May 31, 2009
To All You New Cooks Out There....
Today is my little blog's birthday (hence the cupcake)! I can't believe it's already been a year. Well, I can believe it when I think of how far I've come in my cooking skills - from the days where making scrambled eggs seemed challenging, to now making dishes I once thought of as strictly restaurant food. I have a long way to go, but find that each time I step into the kitchen I feel a little bit more confident and comfortable.
I started this blog as a sort of experiment. I mean, most people I know who actually enjoy and know how to cook learned so from their mothers, grandmothers, aunts, etc. Well, what if you were like me, and spent your childhood doing everything but watching your mom prep dinner. I wanted nothing to do with cooking back then. And to be honest, cooking wasn't really a huge deal in my family either. My mom cooked so that there was food on the table, not because she particularly enjoyed doing so (although she is a fantastic baker - it's amazing I'm not the size of a house!). Her creative outlets were simply outside the kitchen. Heck, everyone has to eat, but not everyone has to actually enjoy the act of preparing a meal.
So I didn't exactly have the traditional resources and experience most cooks have. A year ago, I thought that throwing a Stouffer's lasagna into the oven qualified as cooking. Ha! What I did have though, was a phenomenal kitchen (a gift of the previous owner's renovation) that was just begging to be used. So after staring at our beautiful Viking stove for over a year, I finally threw up my hands and decided using it as extra storage was no longer an option. I quickly came to realize that you didn't need the Sicilian grandmother who slaved over a stove all day to learn how to cook. All you needed was a little passion, patience, and know-how.
Below is a list of the top 10 lessons that I think every new cook should know. So, after a year of cooking, baking, and blogging I give you:
Top 10 Lessons for the Culinary Wannabe
(aka, you think deglazing a pan involves licking the batter bowl)
1) Read the ENTIRE recipe, at least twice before you begin cooking. Even 3, 4, or 5 times. You should know the progression of the dish and should only have to look back to the recipe to reference exact measurements. Trust me, many recipes throw in a "meanwhile" step that could totally throw you off if you are just reading as you go.
2) Never test a new recipe on company. Do not try out a new, complicated recipe on unassuming company. If you want to do so, make sure the guests know that they will be used as guinea pigs, and be sure to have delivery menus close by. There is nothing worst than having people over for a lovely dinner, and having put something inedible on their plate.
3) Taste and season as you go. When I first started cooking, I would add exactly the amount of salt that the recipe called for, no more, no less. And I also wouldn't bother tasting the food until it had been plated and I had a napkin on my lap. This is a big no no. How can you possibly know how something tastes without trying it? Not to mention the fact that many recipes just say "add salt and pepper to taste." Taste your food, pay attention, and try to determine what your "taste" actually is. As you become more experienced, you will be able to determine what a dish needs. This also entails paying attention to the ingredients you are using. Smell and taste the basil, and try to remember those sensations. Many people aspire to create their own recipes, and knowing ingredients is one of the key components to doing so successfully.
4) Watch cooking shows. I know a lot of foodies don't really love the quality of cooking shows out there, but the truth is, that when you are just starting out you need to see someone cooking. There is a world of difference between reading something and actually seeing it done. Cooking shows were an enormous help to me at the beginning. Seeing Giada chop an onion, seeing Ina beating egg whites - these are all important steps, and if you didn't grow up watching someone in the kitchen, cooking show are the next best thing. In addition, try and immerse yourself in the culinary culture. There are a bazillion food blogs, magazines, books, etc, to help you. Use them. It's just like learning a language. You will never become fully fluent until you are really surrounded by it.
5) Develop a kitchen arsenal. Having the right tools is pretty darn essential, but you won't be able to determine which items you will really find useful and which you could totally do without, until you have actually clocked some hours in the kitchen. If you have an unlimited budget and ample storage space, by all means go on a Williams-Sonoma shopping spree and get the top of the line for everything. But since that probably isn't realistic, my suggestion would be to start with just the basics and grow or upgrade as you develop your own cooking style. For instance, say you just graduated college and literally don't have a pot to your name. I think a good course of action would be to go down to Kmart, buy a not so expensive starter set of pots and pans, and see which ones you use the most. If you find that you've used the big soup pot the most, then feel free to buy yourself a nice Le Creuset pot.
