A good friend recently asked me some awesome cooking questions he wanted to learn during his holiday staycation:
Is there any tool I should absolutely buy for my home kitchen?
Any particular skills I should focus on as a basis for learning more later?
Do you recommended list of things I should try to make?
Any books/websites you recommend for cooking tricks, tips, and recipes?
I worked up so much gusto in my e-mail response that I thought it was blog worthy! I'm always happy to impart food knowledge to those who want to learn, so feel free to send an e-mail my way to rosalynsdarling (at) gmail (dot) com.
With that, here was my response to his questions... If you have time off this Christmas holiday and are looking for ways to buff up your kitchen and cooking skills...
Essential Tools for the Kitchen
I'm not one for crazy specialized kitchen gadgets - they're a waste of space and money. Unless you're doing something really specific a ton of times, you really don't need things like garlic presses. The most essential tools needed to make any great dish can be bought at Sur La Table. Why from Sur La Table? Sur La Table guarantees all their merchandise so if anything goes wrong or if you don't like it at any time, they will refund or replace your stuff (like REI or Nordstrom).
A good chef knife and paring knife - These are the most important tools you should have in your arsenal. A good, sharp chef and paring knife is something that will last for years and will make your life easier and safer. For a home cook, I recommend getting a Wüsthof 8" chef knife and paring knife. All Wüsthof knives are made with German steel, unlike other German brands, so the blade will be easy to sharpen, get very sharp and stay sharp. No need for the fancy Shun, steel carbon, layered stuff - very high maintenance and very expensive.
- A nice set of tongs and a fish spatula - Tongs are a great universal tool for grabbing, flipping, stirring, etc. - for things that are not too delicate. When you're dealing with more delicate things, like eggs and fish, go for the fish spatula (not just for fish!). For tongs, you want ones with a good length so you don't burn your hands off when trying to flip stuff over high heat. I useEdlund 12" stainless steel tongs. For a fish spatula, go for flexible and thin.
- A grippy cutting board - Slippery cutting boards can make cutting things difficult and dangerous. You can put a damp cloth towel under a regular cutting board, but for ease, I recommend getting a cutting board with rubber grips. Don't skimp on size - get the large one.
- Good stainless steel pots and pans - I don't believe in non-stick because the coating never lasts for more than a year (maybe 2) and it doesn't brown things as well (less flavor in your food). The Sur La Table set is awesome in terms of performance and price - they rival All Clad at a fraction of the cost. I wish somebody told me this before I dropped $1,300 on my All Clads...
Skills to Learn / Things to Make
Seeing that you only have a couple weeks for cooking adventures, I recommend focusing on the two things below. By exploring these topics, you are helping to build your foundation as a home cook and opening yourself to new flavors and techniques.
1. Learn to make dishes that can be re-purposed into different dishes for future meals and snacks.
A lot of newer cooks trying to make the most elaborate whatever dish that requires a lot of novel ingredients, but then they have no idea what to make with those acquired ingredients outside of the recipe they're using. I always say that simple can be so tasty, creative, and easy. For example, you can roast a chicken. In the same pan that's roasting the chicken, add some diced potatoes, rosemary, carrots, celery, onion, beets, bell peppers, garlic - any hearty veggies are good. It's simple to do and requires one baking dish. Then you take the leftovers from that chicken and veggies to make a salad, soup, sandwich, stir-fry. etc. Exciting different eats made from one dish.
Other dishes where you can get creative:
- Whole roasted fish - If you don't like fish bones, go you can sub the whole fish for some big slabs of filleted fish. When baking the fish, add some tomatoes, dill, lemon, onion, and fennel to the baking dish to make the dish more complex and filling. Any leftover fish would make a nice topping for a garden salad.
- Stir-fries are super versatile and can incorporate basically whatever veggies, meats, and noodles/rice you currently have. I tend to make stir-fries when I have random veggies and meats that need to be used up. Then I turn the stir-fry into nice noodle soups by adding some chicken broth and Asian noodles. I also turn them into wraps for lunch or omelets for breakfast. If you want a snack or appetizer, you can put spoon some leftover cold stir-fry on crackers/bread, sprinkle a little grater cheese on each cracker/bread slice, then bake in the oven at 375 degrees until the cheese is gooey.
