eating the same food, day after day, re-heated or simply brought to room temperature is not only uninspiring, but it can cause you to feel lethargic, crave sweets and feel less in love with the food you cook. Leftovers can be crazy valuable to us in the kitchen, but they’re best when they’re repurposed somehow in new and yummy dishes. I use leftover bean stews to create soups or spreads to slather on bread. Leftover cooked greens become part of a fresh salad in another meal. Whole grains are added to soups, turned into salads or stir-fried with veggies for a quick and nutritious meal. It’s lovely to cook every dish fresh from scratch but living in the real world often prevents that luxury. So use your leftovers in combination with fresh, simple dishes to create balance and reduce the stress of meal prep.
Use your knife well. One of the biggest challenges people face (me included back in the day…) is using a knife well and to your best advantage. While you see impressive arrays of knives on most chefs’ tables, many of us will confess that we mostly use our aptly named chef’s knife. I love knives and have a host of them, but I always pick up my favorite chef knife when I am cooking. I will occasionally use a paring knife to take stems out of strawberries or peel a cucumber or potato, but my chef knife is my tool. Get one that you love. Hold a variety of them in your hand before you decide on this most important tool. You’ll know the right one when you feel it. Trust me.
One last thing…get a serrated bread knife for well, slicing bread as you will dull your chef knife using it to cut bread.
Slicing and dicing. Now that you have a great knife, how to slice and dice? How do we know how big or small, chunky or fine to cut veggies for various dishes? For soups, you can never dice veggies too small. The tinier, the better as this helps the broth sweet as the sugars from the veggies “bleed” into the broth. For stews and casseroles, you want hearty chunks of veggies to stand up to long cooking times. Fine julienne and shredding are perfect cuts for salads, blanching and quick stir-fry dishes where you want the veggies to cook quickly but maintain some “crunch.”
Practice various knife cuts until you’re efficient. You won’t develop skills if you don’t practice. Will you be slow and clumsy at first? Yup. Will you develop some fine skills with practice? Yup. It’s veggie chopping, not neuro-surgery.
Seasoning. This one is really subjective as people like different flavors in their food. it’s also a bit of an art form, finding the right nuance of flavor you like, so experiment and cook…a lot.
My rule of thumb is that the food should taste like itself, not like salt, pepper, hot spice or herbs and spices. They are all simply ways to enhance the natural flavors of foods; you don’t want a hostile takeover of your dish.
I usually salt near the end of cooking so that my food has time to become tender, with just a pinch at the beginning to coax the natural flavors forth. While I may use pinches of salt as I sauté, I season fully around 7 minutes before I call a dish done. Spices and dried herbs are added to my dishes at the beginning of cooking, while fresh herbs are added at the end, right before serving. I rarely use dried herbs with the exception of oregano. All other herbs, from basil to rosemary and everything in between, I prefer the flavor of fresh. I buy spices in small quantities so I am sure they maintain their freshness as they can become weak and blah-tasting if kept for too long.
My one hard and fast rule for seasoning is that you do it during cooking. I am not a fan of seasoning once the food is on the table. For one thing, the flavors have no time to develop and become part of the dish so all you taste is whatever you’ve added.
Salting once you’re done cooking is off the table, pun absolutely intended. Salt that is not cooked into the food has a harsh flavor and can rapidly affect your blood chemistry as it hasn’t become one with the dish. Just don’t do it. If a dish you’ve made needs flavor, then it’s a teaching moment, as we say. You’ll learn to season better next time around, as you become more seasoned as a cook (see what I did there?).
And you know to use just sea salt, right? Unrefined sea salt or pink Himalayan salt for the best flavor and quality. Just a reminder…
Olive oil. I love olive oil from the depths of my soul to my dinner plate. I know you’ve read all this stuff online about not being able to cook with this luscious oil, but it’s just not the case. According to olive oil experts, it’s perfectly safe to sauté with an extra virgin olive oil (you reap double benefits: great flavor in your dishes and the heart healthy compounds). The only thing stopping you? Possibly the price. In case olive oil can break the bank for you, buy a less expensive olive oil for everyday cooking and one absolutely, knee-buckling, robust extra virgin olive oil to use on salads and special dishes.
But if you’re going to splurge and I hope you do, look for an estate oil, meaning olives from the same farm so you know that the olives are picked and pressed within a day, making for low acidity and great extra virgin olive oil. I don’t care if the oil is from California, Italy, Greece, Spain or Israel (actually I do; I adore Italian oil), as long as it’s an estate oil.
I also use avocado oil in my cooking in various places. It’s a high heat oil with mild flavor so I like to use it with strong flavors like soy sauce or curry that might compete with a robust extra virgin olive oil. I also like it in baking cakes as it results in a buttery crumb that I love. That said, if olive oil is your investment right now, a good olive oil it is. That’s enough.
Skip all the vegetable oil blends and all the other cheap oils (unless your budget seriously limits you, then do the best you can). They’re just adding calories from fat without much nutritional value for your dollar.
I do use some of the vegan butter substitutes in baking and I like the results. You can try them out or use oil. Both work just fine and yield great flavor.
Nuts to you. I think nuts and seeds are essential pantry items. They add richness, texture and great quality fat to any recipe. Buy nuts and seeds in small quantities if you don’t use them a lot so they stay fresh. I store raw nuts and seeds in my freezer to extend their freshness. Before use, I will pan or oven toast nuts at 350o for about 8 minutes to intensify their flavor. With seeds, I rinse and drain them well and pan toast them in a dry skillet before use.
Become a master of technique. There are basic cooking techniques to master that will serve you well as you cook. Once you have them in your repertoire you can combine them to create incredible dishes, like sautéing veggies before turning them into a soup.
Mastering blanching, boiling, roasting, braising, sauté, stir-fry, stewing and pickling will have you cooking up a storm…and no one has to know how easy it all is.
Your tools. I love a well-equipped kitchen so I can work easily and efficiently. I keep the utensils and tools I use often right near my workspace in gorgeous clay pitchers so I am not hunting for things as I cook. It adds beauty to my workspace.
A thick, sturdy wooden cutting board that fits your workspace is paramount to good cooking. Next I recommend an array or wooden spoons, 1-2 whisks, a sieve or colander, tongs, ice cream scoop, grater or micro-plane, a peeler, a ladle, can-opener and spatula.
Pots and pans. This all depends on you and how many people you’ll be cooking for in your daily life. I would recommend a variety of sauce pans, skillets (both stainless steel and cast iron), some casserole dishes and baking gear, if you’re a baker.
Your greatest successes in the kitchen will come when you take a deep breath and cook with passion and abandon. Mother Nature made eating sexy so we would do it, so it stands to reason that cooking is foreplay. Enjoy it. Linger in the kiss of the kitchen and slowly work your way to the climax that is the meal.
Happy cooking, as my friend, the great Jacques Pepin always says.
And finally, if you can’t decide what to cook, put up a pot of water to boil. I have no idea why this works, but when you boil water, you are suddenly inspired to cook something…and not always pasta. Maybe it’s simply taking action in the kitchen that gets you motivated but it works. Try it and let me know.