I watched as he worked to feed the fresh dough through the pasta maker, which was barely mounted on the end of the center island of the small, inviting kitchen. He did this with a mechanical motion, like it was all he had done his whole life, every second of every waking moment. His gaze never left the beautiful sheet of fresh pasta, but he was able to still debate the best way to invest with my curious cousin. Honestly, I couldn’t care less about the investments, but I was fascinated by the way he made that pasta so effortlessly. When I asked him how he made pasta so perfectly and seemingly effortlessly, he thought for a moment, and replied, “Practice.”
Everyone that cooks often has their own set of tricks that just make their food one step above others. I also think this is what separates the notable comfort of a home-cooked meal vs. most main stream restaurants. I was never formally trained in a kitchen and my parents rarely cooked a sit-down dinner while I was growing up, so almost everything I have learned about cooking I saw on cooking shows and observed in the kitchens of my extended family. I am still constantly learning new tricks, so I am sure this list will be added upon multiple times, but these are my most important tips to becoming a serious home cook.
1. Plan your meal. I fail at this one a lot, but it really makes everything easier. Think about what you are cooking tomorrow and start prep, or at least have in your mind what you need to do to put that fabulous meal on the table.
2. Let the pan get hot enough and get some color on that meat! I tend to almost always think my pan is hotter than it is, and I think most people do, too. A quick, and possibly dangerous, trick that I learned is to place a little sprinkle of water in the pan with your cooking fat or oil either when you begin to heat it, or when you think it may be hot enough. When the oil is hot enough, the water will pop. The beautiful, drool-enticing color on meat that results when your pan is hot enough indicates that a carmelization reaction has taken place (the Maillard Reaction). This reaction is key to producing a great meat.
3. Balance textures. For example, my husband constantly complains about food being “dry”, meaning there is no sauce on anything to combine and unite the flavors of a meal. As much as it is a pain sometimes when planning a meal last minute, having a balance, say white rice with a potaje de garbanzos (garbanzo stew) compliment each other and make the dish better, than say if i just roasted some potatoes and added rice.
4. Add acid. There’s a reason my blog is named “The Lime Life”. For me, a spritz of lime can add so much to so many dishes, as would any acid, like vinegar or lemon. If you try a dish you just made and it’s missing something you can’t put your finger on, add a splash of an acid.
5. Add umami. This might be a weird one, but almost all dishes need a meaty component to be successful. Usually this is incorporated into the base of the dish, like garlic and tomato paste sauteed before adding a liquid to a sauce, but can be added after the fact. A couple things you can add to certain sauces and dishes that lack body are a couple of dashes of Worcestershire sauce, fish sauce, or soy sauce. Be careful with this one, and don’t add too much, because you don’t want a guest to take a bite of a lovely chicken dish and say “Wow, that tastes like fish sauce.” So take it easy with this one, but definitely employ it when necessary.
6. Learn how to cut vegetables properly. This just makes prep go so much faster and makes for a better dish overall. Watch Ina Garten dice and onion, or watch Rachel Ray, who does very explicit demonstrations of this on her show.
7. Try your food, all the time. When I am making a dish I probably try the dish at least five times throughout the cooking process and before serving. This allows you to add extra salt, acid, and umami as necessary without getting to the point of no return on the dish.
8. Salt! Please don’t be afraid of it. I usually use Kosher salt because I can see how much I am adding to the dish. For a personal testament to the power of salt, I have an aunt that makes the best Blonde Brownies ever, really. The recipe is pretty basic and found on the back of a certain popular cookie dough brand, but ask her what the secret is, and she tells you, “Always use salted butter, never the unsalted they call for in the recipe”.
What are your best cooking tips?