Becoming a good cook takes time, practice and patience. But here are some easy things you can start doing in the kitchen that will make your food taste better tonight!
1. Use KOSHER SALT (Go and immediately throw away all the iodized salt in your house). Whether you are making salad, pasta or even chocolate sauce, it is IMPERATIVE that you season each component along the way. And when it comes to meat or chicken, salt everything AHEAD of time. A brine is great, but if you don’t have the time to do that, even salting things 30-60 minutes before you cook them will do wonders for juiciness, crispiness and overall flavor of any protein. Wait until the last minute to salt raw vegetables, though, or that celery or cucumber may turn a little flabby.
2. Buy whole spices and a cheap coffee grinder. Toast, and then grind your spices “to order”. They will last a lot longer and be a lot more fragrant. And while you’re at it, branch out with the spices! Get some exotic ones. And the next time you are roasting simple carrots, sprinkle on a little cardamom or Szechuan pepper instead of plain old black pepper. You will be amazed! (PS, Don't use that grinder to then grind coffee-- unless you like Szechuan pepper lattes).
3. Make sure all your proteins are as dry as possible before putting them in that pan or on the grill. If you have time, lay salted meat/chicken /fish uncovered in the fridge (chicken or meat, up to a day, fish just an hour) on paper towels. In a rush, pat them down with wads of paper towels. I have even been known to take a hair dryer (on cool, of course) to dry out our Thanksgiving turkey. Fish is much less likely to stick in your pan. Chicken and turkey skin will be delicately crisp, not rubbery. Grilled steaks will have that beautifully caramelized char with a juicy interior.
4. Find a good local butcher/fish monger/farmer. Pick their brains about what fish to buy that day or how to cook those pork hocks. And then be loyal. Buy their scallops or tomatoes, even if they are $1 cheaper at the grocery store. Follow them on twitter to find out when the first soft shell crabs or padron peppers of the season are in. And tell all your friends how great they are, so they will stay in business.
5. Grow your own herbs. For the price of a bunch of organic herbs from Whole Foods, you can buy whole plants that give you fresh herbs for at least half the year (and then right before it gets cold, harvest the remaining herbs and either dry or freeze them). You don’t need a lot of gardening know-how or even space—just put the plants in pots with good soil, keep them watered and in the sun. And just like everything else, homegrown herbs taste a LOT better than store-bought. Plus, you can buy more interesting varieties than you can get limply- bunched at the grocery store. Last time I checked, Market Basket didn’t have opal basil, Thai basil OR lemon basil. And you will look like a total badass to your guests when you scamper out to the garden to snip some lemon verbena to garnish the best gin and tonic ever!
6. Garnish everything, always. I don’t care if you are eating your meal over the sink or serving the Queen—always “finish” your dish. Even a simple sprinkle of (preferably fresh, homegrown) herbs, fleur de sel, or a squeeze of citrus will make your dinner infinitely better. And when in garnishing mode, remember: Opposites Attract. If your dish is a rich, creamy, hot bowl of (humble) cauliflower soup, pick a garnish that contrasts some aspect: a bright and acidic hit of parsley pesto, a side of crunchy potato chips, or an extravagant chilled lobster claw. One or two “accent” flavors/textures will be delicious, but don’t get carried away: more than that, you could lose the taste of the main component altogether.
7 If you are not a baker, be a faker. I personally hate to bake. But sometimes I am forced. And even then, I try to use mixes as much as possible. For chocolate cake, I swap orange juice for the called-for water; I add espresso powder and cinnamon to brownie mix; I mix in goat cheese, chives or green chile to that 99 cent box of cornbread mix. People will rave, you will just nod and pretend you just finished an apprenticeship with Joanne Chang. But if you can’t figure out a way to fake it, make sure you weigh it: Try and find baking recipes that uses weights, not measurements. Your cakes and cookies will be more consistent.
8. Use your freezer more wisely. Instead of cramming it FULL of Trader Joe’s pizzas, use part of it to store components that allow you to make delicious homemade food fast. Make a giant batch of chicken stock and freeze it in ice-cube trays, which will then make your risotto (or gumbo or gravy) WAY more delicious than if you used Swanson’s. When you go to the farmer’s market in the summer, get extra peppers (some sweet some hot) at the peak of ripeness. Grill and peel them, and freeze in small Ziploc bags. Throw them in pasta or eggs or on top of toast. Those two weeks when sour cherries are at their peak (or blueberries or blackberries)? Use that time to make a few pies, and pull them out in February when you are dying for something besides Brussels sprouts. Make big batches of pizza dough, and freeze them in individual balls.
9. Steal Ideas! When you are out to eat, pay attention! Take menus with you! Crib ingredient combinations or garnishes or cooking techniques! Then take a recipe that you have been making for years, and swap in that new idea.
10. Relax! It’s only food. If something doesn’t turn out the way you envisioned, change the dish! If your vanilla pudding didn’t set, re-name it, “sauce”, and pour it over strawberries. Overcook your chicken? Shred it, toss it with some vinaigrette add fresh herbs and vegetables to make it into a delightful chicken salad. And have another glass of wine. It will be fine!