Sunday, April 15, 2018

15 Skills Every Cook Should Know

And now for something completely different! (No house updates today and I just can't stomach a Portuguese update!)

Instead, this post was inspired by a list I found here which I significantly disagreed with. (How to wrap a burrito? Really?) So, I made my own!

15 Skills Every Cook Should Know

1) Bake a pie from scratch
Ok, this actually is a point I have in common with the linked list. Ideally you learn this from your grandma (thanks grandma!) but if not a regular old soulless pie recipe will work just fine. The real secret is to use shortening, don't substitute butter or margarine. This is the recipe that I use, and if there's more than one pie in your cooking future I recommend investing in a pastry blender, it's cheap and much more effective than a fork.  

2) Make pizza from scratch (including the dough)
Technically also on the above list, so I guess it must be extra essential.  This is seriously not that hard. I don't know why no one does it. While you're at it be like the italians and try putting something other than pepperoni on top.

3) Poach, scramble and hard boil eggs
In short, learn to cook eggs well. They're versatile, nutritious, and work with most diets. Big brunch tip: make your poached eggs in the oven. This turned out to be the perfect tip for the brunch I did in Rome - 12 servings of eggs benedict without hardly lifting a finger...

4) Clean and prepare seafood
I’m still very much working on this one myself. So far from my experience it’s easiest to start cooking things like shrimp or salmon fillets and work your way up.

5) Grill
The hardest part is just getting the grill lit. Seriously, it’s all downhill from there. And if you don't eat meat that's no reason not to grill - grilled vegetables are always great and grilled peaches are one of my favorite summer dishes. 

6) Use a broiler, crock pot, mixer, food mill, etc.
An expert knows the tools of the trade so don't be afraid of those unused items lurking in the corners of your kitchen (or oven!) some, like the crock pot, are lifesavers that you will end up using again and again. And some will just make for interesting stories. 

7) Can vegetables and fruits
This skill is particularly important for those of us who travel a lot and end up in places where produce is extremely seasonal.  Or for anyone lucky enough to have a big, productive garden.  

8) Mix a few standard cocktails
As a person who doesn't drink much beyond an occasional glass of wine this one is hard for me to get good at, but I practice on my dad. 

9) Cook a full Thanksgiving meal
Obviously non-Americans will have a different traditional meal, but the big point is to be able to make the main dishes from scratch, and ideally with enough confidence to put your own spin on them. Cranberry sauce, for example is actually incredibly easy and once you've made it from real cranberries you won't be tempted by the canned stuff any more.  

10) Modify a recipe to make it healthier
The importance of this skill became apparent to me when I read a recipe a few years back for some sort of cheesy chicken casserole - that was basically 800 calories a serving. Not only were the online commenters raving about how much their kids loved it but they were sharing ways to “improve”it by adding crumbled ritz crackers, extra cheese, and butter on top. And we wonder where the obesity epidemic came from? I made the same recipe doubling the veggies, halving the meat, and cutting out 2/3 of the cheese. It still wasn’t a kale salad by any stretch, but it at least resembled something I’d be willing to feed to another human being. This is not hard! With a little practice you can gauge what can be cut or substituted without sacrificing flavor or messing with the chemistry of the dish.

11) Prepare vegetables efficiently.
There are all kinds of handy tricks out there for peeling garlic, washing leeks, chopping herbs, and holding the tears when you cut onions. Learn a few and you’ll be much less likely to avoid cooking with vegetables in the future.

12) Cook rice
This may sound stupid, but it’s actually an art form. Most of the reasonably good cooks I know have struggled with this at one point or another.  And many have just given in and bought a rice cooker.  

13) Learn to make your favorites from scratch.
Not every food needs to be 100% homemade in my opinion - especially if you’ve got a busy life already. But being able to make pancakes, chocolate pudding, tomato soup or whatever specialty item you crave comes in very handy when you don’t have a store-bought version available.  For those of us in the foreign service it’s especially important as you never know which “staple” will be totally unavailable for the next couple of years.  Next on my list for this very reason? Rye bread and bagels.

14) Feed someone with dietary restrictions (at least for one meal)
Whether it’s an allergy, religious prohibition, diet or moral qualm, your repertoire should be large and varied enough to find a suitable alternative. Cooking international dishes can help as it opens up new  ingredients and cooking methods.

And speaking of...

15) Cook dishes that are outside your comfort zone
Maybe it’s more of an attitude than a skill,  but being able to spot a new food at the grocery store and put it to use instills confidence and might just be the route to discovering a new favorite dish. And as mentioned, international recipes are a great way to start as they can often be healthier than traditional American dishes and incorporate new and interesting flavors. New fruits and veggies are another avenue that quite a few Americans could explore.  When I was growing up we didn't eat so much variety simply because it wasn't available in our area.  Now that this variety is available it takes a conscious effort to seek out new options and give them a moment to shine. 

Obviously these will vary a bit based on your level.  When I was back in college my "essential 15" would have included things like 'make vegetables that aren't in a can' and 'boil pasta'.  In a few years maybe my list will be all souffles and lobster tails. 

Either way, I'm 100% sure I've missed something here so let me know what would be on your top 15!

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