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Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Foodin' With Lawblog

So, for our first installment of Foodin’ With Lawblog, I thought it would be neato to go through some advice, both broad and specific, about cooking. A ten commandments, if you will. But more like ten strong suggestions. I’m not pushy like some people *cough* Moses *cough*.
But first: “Who are you and why should we listen to you?” Fair enough. I’m just a regular dude who really loves food and really loves cooking. I am not a professional food writer. I am not a chef. (Also, let me just first say something about the difference between chefs and cooks. A cook is someone who cooks. Durr. A chef is a leader of cooks. So, until you run a kitchen of cooks, you are not a chef.) These are just some things I’ve picked up whilst making and eating lots of food. Enjoy!
1) Get proficient with your knife.
I put this number one because it really is the most important. Food that is cut evenly cooks evenly, it looks better, and the better you get with your prep-work, the faster you can go. In addition, if you learn proper technique you are less likely to harm yourself or others. SAFETY FIRST!
If you can, I really recommend taking a basic knife skills class if there are any offered in your area. There’s really no substitute for having someone who knows what they’re doing showing you what to do, and correcting you as you go. If you can’t do a class, there are a number of videos with instruction. I like this guy. Plus, you get the added entertainment of wondering if he’s going to have a heart attack right in front of you!

2) Have a clutter-free workspace
I am very guilty of not always doing this. I have a small kitchen, and it can be difficult to keep clutter-free. However, I have a much better time whenever it is clean and free of clutter. The goal is to enjoy yourselves, people! If you associate cooking with cramped messy stress, you will not want to do it any more.
3) Calibrate your oven.
Unless you have one of those super fancy Mieles or Vikings, chances are your oven is not really the temperature it says it is. In that case, get an oven thermometer from any kitchen supply store. For example, after I got one I learned that my stove is actually anywhere from 40 to 75 degrees hotter than it says it is. Neat! That explained why so many of the things I put in there ended up charred.
Likewise, learn your oven’s hotspots. The easiest way to test is to preheat the oven to 350, then arrange a bunch of bread slices on a cookie sheet in a single layer. Place the sheet on the middle of the oven rack for 5 minutes. Whichever pieces are darker, that’s where your hot spots are. Try to avoid putting pans there if you can, or rotate them accordingly.
4) Read the whole recipe.
This means read the WHOLE THING. Several times. I can’t tell you the number of times I have neglected to do this and missed a step that requires a two hour simmer that I hadn’t factored for, time wise, or the oven needed to be preheated, or other time-consuming things. This ties in with…
5) Do your prep first, and organize it.
Usually recipes will tell you what prep is required for your ingredients. i.e. two carrots, diced; 1 lb. chicken breast, cut into strips; 2 lb. potatoes, peeled and quartered. Do this first! Before you do anything else! This collection of prepped ingredients is called a mise-en-place. Or a “mise” if you’re a PRO. Then, look through the recipe. Are the carrots and onions added together? Are the spices blended? Feel free to combine anything that is added together. You can keep them in separate containers, but group them together for easy access.
6) Taste as you’re going.
Do it! All the time! Taaaaaste! It seems like a no-brainer, but I know I forget to do it sometimes. And by sometimes I mean a lot of times. It’s much easier to correct while you are still cooking than when you’re serving.
7) Season with balance.
If any of you are Top Chef fans, you know all about the seasoning and how it can make or break a dish. Too much and it’s too salty and inedible. Too little and it’s bland. Salt can bring out the natural flavors in many things. I have found that if you season a little bit at a time as you go it prevents you from piling on the salt at the end, leaving things tasting salty, rather than flavor-enhancy (new word). I much prefer using kosher salt to cook. It tastes better and it’s easier to use.
A sub-advice for seasoning is something I’ve discovered recently, and that is the importance of acid. By that I mean vinegar, lemon juice, lime juice, Worcestershire. Anything that has that acidic tang can really brighten up a dish if it’s tasting flat. You don’t need much, but it can suddenly make things come alive! It also helps to use cuisine-appropriate acids, i.e. lime juice for southeast Asian or Mexican, lemon for Indian/Middle Eastern, rice vinegar for Chinese/Japanese, apple cider vinegar for BBQ, etc. etc. Once again, these are not set in stone at all. Feel free to experiment!
8) Don’t be afraid of failure.

