Let's be honest. The reason there's been such an explosion in the blogosphere is because blowhards like me can give advice and there's no one telling us to shut up! We've all heard that it's much better to listen than to give advice. And we nod in agreement. (By the way, I have yet to meet someone who says they're a bad listener. All of us think we're good listeners.) But I've got some unabashed advice today. I've been thinking about how much time shopping, prepping, cooking, and cleaning up takes, and how miserable it would be to not enjoy some of those tasks. Because eating has so much to do with community, health, and well-being, I really believe it's worth the investment of learning and time. (This will not surprise you, I know.) Here's a few tips that might help you along the way:
- Cook a lot. And by "cook," I don't mean an elaborate four-course meal. I mean, get out a pan, scrounge in the fridge, and try to make something at least once a day. You'll learn more this way than throwing a big dinner party.
- Limit eating out. Think of it this way--you can't be good friends with someone you don't spend time with. I love eating out, but it's expensive, dangerous for the waistline, and doesn't allow you the quality time in your kitchen that will make you healthier and a better cook.
- Pick a few easy, healthy things and get really good at them. Don't worry about being inventive at first. Focus on technique, timing, and simple ingredients. If you never "progress" beyond this, you're still ahead of most people.
- Build a pantry. I hesitate to give a pantry list. When I stumble across one that Martha Stewart or Nigella Lawson has authored, I only get discouraged. 1) Where would I find the room? 2) I'd have to take out a second mortgage on the house to stock a pantry like that. But here's a modest (cooking--not baking) list: extra virgin olive oil, vegetable oil, a good pepper grinder and peppercorns, kosher salt, lemons and limes, a couple kinds of vinegar, canned tomatoes, dried and canned beans, onions, garlic, canned coconut milk, a couple kinds of rice, pasta, soy sauce, red pepper flakes, eggs, plain yogurt, fresh ginger, mustard, parmesan, cheddar, and feta.
- Have a few cookbooks and pieces of kitchen equipment that won't let you down. Here's another place where the lists can get really long and expensive. I'm always comforted by the stories and photos of amazing home cooks in Thailand or China who have one wok, one wok spatula, one cleaver, and one burner. I get annoyed with the ceaseless gadgets trotted in front of us. Just like expensive cameras don't make good photographers, fancy kitchen equipment doesn't make you a good cook. Here are the things I couldn't live without: chef's knife, serrated knife, paring knife, 8" nonstick skillet, cast iron skillet, large stockpot, small and large saucepan, wok, rice cooker, colander, bench scraper, 3 heavy aluminum cookie sheets with rims, parchment paper, blender or immersion blender, garlic press, lemon reamer, microplane zester, kitchen shears, mixer, big and little whisks, and yes, my food processor. As for cookbooks, you don't need many. I couldn't live without Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything, my two Gourmet cookbooks, and The Silver Palate New Basics.
- Inventory and clean your fridge frequently and commit to using what's in there. If you are cooking for a family and using lots of fresh produce, this is no small task. Using what's in there is a creative constraint--you'll end up throwing some collard greens in with your morning eggs or roasting up the aging parsnips for soup. I can't think of anything else that will go further in making you a good cook.
- Make your kitchen as inviting as possible. As I've mentioned ad nauseam, our house is very small. And I don't pay much attention to it. EXCEPT for the kitchen, which I've meticulously arranged to be as practical and inviting as possible. This means things like hanging up a knife strip, not letting the dirty dishes stack up, finding a workable solution for spices and dry goods, periodically weeding out dishes or appliances I don't like or use, having music in here. If your kitchen isn't well-organized, you won't feel like cooking in it. And organized means organized according to your sensibilities. It doesn't mean an antiseptic lab from the pages of Dwell.
- Engage a friend as your personal cooking coach. Find someone in your life who's better in the kitchen than you are. Ask if you can watch them cook. Ask if you can call them in the middle of dinner with inane questions. Ask them to taste things you make and give you honest feedback.
- Keep a log of your exploits. It can be an old notebook, an online journal. Whatever. Something that helps you remember what you've learned, the recipes you want to stay away from in the future, your stunning successes.
- Remember that perfect is the enemy of good. I always say that I love to know things, but I don't like learning them. Learning means lots of mistakes and frustrations. But I promise you--every mindful minute in the kitchen makes you a better cook. Perfection is not the goal--enjoyment and health is.
I feel so blessed to share my kitchen with you. Here's to cooking with confidence and playfulness.