Every January, people make resolutions that, as a practical matter, have a lot in common with a snowball in Hell. I'd like to suggest some gentle resolutions that will make anyone with a little motivation a better cook. There are five really easy things you can do to be more proficient in the kitchen.
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- Try a new food at least once a week. Ideally, you'll try it in your own kitchen, but even tasting new foods in a restaurant will help. The more foods you've tasted the larger your palate's experience. This translates to having a larger taste palate, which informs the part of your brain that creates recipes, or knows when to add a little salt and pepper. My first new food this year was black garlic. It got lots of press a couple of years ago, and although it's now a restaurant staple, I'd never used it myself. I got some at Whole Foods and made a tasty flatbread pizza for my dinner on New Year's Day. Even those of us who cook reasonably well can get better.
- Experiment. Basically, I urge you to play around with your food. Sour and bitter are trending tastes, and the produce aisle is full of things that taste sour or bitter. Pick something new to you and add it to your salad or stew. Bitters in cocktails are trending all over the place, and I've started to add a drop or two of bitters to sauces and vinaigrettes.
- Use the Internet. It's one of my most-used kitchen tools. If you like the horseradish trend, buy some horseradish root. If you realize when you get home that you have no idea what to do with the big chunk of root a quick on line search will have you on your way to peeling and grating in a few minutes.
- Cook to please yourself. Don't follow a trend just because someone says it's good. Last year, everyone was predicting a flood of Scandinavian food. I was skeptical. How much pickled fish and juniper berry-scented food does anyone really want? A few years ago, I made mole for a food event. I was just planning to put a little on a tortilla chip so people could taste what I was talking about. On a whim, and because they were in my refrigerator, I put a fresh blueberry in the center of the dab of mole. I thought it would be a nice garnish. I got so many comments about how inspired I was to pair the mole with a blueberry. Who knew?
- Use the dishes in the back of your cabinet. Restaurants always seem to have just the right plate or bowl for every dish. In reality, most restaurants don't have that many kinds of dishes, but they create a sort of ambiance by not using the same plates for every entrée. There's no point in having dishes you never use, so use the nice stuff even if you're not entertaining. I know it's a placebo kind of thing, but I think that Chinese food tastes better when I use chopsticks and my pasta is better in a big bowl than on a flat plate.
On some level all of my advice is one grand suggestion to follow your inner chef so that you can take pleasure in the process of cooking. In the quantum physics of food, it's as if the food responds favorably to a cook who cares. If you've enjoyed creating a dish there's a good chance that it will respond favorably by tasting great.