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THOMPSON: Some tips to make cooking easier, and fun

March 01, 2021 - 11:59 AM

 


OPINION


Anyone who can read a recipe can cook...and I mean deliver the kinds of dinners that beg compliments.

You don’t have to go to culinary school or spend months as a kitchen apprentice to your mother-in-law to impress your friends and family.

So, how do you pull it off? Follow these tips and you’ll find cooking fun and easier...and you’ll get rave reviews.

Seems obvious, but start by simply reading your recipe. Yes, one of the biggest mistakes of novice cooks is reading as you cook. Don’t start cooking until you know where you’ll end up...freewheeling might make a fun and adventurous road trip...but it can make a lousy meal. Warning...even famous cookbooks recipes aren’t always well-written...and you don’t want surprises...especially at step six.

There’s a French culinary term - don’t worry this isn’t going to get fancy - called mise en place.

It means “everything in its place” and if cooking is a house, mise en place is the foundation.

Go to a kitchen store or log onto Amazon and buy a dozen spice or pinch bowls...small little finger bowls that hold an ounce or two.

Fill these little bowls with the pre-measured ingredients of your recipe - salt, pepper, Thyme, Oregano...whatever - and place them on the counter in the order you add them. You’ll never forget an ingredient or ever say, “Wow, this sure doesn’t taste like mom’s?” Mise en place is the single most important tip on the way to becoming a good cook.

Next, keep a few spoons handy on your counter to taste dishes you’re preparing as you go along. Good cooks almost always adjust seasonings...the spoons will remind you, “taste before you serve.”

Organize your kitchen - everything from food pantry to refrigerator/freezer to utensils - using an asset management and valuation principle called FIFO; first-in, first-out. Put the staples or special purpose kitchen tools in the back, the things you use every meal should be up front and easy to get to. You’ll be the model of efficiency...waste fewer leftovers...and always find what you need. Yes, you’ll have to threaten family members not to rearrange your master plan!

In a related tip, don’t let your sense of perfection or a desire for a pretty kitchen get in the way of efficiency. All pots and pans need not be stored together...put that lobster pot in a pantry or in the back of a cabinet. Once every two years go through your utensils drawer(s)...if you haven’t used it in two years, ditch it or move it elsewhere...it’s clutter.

Almost everyone breaks the next rule...don’t crowd pans with what you’re cooking. Whether you’re browning meat on top of the stove or roasting veggies in the oven...less is better.

Even if it means two batches or two pans, you’ll never have meat that’s too tough or veggies that are too soggy. Smaller batches of meat give off less fat and produce actual seared or browned surfaces...overcrowding in a roasting pan gives you steamed not roasted veggies.

Don’t be afraid of salt...it enhances the flavours of just about everything. It is coarse salt on a whole chicken that delivers a crisp skin and moist meat. Same with beef...a generous salting with coarse grains before grilling means better tasting steaks. Keep coarse and fine salts, as well as flaky salt around to finish dishes. Also, good cooks use unsalted butter to cook with...they add the salt they need...and don’t end up over salting.

A chef friend in Italy told me to always put garlic in cold oil, then apply heat to the pan. This gives you more even heat...the garlic and oil heat together...and you don’t end up with garlic too browned, which can leave a bitter aftertaste.

Keep not just one but a few dish towels handy...on counters near cutting boards...near ovens and cooktops. You need to be able to wipe counter and cooktop spills and clean knives...and cotton dish towels are so much better than paper towels.

These tips won’t get you on “Canada’s Top Chef”...but you’ll like being in the kitchen more and you’ll like getting compliments from your family. Now, go online and buy 10 of those little pinch bowls. And if a family member asks what you’re doing when you line them up on your kitchen counter, simply say confidently, “It’s mise en place!” Trust me, they’ll leave the kitchen.

— Don Thompson, an American awaiting Canadian citizenship, lives in Vernon and in Florida. In a career that spans more than 40 years, Don has been a working journalist, a speechwriter and the CEO of an advertising and public relations firm. A passionate and compassionate man, he loves the written word as much as fine dinners with great wines.


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