6) Be your own quality control, but also believe the responses people give you. By this I mean, don't start with the "Oh, you didn't like it then" routine if your husband doesn't go back for thirds. If he told you he liked it, be probably did just that. Especially if you start cooking a lot. He could stomach a less than stellar meal every once in a while, but certainly not every night. But you should also learn to decide for yourself if something came out well. Make notes to yourself (on the actual recipe so that you way you will have them for next time) about changes your would make, or even how you felt the recipe turned out. We are our own toughest critiques.
7) Get organized. Planning and preparing meals will be so much easier if you have everything neatly squared away. This means the pantry, fridge, and freezer, as well as recipes. Personally, I like to do pretty much all of my organizing electronically. I have a Word document with a list of staple items (or items I frequently buy at the store), all categorized by department. When I'm going to the store, I will print off this list, go through it while standing in front of the fridge and pantry and mark off any items we are out of or low on. I can't tell you how many times this has saved me from realizing 3 days later that the sugar jar is nearly empty, right when I'm about to make a batch of cookies. It also helps to have everything nicely organized in corresponding categories once you get it home (baking, oils, snacks, vegetables, etc). Another trick is to lay out the ingredients you will need before you begin cooking. Even pre-measure them like your own little cooking show if you like. This saves you from having to scramble around the kitchen looking for chicken stock while your garlic is burning.
When it comes to actual recipe organization, I'm a big fan of binders and tabs. I have one binder for recipes I've made before and would make again, and one binder for recipes I want to try. They both have identical categories (meat, seafood, appetizers, etc.) making it easy to skim through. I also keep a side folder with recipes that I would like to make in the very near future. That way, when I'm planning our meals for the week, I can just look through that folder instead of the huge binders. I update this folder once a month or whenever it's running low. Google docs is another great way to store recipes you find online. Develop all your own systems though, and use what works for you.
8) Know that you don't have to be Julia Child, but you also don't have to be Sandra Lee. Everyone has their own cooking style, and yours needs to adapt with what you are given. Cooking shouldn't be an all or nothing kinda gig. So you only have 20 minutes to throw together dinner - use a Rachel Ray recipe and get on with your life. There are no prerequisite as to how long a meal has to take to prepare, or how fancy the ingredients have to be for it to be special. That being said, spending an afternoon preparing a feast for an anniversary or birthday can not only be enjoyable, but also leave you with a sense of accomplishment and pride. Give yourself room to find what works for you, and abide by only the standards you set for yourself. Can you imagine where people like Sandra Lee would be if they told her that using canned biscuits was too taboo?
9) Share the goods. This is an easy one if you have a bunch of family members in your house, or hungry neighbors who will eat just about anything. But even if you don't have readily accessible taste testers, its definitely worth it to find people to share in the fruits of your culinary efforts. By giving people food, you are not only giving them something that is (hopefully) delicious, but you are also giving them the gift of your time and thoughtfulness. It really touches a nerve with people when you give them something homemade. My mom sends crazy care packages to all her children (including ones to my husbands office - she is the hero of their trading floor and received a standing ovation at our wedding!) every chance she gets. In these, we are constantly reminded of how much she loves and cares about us. Give cookies to the neighborhood kids, bake lasagna for your friend who just had a baby, or cook a stunning 3-course dinner for you husband on your anniversary. By doing these things you show people you care about them in a way store bought gifts never will. Plus, that warm & fuzzy feeling you'll get inside from doing something nice for others will only help to further your passions in the kitchen.
10) Have fun! Play music, wear a cute apron, get your friends involved - make the kitchen a fun and relaxing place. Stop stressing about whether or not it's going to turn out perfectly. If you actually enjoy cooking and don't take yourself too seriously, there is a good chance that you will be happily doing it for many years to come. Because we do have to eat, you don't want it to turn into a chore or a requirement. So keep things interesting. Try new recipes and experiment with ones of your own. Someone had to figure out that chocolate and peanut butter were a match made in heaven. Maybe you will come up with the next unbelievable combo. Worst case scenario, keep a frozen pizza on hand as backup. If you enjoy what you are doing, it will show in your food.
So there they are, the top 10 lessons I've learned in the past year. I would love to hear what you guys think and what lessons you would add! Cheers!