Is Cooking Really So Hard?

The short answer, is no. But like all things in life, it is a little more complicated than that. Being a cook can be quite difficult. It requires fast thinking, multitasking, knowledge and good communication. There is no doubt that being a cook can be one of the most stressful but rewarding jobs there is. On the other hand though, cooking at home does not involve dealing with customers, there’s no “time to window” (the standard for how long any meal should take from the time the order comes through to the time it’s put up in the window) and the only person you have to worry about pleasing is your self! Cooking at home by your self has been made to seem intimidating. Between complex, elegant meals we see done by professional chefs on TV, and the classic sitcom moment of someone screwing up every aspect of dinner, it may seem to some people that to cook  good meal, you need years of experience. In reality it’s easy, fun and rewarding (you get food at the end!). Let me give you a few tips.

One of my favorite TV chefs, Emeril Lagasse used to have a lot of catch phrases. One of the most useful ones to remember was always “use your knob!”. There’s a reason stoves have more than one level of heat. Turning it on high and throwing things into a pan is not always the way to go! Likewise, being afraid of the heat and setting it as low as you can in hope you don’t burn your food can turn out just as bad. There are times to go hot, times to go low, and times for medium heat. Before you start, think for a second about what you are aiming for in the end. You want your meat to be cooked all the way through, but in most cases still have a nice golden brown seared outside. Medium-high heat is usually best for this. If you’re making a stir fry, high heat is best as you want to retain the crisp texture of the vegetables and heat them through quickly. A good time for low heat would be simmering a soup or sauce, allowing the flavors to mix into each other over a log period of time. Of course each situation will be different, but those examples are good places to start from in order to figure out what heat you need for your meal.

Don’t boil vegetables! I grew up thinking that veggies such as broccoli and asparagus were supposed to be bland, soggy and pale. Don’t get me wrong, my parents can each cook some things really well..vegetables are not one of them. When I started learning to cook, I found out about two great alternatives! Steaming vegetables is a great way to quickly lock in color, flavor and nutrients. There are a variety of different steamers available from anywhere selling kitchen supplies. Be it steel, bamboo or atop a rice cooker, the gentle heat in a steamer is a great and easy way to cook virtually any vegetable (and some other things too, but more on that another time). The second method is called blanching, and is great for green veggies. I guess technically, this does involve boiling, but it’s done in a specific, controlled way. Start by boiling a pot of salted water. Don’t shy away from the salt, a few tablespoons is good because it serves two purposes. It not only seasons your food, but it also helps to keep the chlorophyll locked in which leaves the vegetables a nice bright green. A pot with ample space is preferable because the idea it to add as much heat as you can quickly, then cool them as fast as possible. Depending on the size and texture of your veggie of choice, they should only be in the water for about a minute. As soon as the begin to feel tender, remove them and drop them into a bowl of ice water (make sure to salt this water too, otherwise the seasoning will leach into the water and out of your veggies). Again, the bigger the bowl the better because you want to shock these babies cold. Your vegetables are now ready to be finished by your cooking method of choice (it’s also good to blanch vegetables before freezing them). Simply throwing your food into a pot of boiling water allows all the flavors and nutrients to leech out into the water, and over cooks vegetables very quickly. Do your mouth a favor and choose one of the other options.

Pick up a cook book! People seem surprised to hear that professional cooks still use cook books. We do. Even if the exact recipe isn’t used, they’re great for ideas. “I can use this recipe as a base, but take this out, add in these and change that garnish” or “hey, these flavors go well together in this dish, maybe I can use them the same in this other dish”. But there’s one specifically I would recommend to anyone wanting to learn how to cook. The Joy of Cooking is a rather well known cook book which has been around and revised for years! It was designed with the purposed of getting people into cooking at home. In fact, it’s one of the first cook book Julia Child read and got her started on her cooking career. Each section has an informative introduction which includes some basic concepts to keep in mind for those recipes. It gets the reader familiar with cooking terms, food safety and basic recipes from which you can make more (such as the 5 mother sauces or simple broths and soups). I don’t want to discourage you from getting other cook books, the more the better, and some of them follow a similar idea in trying to teach the reader. There are some textbook style ones out there too such as The Encyclopedia of Cooking which I love. However, I can attest that The Joy of Cooking nails it and, in my opinion, is an essential book for cooks both amateur and professional.

Finally, have fun. That’s why I cook. I love it. On my own, or with friends and family, cooking is enjoyable, relaxing and what better reward is there than getting to eat your final product. Not everything you make will be good, I frequently makes things which turn out simply bad. But I learn from those experiences and it makes my next dish that much better. And don’t worry about making it look pretty! Food is food, make sure it tastes good and that’s all that matters. Let us at restaurants worry about turning it into an over complicated work of art. At home, throw it all on a plate and scarf it down! Learning to cook can also make you healthier, and save you a lot of money. Everyone should be able to cook at home, and if you don’t know how to, I think it’s time you learned. So go ahead, try it. Make your self dinner tomorrow. Whatever you like! Maybe some days we’ll cook together and I know we’ll have a blast.

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