More vegetables, less sugar, less factory meat, fewer Cool Ranch Doritos... of course. But here are some (less) guilt-based goals that will elevate your food in a way that will make you excited to keep your resolutions.
1. Use More Salt. I know, we are all supposed to be cutting down on sodium intake. But if you want to do that, stay away from The Olive Garden. The salt you use in home cooking cannot compare to processed food. And using salt appropriately is THE MOST IMPORTANT THING TO DO TO IMPROVE YOUR COOKING. First, KOSHER SALT ONLY!* I know I've said this a million times, but it bears repeating. Iodized salt is gross, and should only be used under duress, say, after the beach on Ice House fried clams. But back at home, you should be salting EVERYTHING. Your vegetable-blanching/ pasta water should taste like the ocean. Simple cut-up veggies or salad get a real, noticeable flavor-boost with a sprinkle of salt right before serving. Even dessert (hellooooo salted caramel?) tastes better with a hit of salt. If you have the forethought, salt ("dry brine") your meats a day or two ahead and wrap very loosely in plastic for succulent meat and crispy or caramelized exterior. Salt each component of a dish along the way, and taste for salt right before serving, especially if something's been in the fridge.
2. Use Less Black Pepper. Emily Post was wrong: Salt and Pepper aren't married. While salt enhances all flavor, pepper is a spice that should be used judiciously and on purpose. And while I can't imagine pasta carbonara or a thick ribeye without freshly cracked pepper, reaching for different spices on, say, roasted carrots or potatoes is the easiest way to introduce new flavors into your cooking. Use different kinds of pepper-- pink, or szechuan, or piment d'esplette, and taste a whole new dish. Or skip the pepper all together, and go for cumin or coriander or fennel seeds.
3. Funkify your food. 2015 is the year that you are going MAN UP and get over your fear of anchovies. And fish sauce. And Seaweed. And dried mushrooms. And miso paste. Yes, on their own, they are strong (even weird)-smelling foods. But they add complex layers of flavor (and in many cases, health benefits) that you just can't get from ketchup and Velveeta.
4. Eat vegetables that you think you hate. What if you just tried a slice of raw potato one time when you were 9, and then, for the rest of your life blanketly stated that you hated potatoes? You would be an idiot, right? So why is that any different for Brussels sprouts or cauliflower or kohlrabi? Perhaps the Brussels sprouts your grandmother boiled for two hours that made the house smell like arm pits wasn't the best version of this vegetable. You're going to hold it against the poor little guys for the rest of your life?
Try them roasted with bacon and kumquats, or shredded and sauteed with apples and balsamic, or raw in salads with manchego and almonds, or fried with a little gochujang aioli dipping sauce (on a train with a fox)... and THEN you can say you don't like them if none of those iterations appeal to you. But not until then.
5. Buy a decent scale so that you can weigh (not measure) your baking ingredients. This will change your baking (and lots of other aspects of your cooking) life. While you're at the kitchen store, get a decent meat thermometer, a couple gauges of microplane graters and a citrus juicer. We'll discuss those another time.
6. Bake your own bread. Now that you have your own scale, you will be able to get over your fear of baking in no time! I know, I know, white flour is the new meth. But homemade bread is just so damn satisfying... Pulling a warm, homemade loaf of bread out of the oven and slathering some fresh cultured butter and a sprinkle of salt... It's at least Blue Meth. Start small-- foccaccia, naan, buttermilk biscuits, even-- can all be weighed out and whipped up with very little effort. Then move on to brioche... soon (maybe), you will be like my husband and be feeding your wild yeast starter for your country boule more often than you ever fed a newborn, and staying up til 1am to plaque your dough for homemade croissants on Christmas morning. But let's build up to that. For now, just imagine how your house will smell with biscuits in the oven.
7. Learn to properly roast a damn chicken. Overcooked chicken is disgusting, and there's no reason for it, because roast chicken is SO EASY. Especially if you've pre-salted and are checking it periodically with your snazzy new meat thermometer.
So here's the recipe:
Rub salt (maybe some chopped herbs?) under the skin, preferably ahead. Jam a half a lemon in the carcass if it's handy (this adds flavor and evens out cooking time of the white meat/dark meat). Let it sit in your fridge overnight (or if you're short on time, dry the crap out of it with paper towels, so the skin crisps instead of steams).
Preheat oven to 450 degrees.
Put chicken breast-side down on a rack for 20 minutes.
Flip the bird (hahahahaha, my dad never tires of that joke), to breast side up for about another 40 minutes or until you hit 165 degrees.
Let rest for about 20-30 minutes.
Cut up into the breast/leg/thigh/wing, over something that will catch all the juice. If the skin isn't as crispy as you'd like, broil the individual pieces for a couple minutes at close range (under close supervision!!). Save all that juice and pour it all over your homemade bread for a Zuni Chicken-like dish that is pure euphoria.
Boom. Done. Once you have a couple of perfectly roasted chickens under your belt, Thanksgiving turkey will be a freaking BREEZE.
8. Decide what's for dinner before you get out of bed in the morning. Then commit 10 minutes (8:00-8:10? Set a timer, even!) to prep. Take the pork chops out of the freezer. Wash and chop the lettuce. Even just setting the can of chickpeas on the counter, or putting a pot of (salted) water on the stove to be ready to turn on, makes you approximately 99% less likely to cop out and order pizza again. I read this trick in Dinner, a Love Story, and IT TOTALLY WORKS.
9. Add fruit to your savory dishes. These days, that means sprinkling pomegranate seeds on top of your braised short ribs, or tossing sliced fuyu persimmon** into your salad, or thinly-sliced kumquats into your roasted carrot and farro pilaf. Mangoes, pineapples, julienned green apple, and grapefruit/ blood orange segments are also little welcomed bursts of juiciness and color to wake up your palate from its long winter's nap. A salad without a little bit of fruit (even a sprinkle of dried cranberries) just isn't reaching its full potential.
Above: A twofer! Salad with persimmons and pomegranate! And marcona almonds and bacon
10. Set up your "station" before beginning a recipe. I believe the term "Mise en place" is French for "Get your shit together." Before you begin, make sure your work area is free of clutter. Move the trash can/compost bin right next to you. Sharpen your knife. Get a couple towels, cutting board and any other necessary equipment or ingredients. Read the recipe all the way through! Then work the assembly line. Let's say you are making Apple Crisp. Here's the Chef Way to do it:
Put all your apples in a bowl on the left side of your cutting board.
Peel all your apples, put them in a different bowl on the right side of your cutting board.
Core all the apples. Put cored apples back into the left bowl.
Slice each cored apple, put into right bowl.
Proceed with the rest of the recipe.
Make apple peel bourbon with your scraps.
By taking 5 minutes and setting up an organized system, you will save SO MUCH TIME.
*If you have some of that fancy fleur de sel/ sea salt, use it to finish crunchy salt-worthy dishes: the already-grilled and sliced ribeye, that perfect warm August heirloom tomato, the hot fudge on your homemade Salty Pimp. Most of the time it's more economical to use Kosher.
**Make sure for raw preparations, you use FUYU persimmons (NOT HICHIYA). Fuyu persimmons are sweet and juicy and the texture of a ripe plum. Hichiya are super tannic and inedible raw. I'd hate for you to eat the wrong one and swear off persimmons for the rest of your life.