Monday, November 10, 2014

7 Tips for the Beginner Home Cook

In no way am I a chef or master cook.  I am a proud Home Cook through and through.  I love creating recipes and feeding my friends and family.  Of course, not everything I have done or will do has been easy or came out perfectly the first or even the tenth time.  My cooking ups and downs has led me to seven solid rules I use in my kitchen everyday.  These are tips that make the food taste better and the cooking process easier.  And if that isn't the goal for Cook Like it's Easy, than I don't know what is!

1.  Season Your Food!

My number one rule for great tasting home cooked food, is to season it!  This may sound like common sense, but the importance of salt and pepper cannot be underestimated.  Salt is your best friend in the kitchen, as long as you don't take advantage of it.  It is there to help your food reach its highest taste potential, but too much can lead to a salt disaster.  This is why tasting your food as you go is paramount to making sure your dish is getting the flavor it deserves.  The salt you use should be the coarse variety, like Morton Coarse Kosher Salt.  The reason for this is that coarse salt crystals are bigger and so much easier to pick up with your fingers and measuring spoons, making it easier to control the amount you add to your food.  I keep my salt in a container right next to the stove, so I can add a pinch here and there when needed.   A black peppercorn grinder is also a necessity because freshly grinding the peppercorns releases their flavors and makes for a more potent, fresh taste.  Speaking of pepper, I never met a color I didn't like, so I  have crushed red pepper flakes in my seasoning arsenal.  They add more heat than black peppercorns but also a depth of flavor and can be used modestly.  I love to use granulated garlic powder to add wonderful garlic flavor quickly to certain dishes, like roasted vegetables and on grilled meats.  Food seasonings are a home cooks best ally!

I never enter my kitchen without these guys.

2.  Good Extra Virgin Olive Oil

I am just a simple girl whose cooking life basically revolves around Extra Virgin Olive Oil.  I use it in nearly everything I make, cooked or not, because it is heart healthy and the taste is on point.  Since I use this oil in so many different things from marinades to salad dressings to pan frying, the flavor has to be there.  And what I found is that you want to get an organic, cold pressed oil to really capitalize on the flavors and health benefits.  Cold pressing helps to maintain the high amounts of monounsaturated fatty acids, polyphenols and antioxidants that are found in the olive.  These properties can lower the risk of heart disease and high blood pressure and organic means less chemicals.  Great flavor, super versatile and heart healthy means I am all in.
Costco and Trader Joe's brands are my favorite.

3.  Butter or Ghee Only

I have an intense hatred for margarine that stems back to my childhood.  As a product of the 80's, margarine was what was happening in our kitchen...I Can't Believe it's Not Butter, anyone?  I always hated the thick orange paste on my toast and was confused as to why it never really melted.  I think that in this day and age, most of us are aware that margarine is full of chemicals and not something we should be eating.  Although butter is high in fat, a lot can go a long way.  It's a great way to add  flavor and depth to anything you are cooking.  Something else I have come to love is Ghee or clarified butter, which if you haven't heard of is, butter with the milk proteins removed.  This is a fantastic substitute for butter for people who can't tolerate dairy or are living a Paleo lifestyle.  It is very rich and has a high smoking point, so it can be used in place of olive oil or other oils when needed to cook something over a high heat. 
Because Butter (or Ghee).

4.  Fresh Herbs 

My husband and I have a vegetable and herb garden that varies throughout the year.  However, the things that we use most often is our herbs.  Fresh herbs really elevate the flavor and presentation of your dish.  They also bring taste and depth to a dish without loading up on salt or fat, so adding fresh herbs is a great way to keep the calorie and sodium level down in your food. If I had to pick one herb, it would be Flat Leaf Parsley, also called Italian Parsley.  This herb brightens the flavor of the whole dish and can work with almost any recipe.  It gives the beautiful green color that we love for presentation, is cost effective and super easy to store in the refrigerator.  You can wash it and store it in a plastic bag with a damp paper towel and it will keep for a week or more.   It is the powerhouse herb.  As a side not, it is always best to use fresh citrus in recipes.  The little containers of lemon and lime juice that are sold in stores she be avoided at all costs.  
  Kitchen foliage.

5.  Use a Good Knife

By good knife, I mean a sharp knife.  In a way this can seem counter intuitive, a sharp knife is more likely to cut you, right?  Actually, no, because the sharper the knife, the less force it will take to slice what you are trying to and not your finger.  When using a dull knife, you have to apply more pressure and the more likely something will slip from your grip and an injury will occur.  A good knife does not have to break the bank.  If you are searching for one knife to do most of your kitchen work, a chef knife will do the trick since it takes on about 90% of your kitchen tasks.  Women typically need a 6-8 inch blade and men a 8-10 inch blade.  This Shun 8 inch is a great higher end knife or this Victorinox 8 inch is a nice mid level option.  When using a good knife, there is a certain level of bad-assery one feels and it can really up your cooking game.  
My Messermeister.  Big thanks to my husband for this one!

6.  No Cooking Spray on Pans 

This is a simple one, just no cooking sprays of any kind on pans, pots or baking trays.  The reason is that the spray will totally ruin them because the properties in the spray do not burn off and will leave a sticky, filmy paste.  An even more important reason is that they are very unhealthy and contain many chemicals that react with the pan surface when over high heat and enter your food.  If you are roasting something on a baking sheet, just line it with foil and then spray with cooking spray.  If making food on the stove, opt for a natural oil like olive, coconut or butter. 
And this is what happens to a perfectly good baking sheet when cooking spray is used.  Yuck.

7.  Use Your Senses!

I mean all five of your wonderful senses.  Pretty self explanatory but lets do a quick rundown:

Sight- We see when something looks amazing or doesn't look quite right.  We can definitely see when something is burning or when an item of food may not be the freshest.  Sight is our go to sense in the kitchen and almost never fails us.  

Smell- I literally smell everything.  I smell all my raw food, vegetables and meat to make sure nothing questionable is happening and during the entire cooking process.  It is funny, you can smell when something is about to burn or is burning and keeping your nose open is a great way to find success in the kitchen.

Hearing- Similar to smell, you can hear when something might be burning or when you are getting a good sear on a piece of meat.  Like when bacon is finished cooking, it stops popping and yelling at you and turns into a whisper.  Same with searing a piece a meat, the volume turns down.  Letting your ears help you in the kitchen will help make your food taste amazing.

Touch- When you touch something, you become attached to it.  That is why people selling items always want you to touch their products.  It's like that with food.  When you handle your food and get a feel for it, you learn what the best ways are to cook it.  Your hands are the best kitchen tools you have.  Touching your steak is a great way to see how its cooked.  The firmer it is, the more it is cooked through.  Don't be afraid to get those hands dirty!

Taste- Our most valuable tool in the kitchen!  I taste my food every step of the way, especially before I serve it.  You want to make sure it tastes good and if it doesn't, you want to fix that problem, (usually by adding some more seasoning).  Food is meant to be eaten and it should taste good!  

So that is my top 7 easy rules for the kitchen.  What are yours?  I would love to hear what you can't live without in the kitchen or what you do every time you cook!