Why You Can Learn to Cook

You may have been cooking for a while, and are less than satisfied with your results. This is most likely because of at least one of these reasons:

  1. You do not follow recipes.
  2. You do not follow good recipes.
  3. You have ingredients that are less than ideal in quality.

I remember when I did not follow recipes--I didn’t understand that the one ingredient I left out, or thought would be a good idea to double, could completely dismantle the dish, or allow it to fail to be what would have been a near perfect.

Following good recipes is very important because, if you pay attention, they will teach you how to not just be a good cook, but how to be a great cook. They will teach you the most vital lessons: (1) cooking techniques and (2) ingredient/flavor combinations that work. And, with these skills, eventually you can make up your own successful recipes.

In order to learn cooking techniques and which ingredients work together, the key is this: pay attention as you cook. You may not even need to cook/practice more, but you do need to change how you cook. You must observe the food closely. Ask questions like these:

  1.  What are the characteristics of this ingredient? Is it sweet, sour, salty,… or does it taste like licorice, or is it peppery? What is the texture like in relation to the other ingredients in the dish?
  2.  If you have had this ingredient before, what foods was it paired with? What did you like or dislike about the dish? How was the ingredient cooked in that recipe? For example, was it raw, roasted, or steamed?

Asking these types of questions is a form of deliberate practice. Deliberate practice means you approach your task with intention and are eager to understand, get better, and evaluate your outcomes in order to improve. Deliberate practice simply means that you are learning in ways that actually help you get better, and not in ways that are automatic and may lead to misconceptions or only minimal improvement.

Beginning to learn a new skill is the phase of learning that I, and many others, find the most challenging. But, many of us spend time cooking anyway, so we might as well get better, because this means it is more fun and more exciting to be in the kitchen.

I recommend reading this article (coming soon!) to improve your skills:

The Keys to Good Cooking

How to Make Food Taste Good

When I set out to make this blog, I wanted to create recipes that were greater than the sum of their parts, whose combinations couldn’t be easily dissected, so it is a little ironic that I am writing about universal “ shortcuts". But we do not always have time to cook, and having the know-how to whip up something tasty is the difference between spending extra on going out (and probably having junk food) or choosing to have a healthy home cooked meal. To avoid this scenario in the first place, I try to have some meals prepared ahead. For example, I make a minestrone soup that is a enough to serve at least 10 people, but it lasts for days and never goes to waste. It would probably freeze well for a quick meal down the road, too. However, when there is no food prepared in the fridge, here are some of the strategies I use to spice up main ingredients. This is a very basic list to get you started and I will link to additional recipes in the future: 

Extra Virgin Olive Oil, Lemon, and Parsley (great on veggies, grains, meat)
Spice Mixes, My favorite is Dukkah
Honey Mustard Vinaigrette (for cooked or fresh veggies, whole grains, chicken)
Gluten Free Soy Sauce or Tamari (add some garlic and sesame oil if you have it)
Garlic and Olive Oil (for sauteed vegetables)
Whole Milk Yogurt (try stirring in crushed raw garlic, and even cumin and dill)
Vinegar & Oil (try Bragg's apple cider vinegar and extra virgin olive oil, or this simple recipe [coming soon]) Many vinegars, like Umi Plum Vinegar, spice up food with their unique flavors.
Sumac (a delicious spice that is vaguely "lemony", good on vegetable dishes, salads, etc.)
Eggs (An over easy egg on cooked green beans, for example, provides a nice sauce and flavor)

You might be wondering who buys unsweetened, whole milk yogurt, but it is absolutely delicious. And, if you don't like it, you can actually acquire a taste for it over time. While we do start to develop a taste for foods early in life, they can be altered as we explore and build new habits. I am reminded of a smokey Chinese black tea that I bought. It was awful and only vaguely reminiscent of what I thought a tea should taste like. If I wanted those flavors, I would have chewed on a tree that was charred by lightening and rotting. But I couldn't deny that the tea had fascinating flavors so I gave it a few more tries. My husband took some coaxing, too, but now it is both our favorites. Sometimes we miss out on foods, simply because we do not give them a chance. If you are dairy-free, you can find coconut yogurt at Whole Foods (CoYo and So Delicious brands are unsweetened), or you can make your own. You can even keep whipped coconut cream in the fridge to use on sweet or savory dishes. Coconut cream is another food that I did not like, but over time I have come to appreciate its flavors and versatility. 

