Most people who know me well are aware of the fact that I prefer baking to cooking. It's not to say that I don't like cooking, because I truly enjoy my time in the kitchen, whether it be making savory or sweet creations, but the true reason behind my not liking cooking as much as I love baking is because the whole chopping thing gets to me. The amount of vegetables and herbs one has to chop (not to mention buy) to produce a decent vegetarian meal can be somewhat overwhelming. And I'll admit, I don't have the best knives and I'm not a very efficient chopper. Also, I have this need to not repeat savory recipes unless someone specifically asks me to reproduce them, or if they are a general staple item. So, that makes grocery list-making somewhat boring sometimes, and I don't feel as inspired to cook. Now, what I enjoy so much about baking is probably pretty obvious to most: satisfying the sweet tooth, the fact that it is very precise, not having to chop things, and basically witnessing an amazing chemical reaction that surprises me every time (watching a few ingredients turn into a finished platter, this also occurs with cooking). And I think I'm more of a natural baker, the sweets usually turn out pretty well ;)
That being said, what I do really love about cooking is that you can get really creative with it, do a lot of substitutions, without needing to have the knowledge about chemistry and formulas that you generally need for baking. This year, I want to get more excited and inspired about cooking than I have been. For that reason, I've created a list of things I think every cook should know, whether an occasional chef or an everyday one. Hopefully these pointers will make your time in the kitchen easier, more efficient, and most of all more enjoyable.
1) Get a good knife and keep up with its maintenance: I believe that a good knife (generally an 8-inch chef's knife is the most popular choice; if you can afford to buy more good knives, such as a santoku, bread knife, serrated knife for utility purposes, and other knives, that's awesome) is the most important and most used tool in the kitchen for a cook. Take good care of it, buy a knife sharpener or get it professionally sharpened regularly.
2) Work with the right equipment: What I've learned in the few years that I've been cooking is that the right tools can make your life so much easier. Smitten Kitchen Blog has a wonderful guide to what are necessary items for your kitchen as well as some extras that make your life just that much easier.
3) Do your research: About everything. Because I'm obsessed with everything that has to do with food, this is enjoyable for me. If you don't know how to tell winter squash from summer squash, are wondering how to tell if the broccolini at the grocery store is good or not, if you want to know how to julienne zucchini, or any other food question, you're most likely to find it in a book or on the internet. If you do your research ahead of time, you're likely to save yourself a lot of problems in the kitchen.
4) Try to buy good quality, fresh ingredients: They make the finished product taste better. Of course you don't have to buy the best of everything; there are some lesser quality substitutions that work just fine. Know what's important to splurge on, and on the rest, try to save.
5) Don't freeze (if you can afford not to): I know, a lot of people are going to disagree with me here. The reason I don't like freezing is because I feel it changes the texture of the food too much. For some things, I think its great and is a wonderful way to keep your kitchen stocked. But for people living alone, like myself, it's not that necessary.
6) Create a good storage system: This especially goes if you don't have a lot of space in your kitchen. For example, buy large canisters to store flour in (it keeps it fresher and is easier to measure).
7) Buy in bulk/ can your food: If you have a family or live with a few people, I've witnessed through my sister that buying certain items in bulk can be a real lifesaver (for example flour, if you bake a few loaves of bread per week). Not only do you save many extra trips to the grocery store, but it usually ends up being quite a bit cheaper. Also, when summer's bounty is overwhelming, can the fresh produce so that you can survive all winter on those goods.
8) Make some of your own pantry staples: No, this one isn't going to save you time or energy in the kitchen. But it will definitely increase the flavor of your creations. If you have time and are passionate about the kitchen, try making your own broth, bullion, cheese, etc. Many times I've had to do this because the supermarkets here don't always offer what I need (example, the ricotta is terrible and hard to come upon). But, I've learned making your own is worth it most of the time.
9) Read the whole recipe through before starting: This will save you a lot of "Oops, I wasn't supposed to do that"'s.
10) Mise en place: Get your ingredients together before starting. Mise en place technically means chopping and preparing everything before starting, but I generally don't. Just get the ingredients to your counter and be aware of when you need to use them and how.
11) Clean as you go: It's been said a million times, but this seriously helps you to not feel 100% overwhelmed at the end of making a lasagna that used 5 pots and pans. Or any recipe. Use those four minutes that the soup needs to come to a boil to wipe the counter and do some dishes.
12) Learn the basic techniques and then get creative: To save frustration in the kitchen, if you are a beginning chef, don't get in over your head. Learn how to sauté onions before trying to make a soufflé. Then build onto the basic techniques that you've learned.
13) Find what works for you: Everyone has their own style, whether they like to cook in the morning or late at night, alone or with the kitchen full of people. Everything takes practice, so during that (awesome) practice take the opportunity to learn what you enjoy most and what works best for you.
Creamy broccoli and potato soup with baby Swiss cheese
1 small onion, chopped
1 small carrot, peeled and chopped
1 medium potato, peeled and diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 TBSP butter
1 TBSP flour
1.5 cups vegetable broth
½ cup milk
Salt and pepper
2 cups broccoli florets, chopped into small pieces
¾ cup Baby Swiss cheese, shredded (plus more for garnishing)
Parmesan, to serve (optional)
In a pot, melt the butter over medium-low heat. Add the onion, carrot, potato, and garlic and sauté until slightly softened, about 5-8 minutes. Add flour, salt and pepper to the pot; stir until combined.
Add vegetable broth, milk, and potato and raise heat to high. Once it comes to a boil, add broccoli and cover and cook on low until the all of the vegetables are soft, about 10 minutes. Remove from heat (but don't turn stove off) and carefully puree in batches in your blender. Return to saucepan and to heat; add cheese, stir well until most melts. Garnish with extra Baby Swiss cheese and/or Parmesan if you wish.