I’ve been asked many times about my approach to cooking. I wouldn’t call the following list a manifest, it’s more a collection of suggestions fuelled by experience, and little pearls of wisdom I’ve gained through the years.
Keep a well stocked cupboard: It is well worth it to always have the basics stocked. The next payday is far away, and you’re already running low on cash? Your friend dropped by unexpected, and you have nothing to offer? Canned goods, like tomatoes, beans, fish, dry foods like rice or pasta go a long way. Keep some spices, flour and cornmeal in your cupboard, some eggs and milk in the fridge. You would be surprised how much you can do with only that much. Pancakes, tomato soup, egg sandwich, tomato pasta bake, vegetarian chilli are a few things you can make of those ingredients. Adding any vegetable also puts frittatas, gratins, a huge variation of pasta dishes on the menu. The possibilities become endless.
Be imaginative: You don’t need expensive equipment to make good food. A few pots, a pan and a hand mixer was all I had when I started out. Having less makes you more creative. What you lack in “hardware” you can make up in imagination. It is possible (however cumbersome) to cook a 3-course Christmas dinner on a hotplate.
Let the natural flavours shine: (Almost) every food item has a distinct natural flavour. So keep it simple, keep it fresh. Make everything from scratch if possible; that not only makes the dish more delicious, it is also the only way to know what goes into your food. Find spices that bring out the natural flavours, steer away from overcooking and over-salting your food. For example try adding a pinch of nutmeg to your potato mash, or a touch of cinnamon to your stews, and enjoy.
Spices, spices, spices: The art of adding that extra kick, and complementing the natural flavours without being overpowering, is the key to a successful dish. Although your brain might tell you there is no such thing as too much cinnamon over your morning fruit salad, listen to your stomach. More is not always better. Remember, spices and herbs need time to release their flavour.
Get inspired by the recipe (or several): Find a tried and/or often referenced recipe off the internet and adopt it. If you frequent food blogs or other recipe sites, the readers’ comments will surely help you sift through the content. The internet can also provide you with a plethora of versions for the same dish. Read a few and find the common denominators. This is the first step towards creating your own recipes.
Being patient goes a long way: Blitz-cooking is fun and helps preserve the flavour. Raising the temperature to save time however won’t necessarily get you there faster. There is a delicate balance between time and temperature. Opening the oven door every two minutes won’t speed up the process. Quite the opposite. Follow the recipe or read up on the recommended cooking time and temperature for certain ingredients. Set your oven clock or a reminder on your phone, to alert you when the cooking time is up, if necessary.
Expand your horizons: Being a bit of a food snob is one thing, being afraid to try new things is another matter. Using the same ingredients in all your recipes might be a safe and easy choice, but it also makes your cooking boring, since everything you cook will taste similar. Try something new every once in a while, do your research, and start experimenting before you present it to your audience. Try to thrill.
Don’t be afraid to improvise: The recipe calls for rosemary and you’re fresh out? The local store does’t have the type of cheese that would make the dish perfect? No need to drive to the supermarket, or place a bulk order online. Substitute the missing ingredient with something else. What could go wrong? Experiment to perfect your skills. Doing so when you promised to host a dinner party for six is maybe not the best time to start, but ingenuity often comes from sudden ideas, necessity, or desperation.
Better together: Invite a friend to your cooking session, ask your boyfriend to assist you, involve the kids. Misery is not the only thing that likes company. Wanna thrill someone with a new recipe you haven’t tried before? Not sure how to tackle the problem and want to get a second opinion? Afraid of messing up and want to share the cost of the pizza delivery later? Regardless how the dish turns out, having company makes the cooking, not to mention the eating, much more enjoyable.
Don’t give up: You don’t need a degree to cook delicious food. You might be a natural and make a perfect dish every time you set foot in the kitchen; if that’s the case, ignore this entire post. If you’re not a prodigy, remember that every celebrity chef started out like you: a novice. It might sound banal but practice indeed makes perfect. I know a lot of people who – having no previous experience with cooking – are simply afraid of it. I also know a few who got discouraged along the way. Don’t be one of them. If you’re interested in cooking, stick to it, keep trying. The “mmmhs” and “wows” you’ll receive make it worth it.
What do you think? What would your advice be for aspiring cooks?
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