It is also worth noting that a lot of olive oil is partially rancid or just pour quality. My current favorite is a Trader Joe's unfiltered, organic olive oil from Greece. Be sure to pour the olive oil into wide mouthed jars and store it in the fridge to keep it from going bad or from developing off flavors. It needs to be in a wide jar because it may solidify, and with a wide jar you can spoon it out. When you want to use it, you can leave it at room temperature for a few minutes and it will start to turn to liquid again so there is no need to heat it up.


How to Make Cheap Vegetables Taste Good

Who wants to eat them? I know, they sounds awful, dreadful, and even worse--boring. Examples of inexpensive vegetables are carrots, onions, cabbage, and many others like potatoes, sweet potatoes, and squash. In order to make my experience with these foods palatable, I often choose a vegetable that I consider my nemesis and find a way to make it delicious. This is a great exercise because it shows you that a flavor you dislike can actually be desirable. You just have to give it some style. 

Before you stop reading, it's worth interjecting here to mention that often our dislikes can be attributed to the recipe in which we encountered them because the flavor was too strong, too bland, or implemented a less desirable cooking method for the given ingredient.  Also, often our perceptions are tainted by childhood memories. The only time my mother spanked me was when I wouldn't eat my broccoli, so is that why I have disliked it for so long? It's possible. Or maybe it is because it is usually steamed to the point that the flower buds fall apart and it lacks any sauce to balance its bitterness. So let's figure out the first steps to making these veggie monsters taste good. 

There are dependable cooking techniques for various foods that are important to know. Most root vegetables, for example, respond well to roasting, which requires little prep to bring out their best flavors. The high temperatures bring their natural sweetness to the forefront, while minimizing bitterness, and the caramelization also adds an appealing complexity.

Pickling can also be a great strategy and is often overlooked because it sounds difficult or people are unsure how to use the final product. I often do my own version of super fast pickling, most commonly for onions, carrots, beets, and garlic. You also can pickle whole or minced garlic. Generally, I prefer my pickling vegetables sliced thin (about 1/8 inch using a mandolin) but you can choose the size. Then, I place the chopped vegetable in a glass jar and fill the jar with 1/2 Braggs apple cider vinegar and 1/2 water (this is a strong but delicious and healthy mix). If you like, you can add more than one vegetable, or your choice of herbs and spices, or even choose an unusual vinegar like Umi plum vinegar. These vegetables are great additions as sides to meals, or garnishes for soups or salads, or in sandwiches. Here is a delicious recipe for tacos with pickled vegetables (coming soon). Be sure to keep your pickled vegetables in the fridge and they will last for several weeks.

Below are a few recommended methods to use with common vegetables. Of course, these vegetables can all be cooked a plethora of other ways and still be delicious, but as a rule, these methods are dependable.

Onions: roasted, sauteed/caramelized, pickled

Other Root Vegetables (beets, turnips, parsnips, carrots, onions, etc.): roasted, pickled

Tubers (sweet potatoes, yams, etc.): roasted, stewed, soups

Cabbage: soups, stews

  • Recipe example: Andoulli Sausage with Cabbage and Caramelized Onions (coming soon)

Squash: roasted, soups

  • Recipe example: Butternut Squash Soup (coming soon)



How to Cook More Creatively

Most of us think of creativity as being expansive, hard to grasp and somewhere just outside our everyday world. Our efforts to produce it--to define it and replicate those conditions--would thwart its very nature, causing original ideas to escape us. Perhaps this is partially true: most good things cannot be forced, but they can be encouraged and more likely brought to fruition by dismantling misconceptions.  It also hard to tame, and definitely not something that happens in a box. New research is suggesting that our notions are not only outdated, but wildly wrong. Studies suggest that people need to limit their creativity , people are always saying that you need to limit your options in order to be more creative (Geography of Genius, study). In a study by........ It can be ecouraged.  We like creativity (adn things taht we revere) to remain obscure, fearful that our own acknowledgement of their approachability will cause the pedistle in which we have built for them to crumble. So let's do ourselves a service, see things as they are and still respect genius. 

