By Jenifer Antonelli
I love teaching people how to cook because I enjoy seeing the “a-ha!” moments when they realize they can make amazing food with very little effort. In our modern, impatient world, it can sometimes seem like an unthinkable luxury to cook a meal from scratch. Why take an hour to make a lasagna when you could simply pick one up from Costco along with your paper towels and toilet paper?! Well, because yours will taste better—and you might just find you enjoy slowing down long enough to chop an onion, sweat it until it’s buttery soft, and use it to create a delicious sauce that will make your family put down their phones and talk at dinner. Here are some tips to get you started:
1. Take a knife-skills class. Many people are afraid of using a sharp chef’s knife, but it will save you so much time and energy if you know how to use it. Believe it or not, a sharp knife is also a safer choice because you don’t need to use as much pressure to cut your food, so you are less likely to cut yourself. Many local cooking schools offer one-time knife-skills classes to teach you how to cut a variety of foods quickly and safely. Or, if you want to get a group of friends together and host a private class at your home, I would be happy to teach you some knife skills myself.
2. Buy the best ingredients you can afford, and stay seasonal. If you can, shop at a local farmers’ market, such as El Segundo’s on Thursday afternoons, for the freshest produce. Don’t be afraid to ask the vendor questions if you’re unsure how to store or prepare an ingredient. Don’t be shy when buying your meat or seafood, either. If I need the backbone taken out of my raw, whole chicken, I ask my butcher to do it. Likewise, if I want the skin removed from my fresh fish, my fishmonger is happy to help and save me time.
3. Don’t be afraid to season your food. Most of our sodium intake comes from processed foods, so if you are cooking at home, don’t shy away from seasoning your foods with kosher salt (it dissolves easily) and freshly ground pepper. It makes a big difference if you taste and season as you go, rather than just adding a bunch of salt at the end, and your food’s sodium content will remain minimal. Whenever your food tastes like something is missing, try adding a little salt or acid (such as citrus juice or vinegar). Whenever possible, use fresh instead of dried herbs for more flavor and color. Same goes for fresh garlic versus jarred and freshly squeezed citrus juice versus bottled. When using spices, make sure those are also fresh. Most spices lose quality over time, so if they are expired or have been open for more than a year, toss them and restock your pantry with fresh versions for more flavor.
4. Use all five senses when cooking. I like to put on some music and get in the zone when I cook, so that it’s almost like a moving meditation during which I am truly present in the moment. What does the meat sound like when I sear it in the pan? Is it sizzling? Do I see a deep golden brown crust when I flip it over? What does that meat smell and feel like when it’s done? How does it taste? Learn to use and trust your senses instead of only relying on guidelines in recipes. Sometimes recipes are very well written, and sometimes they leave much to be desired. Cooking times and oven temperatures vary, but your nose can smell something starting to burn and help you make adjustments.
5. Use an instant-read thermometer. Many people are afraid of undercooking their meat, so they exercise an abundance of caution and overcook it. You really need a meat thermometer to truly know when your protein has reached the desired doneness. This device takes all the guesswork out of rare to medium-rare to well done. Once you identify the actual temperature at which you like your meats cooked, you can use a thermometer to check when they are truly ready. Your proteins, once done, should always rest for a few minutes before you slice them, to allow the juices time to redistribute instead of spilling out all over your cutting board and drying out your meat.
I hope these quick tips help ease your kitchen anxieties and take your cooking to the next level of deliciousness!
Jenifer Antonelli is the owner of Vino and Viand Personal Chef Services. @vinoandviand on Facebook or Instagram.