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!