I had a conversation with a friend today about making a pesto. And it occurred to me what makes a great pesto–fresh ingredients. You wouldn’t use that pre-ground parmesan cheese from a can and dried basil leaves from a jar. That got me to thinking about basic rules of good cooking. People who have had my cooking and love it always want to know my secrets. So, here you have them! If you want to make really great food at home, these are some of the rules you’ll adhere to faithfully. I know some of you know these already, but they bear repeating and remembering.
And please, forgive me if I sound like a food snob. I’m not trying to be one, I’m just giving you the unvarnished truth about what makes really GREAT food! Here we go…
1. Fresh, fresher, and freshest–that’s what you want!
Grab your food as CLOSE to the source as you can. This is the #1 rule for good food and if you don’t follow anything else I’ve said here, follow this one. (Actually most of my following rules are variations of this one!)
For instance, a bag of frozen cherries has gone through tons and tons of steps to get to your freezer, whereas fresh cherries were simply picked, washed and packaged. The fresh ones have more vitamins, and more importantly, more flavor.
I have always hated peas. And asparagus. Recently I was at a cooking lesson at a nice hotel and they served us a vegetarian dish made with peas and asparagus. I gave it a shot and really LIKED the peas (still not wild about the asparagus). Why? They were actually FRESH peas, and not from a can or a freezer bag.
2. Only ice should be frozen.
Freezing changes the texture and taste of most things. Since protein is often the most expensive part of the meal, and the “star” of it, I’m particularly averse to frozen meats and fish. I would take a fresh cut of sirloin any day over a frozen filet mignon. This rule is even more important when we’re talking about delicate fish and seafood. Frozen shrimp lose a lot of flavor, I don’t care what anyone says. Their texture also changes. If you can’t get fresh, frozen will do, but try to get fresh whenever possible.
In my freezer at home you find almost NO raw ingredients. Why? I’d rather buy them fresh as needed. I do freeze fresh herbs that I grow, if I have a bumper crop of them, because they do okay in soups and stews later without losing flavor. I also freeze citrus zest for later use, as it doesn’t lose anything by being frozen.
You may be wondering what’s in my freezer? Ice, of course. Frozen pizzas (DiGiorno, they are awesome compared to other brands), edamame (which is hard to find fresh, and, it is okay once heated up), ice cream, and the occasional frozen entrée like a Lean Cuisine or something. But, I have to say that my love of cooking has far exceeded my desire to take the easy way out at meal time, so I rarely eat frozen entrees anymore. Finally, I freeze my red Italian sauce that I make in huge batches. It freezes well and doesn’t lose anything in the process of being frozen and then thawed. My son loves that sauce and it’s a big messy endeavor to make it so when I do make it, I make a HUGE batch and freeze it.
3. Dehydration sucks the flavor out of most things.
Dried herbs are crap, period. Only when specifically called for in a recipe written by a well-known chef do I use dried herbs. Otherwise, I always use fresh herbs. Yes, they cost more. When possible, grow your own and then they cost practically nothing!
The exception to this rule is sundried tomatoes. They are quite tasty in their dehydrated state. Mushrooms are always better fresh, but sometimes it’s hard to find the varieties you need in the fresh produce section. In that case dried mushrooms will do.
Of course, there’s dried and dehydrated fruits, like raisins and figs. Those are okay when called for in a recipe. But, if a recipe calls for FRESH figs, or FRESH grapes, then the dried versions are a no-no.
4. Cheese should be good quality.
Good cheese does not come in a can or a cardboard box. Parmesan should bought in a chunk and hand-grated as you need it. That yellow stuff in the Velveeta box is not cheese–just read the ingredient label. I remember a time when they used to sell it on the grocery store shelf, but for some reason they moved it to the dairy case. My guess is people started asking what the content was that allowed the cheese to survive indefinitely without refrigeration? Notice you don’t see it in any shape or form in your deli counter’s fresh cheese selection? That’s because it’s NOT CHEESE. I think it’s a petroleum product. Don’t use it unless you are making queso dip that specifically calls for it.
5. Buy local.
Let’s take a test. You have a choice in the grocery store between two tomatoes. Once is perfectly red, round and gorgeous in terms of color and shap. The other is not so pretty, it’s kind of oblong and has a few little blemishy knob looking thingy’s on it. Which one do you choose?
