For those of you who are cooking pros, you are about to come across some tips that you’ve most definitely heard.
For those of you who are cooking novices, you are about to come across some tips that will spare you some pissed off and hungry bystanders and a few cooker’s wrinkles.
Since I’ve started cooking, and since I am pretty much self-taught via cookbooks and experimentation, I have mostly learned these tips the hard way: color your meals, pre-chop the “choppable” items, and taste as you go. I still don’t always follow the tips as I should, but I definitely regret when I don’t. In sharing them, I hope to save you the strife that I have, on many occasions, caused myself.
Last year, I’d settled in to dinner with Matt and Baby O. Either my fatigue (such negativity!) or my adventurous spirit (positive spin!) had prevented me from having officially planned for the meal we were about to eat. Rummaging the kitchen cabinets provided the requisite inspiration. Here were the results: tilapia, white rice and cannellini beans. If you know these foods, then you’ll know that this meal was so white that it reflected back on to me and my fellow diners. Arguably, cannellinis are a bit beige, but . . . technicalities. At the time, however, I’d thought that the meal had come together pretty well given that we were totally out of fresh food, besides the fish. Fish, beans, rice, all nice.
Then it came time to sit down. I’d “plated” everyone’s meal and pulled my chair up to the table. Then I looked at my meal for a moment–really looked–and declared in a flat tone, “This meal is all one color.”
“So?” That’s what Matt said.
After taking the first couple of bites, I declared, “Even I don’t really want to eat it.” The meal was just boring, unappealing. This is the moment the importance of “coloring” a meal crystallized.
Since then, I’ve added color to my meal checklist. Greens and reds are particularly good and acquirable year-round. There’s basil and tomatoes and peppers and spinach, all that are so accessible, affordable and easy to slice and add as a topping or a side. Assuming you are not thinking Cheetos would be a fabulous fish topping, color forces vegetables and fruits into your meal, and it sometimes inspires new food combinations.
It’s definitely time to color.
Make this one a mantra until you are saying it in your sleep, in the grocery line, in the middle of your sentences. Pre-chopping will save you those wrinkles I mentioned earlier. I’ve repeatedly tried to convince myself, “Oh, I’ll just chop this while the pasta cooks and chop that while my bacon is sizzling.” Of course my mind has convinced me this is the most time-consuming method! News flash: It has NEVER saved any time.
Chopping while waiting for the pasta to finish? Cooked pasta ain’t waiting for nobody. Al dente turns into Al rubber-aye.
Pending the bacon sizzle? What was intended to be brown bacon now matches the black skillet in which it sits.
I hate to put the pressure on and turn you into a stickler perfectionist cook, but pre-chopping is a necessity if you want to remain sane. As I write, I think that I must not have a desire for sanity sometimes. Well, a good cook does need to be a little crazy!
Remember, you can usually chop hours in advance of dinner if you don’t want to shove everything together, time-wise. Ha! I still never do this, but it is a great suggestion.
Tip #3: Taste your food as you go
I still sometimes get caught up in the whirlwind of making the recipe and forget to do this. I’ve cooked fish, chicken, and pork chops and have forgotten to do this. I have cooked . . . . drumroll . . . a whole dish of red beans before without doing this. Are you kidding? Those take hours and no one will be eating them if they are without season.
When I was in college, my roommate Amy and I were rushing around the kitchen. We had scarce space and at one point, Amy bumped me, I bumped the oven, and we both watched the salt shaker fall from the back of the oven right into the uncooked but already-mixed brownie mix. We hurriedly dug out the shaker and moved forward. That’s one recipe we probably should’ve taste-tested, but what’s a party without salty brownies?
The more you manipulate the recipe, the less the recipe manipulates you. When you feel you can manipulate a dish, then the fun begins. Maybe that last sentiment is just for control freaks.
Short, sweet and hopefully helpful–
Happy cooking! Happy eating!