From Hot Pockets to Soufflé
Throughout my culinary adventure, I've often found myself telling friends and family that you do not have to be classically trained to be a great cook. With a lot of practice, patience and enthusiasm, self-taught cooks can achieve any dish that most restaurants create. I have come a long way from microwaving hot pockets for every meal, to catering large events and instructing cooking classes - and I taught myself!
As a self-taught cook, I have relied on three tips/techniques that take my food from blah to voila! Those techniques are sauces, seasoning and sourcing seasonally.
Take some time to teach yourself how to make the five mother sauces: Béchamel, Véloute, Espagnole, Tomato and Hollandaise. Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking is a great guide to teach you how to make these sauces. Once you know how each of the sauces comes to be, you will discover the magic and ease of making a unique sauce on your own.
A roux (equal parts butter/fat and flour) is a common way to thicken a sauce. Stocks will add more depth to a sauce than water. Acid is your ally when it comes to balance. If you think to yourself, "this sauce just needs a little something," try adding a squeeze of lemon or a splash of vinegar - it really pumps up the flavor.
Sauces were the most intimidating aspect of cooking to me as a self-taught cook. But I realized I just had to start trying. My first sauce went a little something like this:
Sear your favorite steak in a pan and finish it in the oven. As the steak is resting, put the pan with all of the steak drippings back on the stove. Over medium-low heat, add red wine, a couple of sprigs of rosemary and a smashed garlic clove to the pan. Scrape up all of the browned bits on the bottom of the pan with a wooden spoon and let the sauce reduce by half. After the sauce has reduced, add a tablespoon of butter (this is called mounting the sauce and it makes it rich and shiny), and some salt and pepper to taste. Take out the rosemary sprigs and garlic and spoon the sauce over the sliced steak. This sauce is the perfect "cherry on top" to a simple steak dinner.
Experiment with what you have in your kitchen already. These are my favorite ingredients for sauces:
Stocks (chicken, fish, vegetable, or beef)
This tip is simple - do not forget to season every layer of what you are cooking. One of the biggest differences between what you eat at a restaurant and what you cook at home is the amount of seasoning. That doesn't mean you have to use a ton of salt, but just remember to salt or season each layer; and don't forget to taste and adjust the seasonings just before serving.
Another great alternative to salt is lemon juice or acid. If you are trying to avoid salt, finish a dish with a squeeze of lemon or a splash of vinegar and you will achieve a similar "aha!" moment.
Do not be afraid to use bold seasonings. The best thing you can do is practice mixing different spices together to see what works. I love creating dry rubs with a variety of spices from my pantry. My favorite seasonings of the moment include fresh herbs mixed with dry spices - especially fresh rosemary or thyme.
Your food will taste better if you buy (or grow!) what is local and in season. If you are planning on having a New Year's Eve party, don't make a caprese salad. Tomatoes are not in season in or around DC in January and will not have any flavor. Before you go to the grocery store, take a few minutes to research what is in season in your area and concentrate on those fruits and vegetables - you will notice a big difference in flavor. Even easier is to shop at Farmer's Markets or grow your own!
Cooking does not have to be hard nor intimidating. You can start at any age, and keep it as simple or as complex as you want. So tie on your apron, fire up the stove and get cooking! Start with something simple - I started with one roasted chicken and mashed potatoes - and work your way up from there. No dish is out of reach if you are patient and you don't give up.
"The people who love to eat are always the best people."
- Julia Child
*This article was featured in Culinaria Cooking School's September newsletter.