Though much of my knowledge of cooking is rooted in my mother, there were certainly trials and tribulations along the way. Mistakes were made, sometimes big and sometimes small, but each shortcoming taught me a lesson.
My pet peeve is when people say I’m not good at cooking. This isn’t an accurate statement in the least because cooking is a learning activity. That is–you learn from every meal that you make. You learn to make food better each time. You learn to be even more particular about the way you put a recipe together or the way that you read a recipe you got from someone else. There’s no shame in any of it. It should be fun, but you can’t learn anything when you’re not cooking. Even still, shortcuts here and there can make all the difference in the world.
Here are a few tips I’ve learned over the years:
1. Garnish with Olive Oil and Sea Salt
Nearly every dish I make is garnished with a drizzle of high quality, organic olive oil and a pinch of sea salt. It highlights all the lovely flavors already present in your dish. Don’t overdo it, especially with the salt, but simply highlight the flavors. I garnish local eggs, avocado, tomatoes, cheeses–you can even put it on ice cream. One of my favorite olive oils for garnishing is McEvoy Ranch.
2. Keep it Simple
Keep your ingredients to a minimum and choose the highest quality possible. I can’t tell you how delicious a baguette topped with local eggs and fresh avocado can be garnished with a fruity olive oil and sea salt. We can get really carried away with overly complicated recipes, and over the years I’ve learned that this can ruin a recipe.
If you’re having a dinner party, put out easy appetizers like plump olives, homemade spiced nuts, and figs with bleu cheese rather than planning a slew of complicated items. Keep it simple. Keep it fresh. Keep it local.
3. Don’t Overcook Your Foods
Foods lose their flavor the more you cook it out of them. This is true of eggs, which in my opinion, are best cooked so that the luscious yokes break upon your fresh slice of homemade honey wheat. This is true of meat and fish as well. And this is true of vegetables, which lose nutrient density the more that they’re cooked. Keep the flavor and the nutrients intact by never overcooking. Veggies should still be brightly colored and have a bit of a crisp texture to them in most cases.
4. Make Your Own Salad Dressing
Bottled salad dressings can taste like the bottle they came in. Have a few go-to salad dressing recipes that you can use each night. Here’s a good recipe for Thousand Island and a recipe for a dijon vinaigrette to get you started. A simple dressing can make your greens taste so much better.
5. Buy Good Greens
That brings me to another point–buy good greens. Don’t take the time to put together a great meal and serve it with store bought romaine. Go to the farmers’ market and choose a gorgeous Boston lettuce or an exciting micro green. It makes a big difference.
6. Cook Pasta Correctly
For each pound of pasta that I cook, I add 1 tablespoon of salt to the pot. This isn’t true of fresh pasta because fresh pasta is more varied in flavor. I add salt to fresh pasta depending on the ingredients used in the initial recipe. Cook pasta al dente, meaning it still has bite to it. Be extremely careful not to overcook fresh pasta after you’ve taken that much time to prepare it. Fresh pasta only needs to cook for 1 to 2 minutes.
7. Don’t Salt Quinoa
When you’re cooking quinoa, don’t salt the water. Quinoa absorbs salt more than pasta and becomes way too salty and rather inedible. Cook gently, just in water.
8. Vary Textures
Textures matter in a dish. You don’t want all the textures to be the same when you put a plate out. For example, if you’re making a stir fry over rice consider adding same crunch like pan roasted cashews or fried tofu. Or top a crisp salad with a soft oven baked goat cheese. This isn’t always necessary, but it can be what’s missing in your meals.
9. Don’t Disturb the Rice
When you’re cooking rice, it’s important to trust the process and not stir and disturb it. Add rinsed rice and water to a pot and bring to boil. Turn down the heat to a simmer and then don’t disturb until the water evaporates, usually around 35 minutes.
10. Learn to Enjoy the Process
Photo: Digital Vision
If you’re present the entire time you’re cooking and you’re enjoying the process rather than just trying to get it done, your food will automatically come out better. You’re paying attention and less likely to make mistakes. Take your time to read and understand the directions. Pour yourself a nice glass of wine and take your time properly chopping the ingredients. Enjoy yourself and your food will taste better.