Thursday, April 15, 2010

Three Simple Tips for Aspiring Cooks

On Easter Eve, I had the opportunity to eat a fully catered authentic Italian-American meal, complete with many vegetarian-friendly options, courtesy of Chef Mark of San Francisco's California Culinary Academy and Michael's Restaurant (2929 Avenue R, Brooklyn, NY). The reason for the union of East and West Coast deliciousness? The birthday dinner of my next-door neighbor, Vivian – Chef Mark's mother. Needless to say, I was delighted to be meeting the chef son who my a-Mu (the Toisanese name I call my neighbor, which means something like "respected older unrelated aunt") brags so much about. I had so many questions.

First on my agenda – right after saying hello, wishing a happy birthday to the birthday girl, and the quick scan of the dishes to whet my appetite for later – was to chat up Chef Mark about what kind of food he cooks, how he cooks, and what tips he would have to an aspiring cook.

Chef Mark was very amiable and obliging, as I suspect I detected a combination of pleasant surprise (at finding someone so enthusiastic about what he does for a living) and weary familiarity (from all the students asking him questions). He immediately said the following:

"Three things: use fresh ingredients, take your time, stay simple."

That's it.

I was amazed.

And momentarily silent (if you know me well, you know how rare these occasions are) from Chef Mark's quick and ready answer. I thought he'd at least pause at the uniqueness of my question. Now I found myself mentally typing his words down and filing them away for this post.

Lesson learned. Always be on your toes.

I repeated the three rules to him just to confirm later that evening. But not before I asked him what he thought about CSAs (community supported agriculture, for those whose lives don't revolve around the fresh food movement). He agreed with me that they're great ways to get fresh food on the table. I would add that they're a great way to cut costs if you feed an army of kids regularly or if you need to push yourself to cook more often by throwing produce too beautiful to waste your way every other week.

And really, these rules make a world of sense. Here's why.

Use fresh ingredients

Vegetable Antipasti

Take this plate of antipasti that Chef Mark prepared that morning. It practically screams "Fresh." Fresh kalamata and green olives. Fresh steamed asparagus. Fresh roasted eggplant. Fresh tossed skinny string beans (I don't recall the actual name of these at the moment). Fresh red peppers, roasted and sliced into slivers. It's gorgeous. And good for you. And good eats.

Take your time

This is definitely pertinent advice for me, the impatient one when it comes to eating, slow walkers, and important things getting done. Since starting my gradual adoption of a vegetarian diet over five years ago, I've made progress on the eating speed front. I'd heard all the talk about how French women – and women living along the Iberian and Mediterranean Seas in general – stay lean and fit in spite of their oil-rich diets. I knew the value behind the concept of afternoon siestas. I noticed how stuffing my face made me feel sluggish for hours afterwards and slowed my work productivity.

Now slow walkers... that's out of my hands.

I'm working on having the guts, courage and shrewdness to just take on the pile of work, already, sensing the balance between what needs to get done first and what can get done first.

But taking my time in the kitchen is so far turning out to be pretty relaxing, cathartic even, and helping me slow down in other ways, too.

Stay simple

Cheese Antipasti

How much simpler can it get than a tray of sliced mozzarella and tomatoes, tossed in olive oil and vinaigrette? (Along with some type of salami-like meat and chunks of dry cheddar.)

The simplest recipes are often the most delicious. Sometimes they are even more time consuming to prepare than less seemingly complicated recipes.

And the foods with the simplest list of ingredients are always the healthiest. If you can't pronounce it or have never heard of it, it's no longer simple and no longer healthy. