Nourish: Ten Tips For The New Cook

Nourish: Ten Tips For The New Cook

[BlogHer's theme for May is "Nourish." With farmers' markets opening all over the United States and wedding season kicking off, I don't think this theme could be any more timely.]

I have a Facebook friend - a young woman, a graduate student - who is getting married this summer. She's bright and funny and very excited about the new house she and her fiancé have bought. She can't wait for her wedding day and her new life. There's just one problem: she's worried that she can't cook. She's really worried about it.

She wants to learn to be a good cook, so that when she's married, she'll be able to make delicious, healthy meals for her family and guests. But she's frustrated that it's not coming naturally to her.

I have a little unsolicited advice.

First, very, very few skills worth mastering come naturally. They almost always take instruction, practice, mistakes, screw-ups, tears, and hard work. You wouldn't expect yourself to be able to sit down at the piano for the first time ever and play a beautiful Chopin étude, would you? Pick up a pair of knitting needles that you've never touched before and, in a few hours, make a gorgeous Icelandic sweater? Of course not. So why would you expect yourself to be able to produce a gourmet meal for two on your first attempt?

Cooking is like anything else. You need practice, trial and error, and maybe someone to help you when you are starting out. Take a deep breath and follow some of these humble suggestions.

Assorted fruit pies

1. Make what you like to eat. Make a list of your favorite meals. Are you a fish lover? Does your spouse love hamburgers? Vegetarian? Gluten-free? Chocolate? Cooking is more fun when you are making something that will be eaten with enthusiasm.

2. Start with a recipe. That's right. Don't try to wing it, at least not at first. Invest in a good, comprehensive cookbook (I love my copy of The America's Test Kitchen Family Cookbook), and flag the recipes you'd like to try. Start a Pinterest board and pin recipes. When someone makes a meal you enjoy, ask for the recipe so you can try it yourself.

3. Invest in the tools you'll use over and over. My family loves rice, so I invested in a great rice cooker. We always have perfect rice, and I never need to worry about it once I turn the cooker on. Of course, my favorite kitchen accessory is my Crock-Pot, an essential tool for anyone who works outside the home. (But a sturdy Dutch oven on the stovetop works just as well if you're around to supervise it!)

My KitchenAid mixer lives on my counter.

4. Educate yourself ahead of time. Read the recipe and make sure you understand all the terms in it. If you don't know how to do one of the specified steps, look it up. Find an online tutorial. One of my daughters is an ace egg poacher; she perfected her skills by watching a You Tube video.

5. Shop locally and seasonally. Plan your meals according to what's in season. Try the strawberry shortcakes in early summer, not the dead of winter. Try to buy the ingredients as close to preparation time as you can.

Seasonal: Thanksgiving pumpkin pie.

6. Give yourself time, and focus on the task. Don't try to multitask at first. Follow the instructions carefully, and pay attention to what you're doing. Measure carefully. Don't walk away and leave something on the stovetop. Save the movie-watching for later.

7. Never make a dish for company that you haven't already made for yourself. And loved.

8. Take pictures and take notes. Always follow a recipe with a pencil in your hand, and mark up your cookbook liberally. Note the date on which you made the dish, any substitutions or problems, who enjoyed it in particular, where you got the ingredients. If it comes out great, photograph it.

9. Keep a binder. I have a plain old binder in my kitchen that's full of recipes printed from the internet, clipped from magazines, or taken off the backs of packages. They're arranged by type: desserts, meats, pasta, appetizers. I can find the chocolate-chip cookie recipe from the back of the chip bag in no time, even if there's no package handy.

10. Have fun. Set the table nicely and be artistic with garnishes. Open a bottle of wine or a festive flavored seltzer. Enjoy the company, whether it's just the two of you or the whole neighborhood. Cooking is fun when you enjoy yourself!

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