My buying into the Martha Stewart and Marley Spoon meal kits has reignited how often I cook. Which is most every day now. Don't get me wrong... there are still plenty of crappy frozen pizzas and moderately good Mexican entrees piled up in my freezer for those days I can't manage a kitchen adventure... but I'm cooking my own meals 95% of the time. And you know I'm serious about the craft of it all when I spend $120 on new cookware.
Some of the things I've learned...
- Green beans, which I used to loathe, are officially my favorite vegetable now. The trick is to buy them fresh and steam them or blacken them on your grill or even in a pan. Holy cow what flavor. Canned beans taste awful. Frozen beans are better, but I only use them in dishes and not on their own. Fresh is where it's at when it comes to green beans.
- Walnuts, a nut I never gave a second look at except in candies or applesauce bread, are a phenomenal addition to a wide variety of dishes. My favorite thing is to cook them up with Mascarpone cheese, shallots, and a little cream to create an unreal pasta sauce... but they are great on salads, pancakes, and vegetables... and very good in a pita sandwich. I buy them pre-shelled in one-pound bags when they're on sale and use them constantly. Weirdly enough I still don't like them eating them on their own.
- I have divided my culinary life into two eras... before I discovered harissa spice and after I discovered harissa spice. I have three different brands (each tasting different) and use the stuff on E-V-E-R-Y-T-H-I-N-G. Great in pasta sauces and on vegetables, harissa adds a delightfully different taste profile to many of the dishes I cook. When I'm getting tired of a particular recipe, I add harissa spice to change things up and haven't been disappointed yet. The other day I was sprinkling it on potato chips, which tells you everythin you need to know.
- I bought a cheap Instant Pot (pressure cooker) knock-off... then was given a much nicer authentic Instant Pot by a houseguest. I don't use it as often as you'd think, but it is essential for cooking things like potatoes and eggs. Which is to say that it's essential for making potato salad. I cannot fathom going back to making potato salad without my Instant Pot. Also great for desserts.
- I wrote an entire post on the virtue of good canned tomatoes. There's just no substitute, and making my own pasta and pizza sauces is something I don't even think about now... it's automatic when I need those things. The real trick is spending the money to get them. I try to skate by on-the-cheap for many ingredients, but canned tomatoes are totally worth the extra cash. About the only thing I don't make from scratch is enchilada sauce, which always tastes better in a can than what I've been able to conjure up in the kitchen.
- Speaking of spending money... spices are ridiculously expensive. Every time I find a recipe I want to try I pray that it calls for spices that I already have. Too many times it asks for something new I have to buy and I end up with sticker-shock when I see the cost. The good news is that I think I'm finally approaching terminal spice velocity and have everything. The bad news is that now I'm running out of some spices and will have to buy more of them. It never ends.
- No matter how many times I confuse Italian parsley and cilantro at the grocery store, I never learn my lesson and inevitably screw up and get the opposite of what I was wanting.
- Keep your Yukon Gold potatoes in the dark so they don't turn green.
- I seriously need to investigate canning to try and save money on things like roasted red peppers, pickles, and jams. All of these things are cheap and simple to make compared to buying them at the store. Problem is that you need to buy a special version of Instant Pot to actually do any canning in the thing (and even then there are concerns that the "max" model isn't adequate). This is a shame, because I'd really like to be able to can very small single-serving jars of various things to save money and waste over the giant jars you have to buy which spoil before I can use them up.
- I still can't believe how many dirty dishes that home-cooking creates. Every single time after I finish I end up looking at the pile in the sink and marvel that I could have made such a mess for even the simplest recipes.
Another thing I've learned is that it takes a lot of time to develop a recipe. Even things I think I've nailed (like potato salad) ends up getting experimented on. Pasta sauces will never be nailed down because I'm always thinking of something new to add or change about them. But the thing that I've found to be the toughest to perfect? One of my favorite foods... falafel. Last night I made some because I finally remembered to soak the chickpeas the day before. Before starting I carefully reviewed my notes from my previous attempts at creating the perfect falafel so I could get closer this time. The problem is that onions, which are a huge part of what makes a good falafel "work," never taste the same. I try to accommodate that by eating a piece to see if I'm going to need more (when the onion is weak) or less (when the onion is strong) but I can never seem to figure out what I need to do until after I've finished it and fried up a few patties...
They were good... very good... but had too much onion and not enough red pepper flake and cumin. Yet if I had put in less onion then there might have been too much red pepper flake and cumin. It's enough to drive you crazy. Kinda like the delicate balance between apples, lemon juice, and sugar it takes to make the perfect apple pie. My grandmother had it down. She could taste an apple and know exactly how to adjust to get a fantastic-tasting pie every time. I get better at it year after year, but am still a long ways from being able to figure it out like she could.
Developing a palate sensitive enough to know how to adjust recipes correctly is the final frontier of cooking. Once you can master that you can be a truly good cook, and I'm not there yet. And what's awful is that our sense of taste changes as we age... even if you don't smoke or drink coffee or whatever... so even if you DO manage to figure things out with your palate, it likely won't be for long.
I guess if things get too awful I could go back to frozen dinners and use my new pots and pans for sorting nails and screws while woodworking.
Always have a backup plan.