My top 10 cooking tips, with recipes!
One afternoon, at an early age, I was watching my mother bake cookies in her Vancouver kitchen and I suddenly declared, “When I grow up, I want to be a pastry chef!”
I’m not sure how I knew that such an occupation even existed, but I was surrounded by a mother and three sisters – I was just trying to fit in, I suppose.
I didn’t cook much as a kid, except for baking with mum. However, I did enroll in “Cafeteria Foods” in high school, where we prepared the daily lunch for all the other students. Home-made soups. Salads. Entrées. Breads. All of it cooked on a large scale and under time pressure.
Our teacher – a gregarious, bald-headed Hungarian chef named Julius Pokomandy – demanded passion and involvement with food. He taught us to taste it and touch it. If he spied me gently tossing a huge salad with just a serving spoon he’d yell across the kitchen, “Use yaw hands Aw-thur – use yaw hands!” (We had to wash our hands at the start of every class.)
Cafeteria Foods did teach me the basics of sauces, food safety, and knife handling. I parlayed that into several cooking jobs in my university years – in industrial kitchens, making assembly line food. I was even head cook at a canoe tripping camp in Algonquin Park at the tender age of 21, responsible for feeding up to 100 people with only a wood stove and a staff of young teenage girls.
I never did become a pastry chef. Nor did I get any formal cooking training beyond high school. I’ve taken what I learned from Mr. Pokomandy and grown it from there. When we had an extended home exchange with Thai students 15 years ago, we learned all about their cuisine – new ingredients, new cooking techniques, new sauces (Nam Prik!) and flavour combinations.
But the more I cook, the more I realize that a few basic techniques go a long way. I wish I’d learned them all at the outset, rather than by trial and error.
You don’t need a bookshelf of specialty or celebrity cookbooks. You’ll always be able to create your own dishes from the food available if you master some basic methods. Here are my top ten cooking tips, along with recipes that help demonstrate them, in no particular order.
1. Balance the flavours
Learning to cook Thai cuisine brought this lesson home – how to balance the contrasting basic flavours (in Thai cooking: hot, sour, salty and sweet) so that none predominate, but the combo zings. You achieve balance by tasting your food as you cook. Your spaghetti sauce seems a little bland? Add some powdered cocoa (bitter) and maybe a little sweetener (honey or maple syrup). A great way to learn this is to make a vinaigrette salad dressing, tasting it as you go. Here’s my recipe, but don’t just measure. At the end, judge for yourself whether to add a little extra salt, sugar or lemon juice to achieve a rich, complex flavour.
2. Keep your knives sharp
This seems obvious, yet most people try to cook with knives that haven’t been sharpened since they were first purchased. My “secret” to this is two-fold. First, find a convenient commercial place that sharpens knives. There’s a shoe repair store in my city that contracts this to a professional, at about $10 a pop. Do this once every year or two; it’s like getting a brand new knife. In between, use a sharpening steel to maintain your knife’s edge. It’s not at all difficult; a two-minute youtube video will teach you all you need to know.
Why is it important to have sharp knives? Because it makes preparing vegetables a joy. I can make cole slaw faster with a knife than than with a food processor, and with less cleanup.
3. Season the meat
Try this: next time you have a good steak, cut off a thin slice, raw. Taste it. Now try another slice, with a very light amount of salt and pepper. The difference is astounding, no? (If you don’t like raw, try the same experiment with a bit of cold leftover beef or chicken.) The same goes for most meats, fish, seafood. They require seasoning, in my humble opinion, not so much that you taste salt, just enough to round out the flavour. You can use gourmet salt (coarse kosher salt) or just plain old Sifto. But get a good pepper grinder, one that works easily and fills without hassle, so that you’re constantly grinding fresh, coarse pepper.
When making soups or stews, I always season my meat lightly as I brown it. Then I taste and season the dish again before serving. Before barbecuing, I season the meat quite liberally. Hamburgers? Yes, season, and even taste it raw to judge how much.
4. Start with a roux
Mr. Pokomandy taught us to make any cream of vegetable soup by starting with a roux, a mixture of melted butter and flour, then adding milk and boiled, blended vegetables (cauliflower, broccoli, whatever). A roux is also the basis of gravy and cheese sauce. The essential amounts are so easy, you need never consult a recipe: 1 T. butter, melted in a sauce pan, 1 T. flour, blended in and cooked slightly, 1 cup cold milk or cream, added all at once and whisked to dissolve the roux. Then heat to boiling and it thickens magically.
You can multiply to make a larger quantity, and adjust the thickness with more milk or an amazing product: Robin Hood’s Easy Blend Flour (in a shaker, you can add it straight to a boiling sauce to thicken immediately, without clumping). But the secret really is the roux. It thickens and richens the sauce much better than just plain flour. When the butter and flour are equal in volume, they form a thick, lumpy dough that easily dissolves into any warm liquid.
5. Use whole spices, or fresh herbs
You use ground spices for baking (think cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger) or for really quick cooking (pre-blended combinations like curry powder or chili powder). But if you want a flavour pop, use whole spices. I go through enough cumin seed, coridander seed, mustard seed and nutmeg that my jars never really go stale – I’m buying fresh every year or so. I also use a stone mortar and pestle to grind up the whole spices for most dishes.