Answer: Ask your produce manager where the tomatoes came from. If the less-beautiful one was grown ten miles away, and the pretty one was imported from Mexico, I’d go with the locally grown one every time. The ones from Mexico were likely picked green and then ripened with chemicals in transit. The local one not only will likely be chemical-free and tastier, but you’ll be supporting your local farmer and reducing your carbon footprint to boot.
6. Can most of the cans (and jars and bottles).
Canned and jarred food is normally pretty bad. You don’t consider SPAM a real meat delicacy, do you? How about Vienna sausages and potted meat? No, not good. Canned peas and green beans are just disgusting. If you’re going to not have fresh peas and beans, then at least get frozen ones, they are a lot better than the ones that have been sloshing around in a can for months (or years).
There are a few things that come in a can or jar that are okay to use when called for. These include:
- tomatoes (fresh is still best in most recipes)
- refried beans (it’s a hassle to soak and cook fresh beans, unless you’re a huge bean lover)
- pimentos (when making pimento cheese these are an absolute must)
- pickles and olives and capers (that briny goodness is a must in many dishes)
- anchovies (nasty looking little creatures but they are a must-have in cesar salad dressing and some pasta sauces)
- minced garlic (they sell jars of this stuff pre-minced and while I still prefer to use fresh garlic, in a pinch or for a large quantity that you don’t want to chop fresh, this stuff will suffice)
- condiments (mustard, ketchup, chili sauce, etc., although truth be told these are also best made fresh, but sometimes you don’t have time to make everything!)
7. Don’t overdo it.
When it comes to cooking time, I’m convinced that less is more for most things. Meat is better medium rare than any other way. I’d rather it be rare than medium well, because I can always throw it back on the heat for a few minutes, but once you have cooked it to medium well, you can’t “uncook” it. You want to cook pork and chicken to the correct temperature for safety reasons, but you don’t have to go beyond that temperature! See the chart here for some temperature guidelines.
Shrimp–omg–these are one of the most overcooked foods on the planet. Shrimp are done within 3 to 4 minutes in most cases, but some people will cook them until they curl up and turn to little pieces of rubber. STOP DOING THAT. As soon as the flesh is opaque, the shrimp is done!
Vegetables are great when tender-crisp, and not so great when they are cooked to the point of being mushy. I have entirely too many teeth in my head to want to eat mushy food! Don’t overcook your veggies (in addition to the texture getting icky, you also lose a lot of nutrition when overcooking).
Hard-boiled eggs are another thing most people overcook. If you want to know how to make a perfect hard-boiled egg, follow Martha Stewart’s instructions by clicking here.
8. Butter–there is no substitute
Margarine is nothing but an oil product. It might be a little lower in cholesterol than butter, but the taste is not worth the difference. Always use real butter. Always.
9. Be an olive oil snob
Canola oil is canola oil is canola oil. Same goes for peanut oil and grapeseed oil and most other oils. But when it comes to olive oil, there are vast differences in quality and taste. Read up on olive oils here. Honestly, though, this is one of those things where price is pretty indicative of quality. The stuff you buy at the grocery store that’s pretty affordable? Probably not going to be very good. I recommend shopping for the best quality oils online at Eataly.
10. Be leery of cooking instructions
When you are cooking things like breads, cakes, etc., just remember that the cooking instructions were made using someone else’s oven and kitchen. Your oven is different. Your altitude is different. So, set the timer for three minutes earlier than called for in the recipe. Check it carefully from then on and make sure you don’t overcook it!
I have also noticed that most dried pasta packages call for cooking times that are a bit excessive. You end up with pasta that is past the point of al dente if you follow those instructions to the letter. To be safe, shave 20 to 25% off the cooking time, then test the pasta for doneness by taking a bite of it. Make sure it’s to your liking!
So there you have some basic rules. Now, the real question–do I follow all these rules 24/7? Of course not. Sometimes I’m in a crunch for time, or I can’t get to the store, or something is just not available or in season and I have to make do with what I have. Hey, it’s just one meal and not every single thing you make can be perfect and gourmet-quality. But, in your quest to make the best food possible, I do recommend following these guidelines whenever possible.