Does this mean that creativity is mellow, straight forward, and easy to achieve? Not really, there are many unknowns and there is an aspect that still adheres to todays conception of it: many people thrive in chaotic environments (Geography of Genius), allowing random and unusual stimuli to collide in our brains and trigger new ideas.

How do these facts relate to cooking? 

Recently, I experienced limitations firsthand. My husband and I just relocated back to Boston and while we were waiting for our apartment we were living in temporary housing. Long story short, since it did not make sense to stock up on food I bought only a few items: coconut cream, eggs, bread, kale, canned chickpeas, kidney beans, carrots, tomatoes, parsley, lemon, pickles, onions, and salt. I also had some left over items that I had brought with me: pepperoni, peanuts, sun dried tomatoes, rice, marinated artichokes, herb infused olive oil.  Of course to some people this amount of food would sound enormous, while to others (myself included) would have a lot more in their fridge and panty at any given time. 

Below are few recipes that I "winged". There are links to the ones that are foolproof and absolutely delicious. 
- Pepperoni Strata with Sun Dried Tomatoes and Artichokes
- Chickpea Salad with Lemon Parsley Sauce
- Kidney Bean and Kale Salad
- Kale with Sun Dried Tomatoes and Roasted Peanuts
- Creamy Lemon Coconut Beverage

My experience showed a few things. First it showed the obvious: that you can make a lot of variety from very "little". It also, by chance, happened to demonstrated the basics to ethnic cooking. The first four dishes all contain lemon, parsley and olive oil -- commonly used flavor enhancers for Italian and other Mediterranean cuisines. So, you can legitimately use the same flavors with different main ingredients and it tastes like an entirely different dish because, well, it is! In fact, you can add lemon, parsley and olive oil to plainly cooked fish, chicken, eggs, vegetable and even fruit dishes and they will taste unique and delicious.  If you are an advanced cooker this will not come as a surprise.

Every cuisine has its commonly used flavors that help make the food unique and, yes, more well-defined. Sound familiar? These flavors narrow the creative space, which of course at some point in history was restricted by forces outside of most people's control: geography, trade, technology, etc. Let's look at just a couple more examples. In Chinese cooking, some of the flavors that you see again and again are: garlic, sesame oil, rice wine vinegar, scallions, five spice, and star anise. In Thailand you see coconut milk, fish sauce, chilis, kefir lime leaves, lemon grass, galangal. These common flavors will show up in combinations again and again with differing main ingredients. Now, it is worth noting a couple of things here. Different cuisines share similarities even between China, Thai and American food. All use lemon and chilis (in certain regions). They also all use acids (vinegars) and oils, although American food traditionally used butter primarily instead of plant-based fats. So, ingredients define a cuisine by how they are used together and by narrowing the creative space in which they operate. Of course these creative spaces are much broader than what your fridge can hold, which is why it is useful to use just a few flavors. 

My cooking adventure also demonstrated that food can be simple and does not require many ingredients in order to be satisfying. I often add several herbs and spices to one dish, because it is fun and also very good, but it is never a necessity for good cooking. In addition, those of us who tend to use dairy and meat or boulloin as major flavoring agents, need not do so! Stepping outside of this comfort zone, or crutch, will make you a better and more versatile cook. Who knew that Strata could be reminiscent of pizza?

When Chef Alex Raij was interviewed on Splendid Table to discuss the traditional and very structured Basque cuisine of France, Lynne Rossetto Kasper asked her, "It’s so different from American food, where the sky is the limit. Basque food seems very codified to me. It’s loyal to the season, but also to all these traditions. How does your creativity operate in that structure? Do you find that you like to work inside those limits or do you just not follow them at all?" Raij replied with this: "Even though it’s narrow, I don’t find it limiting at all. In fact, I find it more freeing."

I know that I barely scratched the surface in regard to the number of dishes that could be made from the ingredients listed above, so to stretch our imaginations, let's do another test. Next time your fridge is looking sparse, do not go to the store. Try the Splendid Table method and make things that are simple, unusual, or even sound gross. Kick it up a notch and make as much as you can from a list of 15 ingredients.  Yes, I will do it too and post the results. 


In the very least, I think trying this approach can change your approach to cooking. 

Science says you should limit your options (pic)