The same goes for herbs, by the way. Sprinkle dried whole rosemary over roasted potatoes – the effect is divine. I have also fallen for a pre-blended mix of dried herbs called herbes de provence, available just about anywhere now. It typically contains savory, marjoram, rosemary, thyme, oregano and lavender leaves (the purple bits). I rarely use these dried herbs separately now, because the combo is so convenient. For a super flavour hit, spring for the fresh version of any of those herbs – just one, it will give your salad or soup or sauce a distinctive smell and flavour. The same goes for fresh cilantro, basil, mint, and even the lowly parsley.
6. Buy cheap, tough meat
Cooking for a crowd? Especially on the weekend? Really want to impress them with some genuine comfort food? Then buy a cheap, tough cut of meat (stewing beef, or lamb, odd pork joints, etc.) and braise it. That means, cook for a long time, in liquid. Slow cookers do it well, but I’ve never owned one – I typically cook stews in the oven, at about 275˚. The classic, easy stew is Bœuf Bourguignon. It contains about three pounds of beef, some bacon (1/4 pound) and various veggies and herbs, cooked for three hours in a whole bottle of dry red wine. The taste of the liquid at first is weird, but by the end, sublime. Add fresh mushrooms in the last hour.
The following recipe uses a cut of meat you’ve probably never considered: the pork hock. (It’s the lower leg, below the ham, above the foot.) It’s filled with bones, tendons and ligaments, plus it’s covered in skin and looks gross. But braising it for a few hours produces a delicious broth, and also yields loads of meat, which can be pulled off the bone by hand. Here’s a classic, hearty soup. Because there’s little demand, a pork hocks costs only a few dollars.
7. Roast your veggies for a change
We’ve been fortunate in our last two homes to have a convection oven. This is standard equipment in restaurants (it’s all we ever used in Cafeteria Foods), because it cuts cooking time by a third or more. It’s just a standard electric oven with a fan in the back to circulate the air. It browns better, bakes more evenly, and saves time.
So, even on a weeknight, I can come home, chop up a selection of vegetables to fill a roasting pan, sprinkle with olive oil, salt and pepper, maybe some herbes de provence, then bake them for 20–30 minutes on high (400˚ F, convection), while I prepare the rest of the meal on the stove top. It’s a wondeful way to cook veggies that your mother would likely have boiled: sweet potato, cauliflower, beets, fennel. Stir them once or twice as they cook, but make sure to char the tops for a nice look!
8. Find fresh fish
I grew up on the west coast, a stone’s throw from the ocean. Buying fresh fish was simply a matter of stopping by the roadside fish stand on the way to Ladner, where the fishing boats tied up in the Fraser River. You didn’t have to question whether it was fresh – caught within a day of sale. I live far from the sea now. Although there’s a fish counter at the supermarket, you can’t count on the freshness of the fish sitting there on ice, and it’s hard to know just by looking (once it’s in your hands, you can tell by the feel and smell – i.e. neither slimy nor smelly).
In the summer we’ve found a roadside vendor near our cottage in Georgian Bay. The fish is sold by a commercial Metis fisherman named Bernie LePage who catches it the day before. It’s either sold within 24 hours or he freezes it. When you have truly fresh fish – wild salmon, lake trout, scallops and white fish are our favourites – you don’t have to do much to make a delicious meal, pan fried or barbecued. In the absence of a guaranteed fresh source, I’ve found frozen is the next best option. We use any of the above to make our new favourite light supper – fish tacos.
9. Make stir-fried veggies fast
We ate a lot of stir fries through our university days – we were vegetarians – often paired with brown rice. At first I used an elaborate procedure to cook the harder veggies first (carrots, broccoli) and the fast cooking ones last (peppers). Then one day I watched a cook make a batch in front of me at a Chinese restaurant in a food court. The chef simply threw a combination of five veggies on a flat top grill, very hot, tossed them around for a minute, threw a small amount of water and sauce on top, then covered them with a lid to let them steam a little. Finally, he threw a handful of bean sprouts on top at the end and just mixed them into the hot veggies.
It was a revelation: hot but wonderfully crunchy veggies – in other words, stir fries. I realized we’d been overcooking them for far too long.
There are a couple of corollaries to this method: you have to prepare all your veggies in advance; you can’t chop and cook as you go, as I used to do. Although it’s handy to cook the meat in there as well (like chicken), that usually results in a lot of moisture, a longer cooking time and … the old soggy veggies. I now prefer to cook the meat separately and add it back at the end.
10. Make your own granola
My mum made granola at home, in the 1970s. She discovered it very early on, and was a convert to homemade. In our 20s, we baked our own – simple recipes with mostly oats, honey and oil, and maybe a few nuts or seeds. When I worked in Algonquin, the guy who was head of canoe tripping cooked a week’s worth of granola every Sunday night in our wood oven – enough to last the camp and all the trips.
Yet somehow along the way, we started buying granola at the store. Or muesli. It was more convenient. But we eventually tired of it, and about ten years ago started buying the specialty bakery style granola – a lot like homemade, but at a very hefty premium. One Christmas about three years ago my sister sent me her homemade granola, with a recipe that was a variation on my mum’s. Full circle. I was hooked. I make it every 2–3 weeks now. It takes about 15 minutes to assemble and 30–40 minutes to bake. In other words, an hour or so – an easy after-dinner project, with time left for some TV watching.