- You roast a chicken with veggies, then use that same chicken and veggies, add more sauces (soy, oyster, sriracha, etc.) to make a stir-fry! Then use the stir-fry to make a lunch sandwich or tacos! ZOMG
2. Find ways to add layers of flavor into your cooking.
I think one of the main differences between a professional chef and a home cook is that chefs know where to add lots of layers of flavor to a dish. You can give a home cook and chef the same exact ingredients, and the chef will know how to manipulate, brown, deglaze, and season in a way that would usually out-flavor what the home cook makes. People are always shocked at how little ingredients I use to yield such robust flavor. There are lots of ways to layer in flavor:
- Salt is your friend! Salting your food properly can make a world of difference on the taste of your food. A lot of people are astounded by how much salt chefs use, yet the flavor that is created is not salty at all. Salt actually brings out the flavor of your ingredients. Kosher salt is my main staple.
- A good experiment to try is to taste soups or veggies at different salt levels. I did this in culinary school where I took chicken stock with no salt and gradually added more salt to each spoonful of stock to learn about the right salt level vs. too salty.
- Salt also affects food differently depending on when you use it. For instance, if you salt a steak before you cook it, it will render the meat more tender, juicy, and overall flavorful. If you hit it with a little salt after cooking, the meat will be more bright in flavor. Just make sure that if you salt at different stages, you keep in mind the total salt you've used to make sure you don't inadvertently over-salt.
- Also, truffle salt. Enough said.
- Brown your meats in a not non-stick pan.
- When you brown meats in a stainless steel or cast iron pan, you get some really tasty brown bits that stick to pan from cooking. These brown bits are a staple to making tasty sauces that you can use later in your dish.
- After browning the meat, remove the meat from the pan, and pour a little wine, water, or stock/broth in the pan to let the brown bits desolve (aka deglaze). Voila! You have a little sauce you can use with your dish to add another layer of flavor. You can add more herbs and spices to this sauce if you want.
- Cooking veggies at different temperatures yields very different flavors. Take the onion, for instance...
- Low heat will yield a sweeter, more mild flavored onion that works really well in soups and sauces. Just simmer onion on low heat for 30 minutes with a little oil until they turn translucent and very soft.
- High heat will caramelize your onoin for a more pronounced flavor. This works well for dishes where you want more assertive flavors (red meats, stir-fries, roasts, burgers. etc). High heat and some oil will do the trick - cook until they're evenly browned.
- This principle works on a ton of different veggies, especially garlic, and even fruit! Experiment and get creative.
- Try new spices and herbs that aren't usually in your pantry. Some few great ones that I think you'd love are below. I recommend going to a spice store and exploring.
- Smoked paprika - It's a different take from what most people use, which is sweet paprika. The smoked aspect makes any dish more robust and "meatier". I like to add it to my veggies when I roast them or to a vegetable-based sauce.
- Marjoram - This herb is a more mild version or Oregano, which is found a lot in Italian food. Some people say that oregano is too much of a kick in the face, and to that I say try marjoram.
- Ground sumac berries - This berry is used a lot in middle eastern cooking (like spinach puffs), and I love the tang that it brings to a dish. When I cook spinach or mushrooms, I always add this! I think it would work well on chicken and fish too.
Useful Cooking Resources
I don't have a cookbook to recommend that covers general cooking, and I think that cookbooks do a better job when they cover one topic deeply (like the Tartine bread book or a awesome canning book Food in Jars). If there is a specific food topic you want to learn about, let me know, and I can recommend a book. However, here are some other sources that I think you'd find inspiring and useful:
- Bon Appetit Magazine & Website - I love to look through Bon Apetit's pages for inspiration on dishes to make and they also have a "Test Kitchen" section that teaches cooking techniques and tips through videos and slideshows.
- If you have or want a cast iron pan, I found an awesome article about cooking in it.
- SmittenKitchen.com - This is a great source to find recipes that are approachable, unique, and delicious. The lady who runs this started as a small food blogger, and her recipes were such a hit that she went on to publish a cookbook! She is truly living the dream...
- The Flavor Bible - Food is my religion, and this is my go-to book. This book does not have any recipes, specifically, but it will show you what ingredients taste best together. If you get to the point where you don't want/need specific recipes to make food, I highly recommend this book. It helps to improv dishes while still giving you a lot of creative freedom in the cooking process.