Thursday, May 3, 2012

The key to enjoying cooking

I’m sure we all know our fair share of people who say that they don’t enjoy cooking. Some of them may even be able to turn out a pretty respectable meal, but they don’t enjoy it. Others just eschew anything to do with the kitchen. If they don’t have someone else who will prepare their food (meaning a lot of the guys out there), then restaurants, take-out joints and the frozen food section of their supermarkets become the main beneficiaries.

Some people claim that they can’t cook. I find that completely unbelievable and feel it’s simply an excuse to keep that person out of the kitchen. Unless a recipe calls for a particular skill that takes a long time to develop (fluting mushrooms comes to mind), then anyone who can follow a well-written recipe should be able to turn out food of which they can be proud.

Cooking at a reasonable level isn’t hard. It simply requires attention to detail and organization.

When I dig a little deeper with reluctant cooks, I find almost universally that they’re afraid of failure and get easily rattled as a number of things require attention simultaneously. Both of these things can come crashing together if you’re not organized. And I think that’s the basic problem with them: organization.

French cooks have a saying every cook should engrave in their minds as they begin preparing a meal: mis en place. Loosely translated it means “everything in place”. In other words, have everything measured, prepped and organized before you begin to actually apply the heat. Every time I get to the end of cooking a meal and realize that I didn’t enjoy it much, I will find that I hadn’t prepped everything I should have. Even a good cook is prone to mistakes and forgetfulness when they’re trying to prep part of their meal while they’re cooking another. Heaven knows I’ve wrecked more than my share of food, and I’ll bet that nearly every time it’s been because my attention was divided because of inadequate organization.

The past few months I’ve made it my mantra to have everything ready to go before I turn on the stove. This means all the ingredients and most of the cooking utensils are ready and waiting. I’ve also read through the recipe (if it’s something I haven’t made often recently), or if it’s a dish I’ve made a lot, I at least go through all the steps in my head. I’ve even gone as far as buying a set of small mis en place bowls to hold items like herbs, spices and other small-amount ingredients. It might be overkill, but it keeps me relaxed.

Having worked in restaurant kitchens, where things can get really busy at times of maximum service, I know that the key to the job is being completely organized. If you’re not, you’re toast – or what you’re cooking is. It really is the same thing at home. You don’t want to be crawling around the innards of your fridge or rushing out to the store when your attention needs to be on what’s being heated. Never forget: when you’re cooking, you’re playing with fire and things can get out of hand quickly. Pay attention.

So if you have never cooked, find a basic recipe for a dish you’d like to make, read through it – twice, making sure that you understand everything. If you find you don’t, maybe you should find another recipe. Now measure and prep all the ingredients for your dish, and away you go. Once you’re cooking, follow the recipe’s cooking instructions exactly. This is not the time to improvise!

Don’t let yourself become distracted. Emptying the dishwasher while you’re browning a piece of meat or frying up some onions may seem like a good use of time, but things can burn amazingly fast. (Trust me on this one. I have vast experience at burning things!) Enjoy the process and learn by watching what happens. At its heart, cooking is merely chemistry. You’re applying heat to a number of ingredients and changing them chemically into something different – and hopefully wonderful.

I also find cooking this way to be very relaxing: the careful assembly of my ingredients, watching them change as they cook, the fragrances rising from the pots or the oven. Yes, things can get wild as a complicated meal with several dishes all become ready (hopefully) at the same time, but if the cook has stayed organized and thought things through, even this pressure can be enjoyable.

So forget your cooking fears! Get out into the kitchen and start learning. You may find you actually enjoy the process. And there’s nothing like the satisfaction of sitting down to a great meal that you’ve prepared.

Like I said: trust me.

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