Top 10 Simple Things that Will Make a Huge Difference in Your Cooking

Here’s my Top 10 really easy things you can do in your life and your cooking that will make a huge difference in your food. Trust me.

• 1. Cook Seasonally — Curb your desire for tomatoes from Peru in January. Find creative ways to cook kale instead. It will transform your cooking, you’ll feel inspired to be in rhythm with the seasons. And it’s REALLY good for the earth. Think of all the gas it took to get that waxy apple from New Zealand to your table in August.

• 2. Use the Best Ingredients Possible — Don’t skimp on what goes into your food. Make sure your fish or meat is fresh, spend a little extra for good quality butter and salt, shop at farmer’s markets for your produce… If you’ve got a little piece of land (you don’t need much), try growing some of your favorite veggies and fruits.

* 3. Exercise Portion Size Control — Don’t serve too much food to your guests, or yourself. You should leave them satisfied, wanting more. Don’t have friends for a barbecue and make a pound of salmon for each person. A quarter pound will do.

• 4. Don’t Be Afraid to Season Your Food — Salt is your friend. You could oversalt your homemade dinner, and you’d still be eating less salt than if you had a Lean Cuisine or Stouffers dinner, much less your favorite menu items from Claim Jumper or Chili’s. (Do you actually eat at those places???) Lightly salt your food while it’s cooking, and choose a nice flaky sea salt to sprinkle over the dish before serving.

• 5. Do As Much Prep As You Can Before You Begin — Chop your onions, make your sauces, pre-cook anything you can prior to beginning to cook and assemble your dish. It’s what restaurants do. It saves time at the end and makes cooking more fun. Check out the “Mise En Place” post in the Archives for more.

• 6. Read — When I was in graduate school studying writing, I never learned as much about how to write from professors and courses as I did from reading great writers. Same goes for cooking. Let yourself be inspired by cookbooks, even if you don’t make what’s in them. There’s nothing better than a Saturday afternoon spent with a good cookbook. Subscribe to a cooking magazine or two (Saveur and Cooks Illustrated would be my picks). Read my blog often!

• 7. Shop Often — In Paris as a kid, I marveled at how people stopped at three or four different stores between the Metro stop and their homes — the charcuterie, the boulangerie, the fromagerie — to purchase stuff for dinner. Back home, I was used to going to Vons once every two weeks. I’ve adopted the French model. I shop at least three or four times a week, at farmer’s markets, fish markets, Mexican carnicerias, Japanese markets… Costco is not conducive to spontaneous, inspired cooking.

• 8. Let Your Inner Artist Out — Think of the plate as your canvas. Food should be as beautiful as it is delicious. Consider ways to add color to a dish — a shaving of carrots, some blanched greens, some wispy chives, a sprinkling of edible flowers. If the plate looks dull when you’ve plated the food, try a drizzle of green olive oil or a zig zag of black kecap manis. (*see Archives for more about kecap manis.)

• 9. Support Your Local Farmers — Even if you live in a city, there are farmers just beyond its outskirts. Meet them at farmer’s markets, get to know the guy who is producing your food. If people are making cheese or bread or wine near you, buy stuff from them. Or, learn to produce your own goods. So far, I garden, cure my own meats, brine my own olives and get eggs from my own chickens. My family makes wine. Cheese is my next frontier.

• 10. The Most Important Tip — Have Fun — I once asked the great French chef, Jacques Pepin, what his most important tip to the home cook was. He said, “Open a bottle of wine. And have fun.” The simplest wisdom is sometimes the best.

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