Kitchen Ambitions

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People often ask me for advice on how to actually become a good cook beyond Hamburger Helper and Stouffer’s. “How did you come up with this?,” “Teach me your ways!,” “You don’t use recipes?!” are some common questions I get asked by my friends and family. I love talking to people about this because it’s obviously one of my biggest passions, and I want other people to find the same joy from cooking that I have.

I’ve been into cooking since before I can remember. Of course I started small (literally) as a kid in the kitchen chopping vegetables, stirring sauces, or grating cheeses. My family was always big on eating at home as a family and not going out, so my sister and I just always jumped in to help. My parents never really cooked anything too gourmet, but they did what they knew well. Probably since middle school, I have loved watching Food Network (Giada and Bobby are my favorites and I’m determined to meet them one day) therapeutically for hours or getting sucked into a season of a culinary competition show. A big part of becoming a good cook I think is just starting somewhere and not worrying about if you’re actually any “good” at first. I promise it’s not nearly as intimidating or time-consuming as some people try to make you believe. In fact, it’s quite elemental: knife, heat, sizzle. Some people also say don’t try cooking something new when you’re having people over, but I never cease to ignore that “rule.” Once you get more comfortable and confident, it’s hard to ever actually mess up.

Recipes are of course a good place to start, and just follow those for awhile until you really get the basics down. See what different ingredients bring to the table (pun intended), and figure out different flavor profiles and combinations that you like to eat. Being knowledgable about ingredients is a big part of being confident in the kitchen and can allow you to be more creative. Does it make a dish creamy, sweet, salty, bitter, acidic, or spicy? Once you know the basic methods – sauteing, roasting/baking, grilling, making sauces, etc. – you can literally make anything.

I also have read endless amounts of food literature over the past several years: magazines, blogs (90% of the ones I follow are food/cooking blogs), cookbooks, etc. For example, how did I spend much of my last Saturday of break today? Reading through my two new cookbooks from Christmas for inspiration for the new year: Food&Wine Annual Cookbook and Vegan Cooking for Carnivores. I think the different little tidbits of culinary information have just sort of stuck in my brain through osmosis. Reading and watching does help you with the knowledge side of it, but nothing beats actually getting in the kitchen and getting your hands dirty to see what you can really do. Just like anything else – practice, practice, practice. Also, always taste your own cooking as you go! How do you know what it needs if you don’t taste it?

Once you decide to embark on the mission to up your skills and really get into it is half the battle! Some people are so indifferent about it, but to me it’s such a vital part of living. We’re talking about something we need at least three times a day every day for the rest of our lives. On top of that, cooking is such an tangible way to show others your love (acts of service is definitely my love language) and connect to people through food by spending time around the table together. I could go on and on.

I would say some of the very first things I cooked on my own that are pretty simple would be:

1. Pasta with sauteed/roasted vegetables, maybe chicken, and a simple homemade sauce (tomato or pesto)

2. Fajitas/Tacos with all the fixings – grilled meat, sauteed onions/peppers, homemade guac and pico, black beans. Later you can make your own tortillas (so good)

3. Asian stir fry – lots of sauteed veg, brown rice, shrimp or chicken, and a simple sauce maybe of soy/teriyaki/honey/sesame oil/garlic

That’s literally the tip of the iceberg. The main thing is stay with it and continue to experiment and challenge yourself as you go. Fresh gnocchi, pizza dough, butternut squash soup, fish tacos (one my signature meals for sure), why not? I had never baked bread from scratch before, but I did it for the first time this semester as part of a project for a grade in one of my classes. If you love to eat it, learn to make it.

Want to know what’s on MY gutsy kitchen bucket list for this year? Be looking for invites to those monthly dinners I talked about before…

1. Risotto – all ways, all seasons

2. Thai Green Curry – my Asian comfort food

3. Cocktails – Scratch-made, custom, and cheaper than happy hour

4. Sourdough – gotta get that starter going I guess…

5. Mussels in a white wine broth

6. Pork Tenderloin

7. Homemade Ravioli

8. Pistachio Gelato

9. French Onion Soup

10. Something with fennel or leeks

Happy cooking, my friends, and be adventurous!

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Favorite Food Quotes From Michael Pollan

Michael Pollan has recently earned a spot in my line-up of favorite authors after I read In Defense of Food last summer.  I recommend his books to anyone that is interested in food, cooking, environmental health, nutrition, history, economics, food industry marketing, or American society in general. He has written several best-sellers, and he simply has a way with inspiring words about food and health.  I know what you’re thinking – books about nutrition and food science seem far from exciting, but his style is not your typical scientific or medical lecture.  He writes with convincing passion and quick wit.  I just bought his newest, Cooked, and can’t wait to get around to reading it. Here are some excerpts from his books:
“You are what what you eat eats.”

“Don’t eat anything incapable of rotting.”

“The shared meal elevates eating from a mechanical process of fueling the body to a ritual of family and community, from the mere animal biology to an act of culture.”

“If you’re concerned about your health, you should probably avoid products that make health claims. Why? Because a health claim on a food product is a strong indication it’s not really food, and food is what you want to eat.”

“The sheer novelty and glamor of the Western diet, with its seventeen thousand new food products every year and the marketing power – thirty-two billion dollars a year – used to sell us those products, has overwhelmed the force of tradition and left us where we now find ourselves: relying on science and journalism and government and marketing to help us decide what to eat.”

“If it came from a plant, eat it; if it was made in a plant, don’t. ”

“Organic Oreos are not a health food. When Coca-Cola begins selling organic Coke, as it surely will, the company will have struck a blow for the environment perhaps, but not for our health. Most consumers automatically assume that the word “organic” is synomymous with health, but it makes no difference to your insulin metabolism if the high-fructose corn syrup in your soda is organic.”

“That eating should be foremost about bodily health is a relatively new and, I think, destructive idea-destructive not just the pleasure of eating, which would be bad enough, but paradoxically of our health as well. Indeed, no people on earth worry more about the health consequences of their food choices than we Americans-and no people suffer from as many diet-related problems. We are becoming a nation of orthorexics: people with an unhealthy obsession with healthy eating.”

“When you’re cooking with food as alive as this — these gorgeous and semigorgeous fruits and leaves and flesh — you’re in no danger of mistaking it for a commodity, or a fuel, or a collection of chemical nutrients. No, in the eye of the cook or the gardener … this food reveals itself for what it is: no mere thing but a web of relationships among a great many living beings, some of them human, some not, but each of them dependent on each other, and all of them ultimately rooted in soil and nourished by sunlight.”

“Now, all of this might be tolerable if eating by the light of nutritionism made us, if not happier, then at least healthier.  That it has failed to do.  Thirty years of nutritional advice have left us fatter, sicker, and more poorly nourished.  This is why we find ourselves in the predicament we do: in need of a whole new way to think about eating.”

“Pay more, eat less. What the French case suggests is that there is a trade-off in eating between quantity and quality.”

“To eat slowly, in the Slow Food sense, is to eat with a fuller knowledge of all that is involved in bringing food out of the earth and to the table.”