What Does it Take to Be a Good Home Cook?

Feb 2012: It's totally amazing that since the discovery of fire, people around the world have been heating food to make it more edible and appealing; and yet there is a whole generation that thinks cooking food is a great mystery. It's really pretty simple if you understand a few principles.

First of all, as I have said many times before in these Newsletters, it is best to keep good nutritional ingredients on hand; rather than try to shop and cook (clean up and discard the leftovers) on the same day. I recommend buying staples at the supermarket and fresh ingredients at your local farmers market. I keep things like onions, garlic, sweet potatoes in a basket in the kitchen; things like bacon, Parmesan, eggs, and milk in the fridge; and things like canned tomatoes, chicken stock, and dried beans in the cupboard.

Look over my collection of recipes on www.tantemarie.com to see literally hundreds of simple Recipes to make for breakfast, lunch, dinner or holidays.  Or, look in THE TANTE MARIE COOKING SCHOOL COOKBOOK (Simon & Shuster, 2003) for more.  At the beginning of each chapter in my book, it tells you how to cook without recipes-very helpful-and at the end of the book are suggested menus – mostly for entertaining.

Here is what good home chefs know!  First, of all, a good home cook has the confidence to take risks-sometimes even the best cook makes something that doesn’t really work; and it’s okay!  It’s also important that you don’t try to do too much; I rarely try to cook all three courses of a meal in an evening.  We are living in a world where the television and restaurant chefs are trying the weirdest combinations of tastes.  What I recommend is that you try to envision what the combinations may taste like, and if you don’t have the imagination to get it, you can rely on experience.  For instance, does the combination of pears and peanuts really seem to go?  What about tomatoes and rosemary?  How about smoked salmon and blue cheese?  The answer to all three questions is not really.  Pears are often paired with walnuts; tomatoes with basil; and smoked salmon with cream cheese or mascarpone.  Don’t just try things to see if they work, rather imagine it first.

Really, experience is the best way to learn to cook; that is, practicing your cooking.   And, remember, recipes are just guidelines.  If a recipe calls for roasting butternut squash and you don’t have the time; what about pan-frying cut up sweet potatoes instead?  If it calls for apple cider vinegar and you don’t have it, use white wine vinegar.  Chicken stock can often be substituted in a cooked dish for cream.

What good chefs know is that it is far better to cook fish, chicken, and meat on the bone because it is the bones that have the flavor.  To buy a whole chicken on the weekend, roast it a few days later for dinner, and then make a warm chicken and avocado salad with the leftover chicken and the chicken juices is sublime-my recipe for this follows.  What good cooks do is taste every ingredient and at every stage of cooking–even putting a little piece of onion or potato in their mouth.  It is also recommended to lightly salt at every stage; for instance, when sweating the onions, when you add the tomatoes, and then when you add the lamb.  This enhances the flavor rather than salting the lamb stew at the end.   Whenever you pan fry something-even as simple as a hamburger-you can capture the meat juices by deglazing the pan with cold liquid-water, wine, or cream to make the beginning of a sauce.  If you are making something as simple as steamed mussels with vinaigrette, getting some of the mussel juices into the vinaigrette will make it taste so much better.  We are living in a world where a lot of cooks like to keep adding another dimension to a dish, I say stop when you are ahead.  A salad of crab and avocado with a citrus vinaigrette would be delicious; you don’t have to add oranges, onions, radishes and so forth.  The truth is the better the ingredients, the less they need embellishing.What we know is that the balance of sweet, sour, acid, and bitter in the mouth is very appealing.  A stew or a sauce that has these four in balance is best.  Generally, the sweet comes from cooked vegetables such as onions; the sour and acid come from wine; and the bitter perhaps from the caramelized meat juices.  Sometimes cooks add unsweetened cocoa or chocolate for bitter as in the famous mole of Mexico.  When you taste a finished dish and you think it needs something, the chances are it needs salt.  Add a little salt and taste-never guess at how much it needs.  You can always add more, and its really hard to correct an over salted dish. If it seems to lack sweetness, try a little honey; if it lacks sour or acid, try a squeeze of lemon;  bitter isn’t usually an issue, but I have seen cooks add a few drops of Angostura bitters; and sometimes a tablespoon or two of heavy cream can round out a dish.  If your dish lacks depth of flavor, try removing the meat and reducing the sauce.  Sometimes cooks add a mashed anchovy for depth of flavor in a fish dish; or glace de viande for chicken or meat, or soy sauce for a vegetable dish.

So, here you are – no longer cooking the ubiquitous boneless skinless chicken breast and going for the whole organic chicken; or no longer afraid to tackle a slow cooking lamb stew (you can find recipes for lamb stew both In my cookbook and on my website); and you have the confidence to taste the sauce and know how to make it better.  Good going!  There’s one more thing, too many cooks think you have to throw food away after a couple of days.  The truth is that most food keeps for a week in the fridge, and often it can be turned into another dish; for instance, leftover lamb stew can become a sauce for pasta.  Cooking will be much more fun if you shop ahead, cook with confidence, and plan another meal with the leftovers.

Here for you are two warm salads for February, one with leftover chicken, and the other with that sweet potato that has been hanging around forever.  Since both of these are easy supper dishes, you may want to make my Tarte Tatin (upside down caramelized apple cake) for dessert.  In addition, to sending you a couple of recipes each month, I plan to post a video each month on YouTube to show important techniques.  Please let me know what you would like to see.  And, don’t forget to have fun cooking!