Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I Started Cooking

October 3rd, 2011 · 48 Comments · Baking and Sweets, Dinner, Kitchenlightenment, Quick, Rituals

I wasn’t sure I heard her right.

“Excuse me?” I asked.

“What’s up with the flat bags?”

I heard her right. The question came from the photographer’s assistant during the DALS Book photo shoot a few weeks ago. She was in her twenties, hailed from Williamsburg. I didn’t get a peek at her iPod, but I feel certain it would be loaded with songs by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and the New Pornographers. In other words, bands I’d never heard before. She was referring to the bags of chilis and soups in my freezer — I always freeze dinners in flattened Ziplocs. When you do it that way, you save time (by thawing whatever is frozen under running water for 60 seconds) and you save space. (After your soup or stew is frozen, you can file the bag in your freezer like a book in a bookshelf.) How did she not know this?

Most likely because she hadn’t spent six years of her life at Real Simple or four years editing the food pages of Cookie. I need to remember that not everyone is a former magazine editor walking around with a mental catalog of time-saving, money-saving, energy-saving, sanity-saving, life-saving, surefire, guilt-free, guaranteed fool-proof, plan-ahead, stress-free, problem-solving shortcuts, tips and tricks. (And yes, in case you are wondering, all those words consistently scored the highest with the focus groups.) I need to remember that not everyone out there feels comfortable with recipe-writing language that calls for a “handful of beans” or a “pinch of cayenne.” (Don’t literally pinch cayenne, especially if you are using those same pinchers to remove contact lenses an hour later.) I need to remember that calling for lemongrass in a recipe is a potential deal-breaker and that calling for a  ”large” can of whole tomatoes is going to elicit this comment from my book editor, Lee: “Ounces please! Lord, define large!” This is why she is so awesome. Not only because I can hear her southern drawl through the most miniscule of notes, but because she yells at me now so you won’t have to later.

Anyway, in honor of all of you out there who don’t know to store your folded garbage bags inside the garbage can (so you can conveniently grab a replacement as soon as you discard the full one –classic Real Simple tip ) or that adding skim milk to boiling liquid is going to result in curdling (classic Jenny screw-up), here are a list of things I wish someone told me fifteen years ago, when I was the one with the loaded iPod (Sony Walkman?) who did not understand the kind of happiness that a quick-thaw might someday bring me.

1. Don’t ever make recipes (or trust cookbooks) that have overly cutesy recipe titles like “Struttin’ Chicken.” These kinds of dishes rarely have the kind of staying power that a good simple Roast Chicken will. (Grilled Chicken for People Who Hate Grilled Chicken is the obvious exception.)

2. Buy  yourself a pair of kitchen scissors. You will use them to snip herbs. You will use them to chop canned whole peeled tomatoes that have been dumped and contained in a 4-cup Pyrex. You will use them to snip spinach right in the skillet as the spinach wilts. Spinach! As long as we’re on the subject: always make more of it than you think you need. This way you will not find yourself in the position of having one cupcake-sized mound of sesame spinach for your whole family of four to share.

3. Some Type-A behaviors worth stealing: Do everything you can in advance when you are having people over for dinner. No matter how easy and tossed-off the task  may be. No matter how many times your partner-in-crime says, Why don’t we just do that later? Filling a sippy cup takes 30 seconds! If you forgo this advice and do nothing in advance, at least make sure you start off the evening with an empty dishwasher. You will thank yourself a few hours and a few cocktails later when staring at the mountain of greasy plates in the sink. Lastly, if at all possible, go to sleep with a fresh trash bag in the kitchen garbage can. I find it somewhat soul-crushing to see last night’s dinner scraps piled up before I’ve had my morning coffee. And I sleep better when I know it’s empty. (See: Type A.)

4. Brushing dough with a quick egg-wash is the secret to getting that shiny, lacquered, I’m-worth-something-after-all glow to your pies, breads, and cherry galettes (pictured above). This comes in especially handy when trying to pass off storebought crust as homemade. Whisk one egg with a fork, then use a pastry brush to cover every inch of the exposed crust before baking.

5. Meat will never brown properly if you add it to the pan when it’s freezing cold and wet. (And browning properly is where you’re going to get most of your flavor.) It should be patted dry and room temperature. Unless you have just walked in the door, it’s 7:30, the kids are screaming and the instruction to “bring it to room temperature” is the instruction that will make you swear off family dinner forever.

6. Add acid. A drizzle of vinegar, a spoonful of tangy buttermilk, a simple squeeze of lemon or lime will always add brightness to an otherwise boring and flat dish. I’ll never forget an interview I read with Mario Batali that reconfirmed this: He said the easiest way to pretend you know what you’re doing in the kitchen is to talk about the “acidity” level of a dish.

7. Never use the phrase “pun intended” or “no pun intended.” Oh sorry! That’s from my “Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I Started Writing” list.

8. Learn the correct way to slice and dice an avocado. You will not only save time, energy, sanity [insert up to 4 more Real Simple focus group words here] by doing this, but you will find yourself giving tutorials to awed, in-the-dark observers every time you make guacamole in front of them.

9. Ice in the cocktails, people. Don’t be stingy. Nothing worse than a lukewarm Gin and Tonic.

10. You won’t get arrested if you leave out an ingredient or replace it with something that’s not called for. That doesn’t mean leave the shrimp out of the shrimp and grits, but if you don’t have scallions for the chopped salad, or if you don’t have red wine called for in the braised pork, take a look around and see what else might stand in for what’s missing. Every time you do this and it works, you’ll be a little more confident in the kitchen. And every time you do this and it doesn’t work, you have one more good story to tell.

Flattened freezer bag photo by Jennifer Causey for DALS.

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Dinner in the Morning

September 9th, 2010 · 13 Comments · Chicken and Turkey, Dinner, Organizing, Strategizing, Planning, Rituals

Lemony Roast Chicken and Beans

I mentioned my dinner-in-the-morning strategy last spring when I asked you to marinate drumsticks in buttermilk before heading off for the day. (Meanwhile, if Abby had her druthers, she would subsist on that buttermilk “fried” chicken and that buttermilk “fried” chicken alone for the rest of her life.) The strange science behind the idea is this: If you take one or two minutes in the morning to chop an onion or wash some salad greens in preparation for your meal that night, it will inexplicably end up saving you 20 minutes of prep time on the other end of the day. (more…)

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The “OK Shelf”

March 17th, 2010 · 3 Comments · Rituals

My position on letting the kids help with dinner is this: No.

For me it’s one of those things that fall under the Sounds-Fun-But-Actually-Sucks category of kids activities. (Others on the list: parades, ice skating, any kind of music class that mom has to be present at.) That does not mean I’m categorically against my kids cooking with me. In fact, I love doing it, as long as I have psychologically earmarked it as a “project” as opposed to an actual meal-generating endeavor. For me, when the dinner countdown is on, I start twitching if I have to slow down to help my daughter “help.” Anyway, I’m not a complete tyrant. I have written before about my Babysitter in a Box, a carefully curated container of kitchen gear and foods (think rice maracas made out of tupperware bowls) that keep them busy making a pretend meal while I tend to the real meal. And now I’m on to the OK Shelf, which is an easy-to-access shelf (the middle one in the photo above) containing a bunch of kitchen-related bowls and pourers that my daughters don’t have to ask me to use. (The answer will always be “OK.”)  Every item on the OK shelf is either non-breakable or so cheap (hello Ikea tea set!) that it matters little if they chip it.

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