You’re going to fuck up. That’s just how it is. It’s ok! The worst thing you can do is beat yourself up. Take a breath and order takeout. Mistakes are for learnin’! For example, one time I was making a quick stew and got the wrong cut of meat. It required several more hours of simmering than I gave it, and when I went to eat it, it was tough and stringy and gross. So that’s how I learned that tough cuts like the shoulder need to be cooked for a very long time over very low heat. The next time I made something similar and the butcher was out of the sirloin, I made sure to adjust the cooking time for shoulder. It came out awesome!
9) Don’t be afraid to experiment.
This goes hand in hand with the previous commandment, and pretty much everything I’ve said up to this point. Once you feel more comfortable in the kitchen and more confident in how flavors work together, start to experiment! Try using honey instead of brown sugar. Try using different vegetables. Try roasting the potatoes instead of boiling them for a potato salad. Whatever you want! It won’t always work, but when it does you feel like a total badass because you put your own spin on the recipe. (IMPORTANT CAVEAT: Do not do this when baking. Things are very precisely measured for baking, and if you change things you will have a very bad time.)
This attitude of experimentation also goes for food in general. Take any food that you think you don’t like, and try cooking it in a new way that you haven’t had before. I’ve found that 90% of not liking the taste of things is mental. You don’t like things because you have said forever that you don’t like it. Tastes change. Palates change. For years I was sure that I didn’t like eggplant. Then my girlfriend made some Indian-spiced grilled eggplant, and I loved it. Now it’s one of my favorite vegetables. Just take it upon yourself to try whatever it is you think you don’t like. If you still don’t like it, no problem. Try it again in a couple of months with a new preparation.
10) When possible, cook in season.
By this I mean, cook with produce that’s available at that season. Obviously this is very difficult in the winter in the North, but in general try to stick to things that are grown around that time of year. Veggies have more nutritive value and they taste so much better when they’re in season. I love tomatoes, but I haven’t cooked with any this winter, precisely because I love them and I know that any I get now will be mealy and flavorless. On that same note, get to learn when your produce is ripe. Peppers should have taut, shiny skin. Citrus should be bright, medium firm, and heavy for their size. This ability will come from experience from shopping and handling lots of produce.
That’s all my basic advice for now. Please leave any questions you have about food or cooking in the comments! Future columns will touch more on specific flavor profiles, more focused cooking advice, and maybe some reviews of delicious things I’ve eaten. As always, suggestions are welcomed and encouraged.


  1. I admire your creative output. I am actually a lot jealous of your creative output.

  2. I applaud you for points 8 and 9, which are some things I tell friends who want to know how they should start. However, I am on the fence about people wanting to learn how to cook following recipes. The problem is that while it would make for great practice if they tried and understood what they were doing with the recipe, a lot of the times it seems like they are just following the steps and not learning WHAT they are actually doing with their ingredients. They know how to make that dish, but not how to take those basics to a different dish.

    Also, I have to try nr. 3, because my oven is really messed up and it keeps my from making large dishes in it.

    Who are your cooking inspirations? I'm a total Heston Blumenthal adept myself. Everyone should make bolognese with star anise in it, it boosts the flavor so much.

  3. 11. If in doubt, pour sugar in it!

  4. @Anchor Management I agree that following recipes blindly is not a real way to learn how to cook, however, when you're just beginning it's a great way to get started. The more recipes you follow, the more exposed you get to different types of flavors and the way they interact with each other. You also get experience in knowing generally how and when one should apply heat to different ingredients.

    It can also be helpful when you're stuck in a rut. For example, if I'm in a songwriting rut, I get the music and learn a song that I like. Seeing how someone else approaches the same thing that you're doing can be invaluable.

    Also, if you want to make something from scratch (such as a bolognese) it helps to look at different recipes for the same thing. If they all have a couple ingredients that are the same, you know you probably should include those. Likewise, one might have an unexpected ingredient, such as star anise, and you can say "Oh. That might work really well" and try it in yours. That's why I advocate recipes, at least at the beginning of the learning process.

  5. These are all great. If I could add a no. 11, it would be this: It's better to cook meats at a lower heat for a longer time than just turning the burner all the way up. Slow cooking is the secret to keeping chicken and beef moist and tender, and also much more flavorful. Just heat the pan at 2 or 3, throw a lid on it and be patient. Your food will be that much better for it.

  6. I really enjoyed this column and am looking forward to future columns! I especially appreciated the bit about knife skills. My knife skills are TERRible, so I'll definitely be checking out the YouTubes.

  7. @fozzy This is true for many preparations, although sometimes it is necessary to add some high heat. I plan on doing a future article just about meat and cooking temperatures. So stay tuned!

  8. @Lawblog You're right. Searing filet or something calls for mega-heat, and is kind of fun. But generally speaking, I've found that a lot of people cook their meats at too-high a heat and it winds up in dry, tough meals.

  9. Really love the column - I believe I am what they call a 'food-enthusiast' and really, most of the time, I am a tad too enthusiastic about it.

    Can't wait for the next one. Thanks LB !

  10. This was very informative! I am now going to calibrate my oven, b/c I had never thought about that before.

    My request is for recipes! I am always looking for new things to cook b/c I tend to always make the same things.

  11. I tasted too much, by the time I was done there was no food left.

    I'm just being overly facetious with my comments, this is a great first post, looking forward to more.

    The acid part was especially surprising. I would never have thought that was a good idea.