My mother’s mother had an uncanny ability in the kitchen. Poor, but armed with the array of what a farm kitchen could provide, she cooked mostly out of necessity – to feed her family. The principles of cooking were intrinsic to her. They, too, were a necessity for survival. She also cooked with a hefty dash of curiosity – and really enjoyed food. All these attributes made her an amazing cook.
They can make you an amazing cook, too. If you’re resolute in a desire to cook smarter, faster and leaner this year – if you want to save time in the kitchen and spend less – arm yourself with the only tool you truly need: knowledge. But what are these principles?
Use recipes as guidelines, not gospel (unless you are baking something). Don’t be afraid to stray from a recipe; rather, use it as an inspiration or touchpoint. How? First, arm yourself with the knowledge of flavor profiles. Some chefs refer to these as “flavor families.” In other words, what tastes well with what? Start thinking of these elements as families of flavor that you can easily rely on in a pinch. Mirepoix, the classic French flavor combination of celery, carrot and onion, is a perfect example. Change the celery to pepper, and it’s called the holy trinity (and is the flavor foundation of many dishes from the American South); change the pepper to tomatoes, and you’ve got sofrito (the foundation for many Latin American dishes). Start experimenting and play with some ideas of your own. Don’t be afraid to improvise. To be clear, though: Baking is different, and you’ll need to follow a recipe to the letter for the sweet stuff. A half teaspoon more of baking soda could be a disaster, so always measure accurately.
Stay organized. Chefs call it mise en place: the practice of having ingredients and tools ready, organized and within reach before you begin cooking. Another part of mise en place is cleaning as you go. Nothing makes for a more unorganized kitchen than a dirty kitchen – and it saves so much time in the long run to keep things clean. Are you waiting for sauce to reduce? Wash some dishes. Is the chicken brining for 30 minutes before you roast it? Clean the counters and take the trash out. Be smart about your time.
Keep your pantry stocked. Certain items at the ready make cooking simple and easy. Five-minute meals are within arm’s reach. Think about what you like to cook, then make a pantry list. My family is big on pasta, so I usually have some on hand. Rice. Beans or lentils. A few fresh vegetables. Canned tomatoes. Canned tuna. Stocks (make your own or buy some). Arm yourself with the seasons – vegetables and fruits are always better when grown locally. And then there are condiments like soy, Worcestershire, mustard, sriracha and fish sauce that provide umami. Stock your refrigerator door with a few to flavor steamed vegetables, sauces, meats – virtually everything.
Familiarize yourself with the science behind what’s going on when you cook something. This understanding will eventually lead to the understanding of methods (boil, broil, sauté, fry, bake, roast, etc.) and how each works. Methods will eventually lead to the understanding of technique (how to braise, for example). What does fat do? Acid? Sugar? Salt? Cooking is science, but it’s not rocket science; anyone with genuine curiosity can learn how to cook.
Need some help? Try “On Food and Cooking” (Scribner, 1984 and 2004) by Harold McGee, considered the bible of cooking, in its second edition. Last year’s award-winning “Salt Fat Acid Heat” (Simon & Schuster, 2017) by Samin Nosrat, is already an indispensable part of my cookbook collection. Tom Colicchio’s “Think Like a Chef” (Clarkson Potter, 2000) makes cooking easier, too.
Salisbury Steaks with Caramelized Onions
Keto? Atkins? South Beach? Take a back seat to the Salisbury steak, created way back in 1897 by James Henry Salisbury, who was looking for a way to increase protein and decrease carbs for weight loss. The result appeals to the Betty Crocker in every cook: easy to make, low in cost, and a definite crowd pleaser.
Pasta is one of the easiest go-to’s in the pantry. Always have it on hand for simple suppers like this one, where lemon and garlic add brightness and flavor. Want more oomph? Add canned tuna (with oil makes it even better). Or shrimp. Throw in some pepperoncini and black olives with a bit of thyme, oregano and rosemary. In summer when tomatoes are at the peak, chop some and serve the pasta chilled with sea salt. Loosen the pasta with peanut oil instead of olive oil and add chopped peanuts, scallions and cilantro. Italians will argue that the type of pasta makes a difference, but feel free to use whatever dried pasta you have on hand.
Mock Chocolate Mousse
Mention the word “mousse” and some cooks want to hide behind their mandoline. It’s understandable: True mousse requires a good deal of knowledge (pâte á bombes, meringues, tempering, oh my!) and practice. This version takes out the guesswork and leaves the flavor and fun by cheating with a few of the techniques – just a little. Substitute vanilla, Amaretto, Kahlua or other liqueur for the Grand Marnier if desired.
Hugh Acheson’s Lentil Soup with Red Russian Kale and Sour Cream
Acheson loves lentils and shares this recipe from his book “The Chef and the Slow Cooker.” (Clarkson Potter, 2017, $26.99) “They cook quickly, are incredibly nutritious, are very inexpensive, and have a culinary dexterity about them,” he says. “This soup is a classic in the lentil tome. I like the green lentils in this as they keep their shape and make for a nice broth-y soup. You could use puy lentils, the small dark green lentil of France, or even black beluga lentils, but I would avoid Indian dal lentils as they tend to break down too much for a soup like this. This is a soup that you want in your fridge. Matched with a piece of toasted baguette, you have a fine meal. Lentil soup is about a 4:1 ratio of liquid to lentils, but you can make it as broth-y as you wish.”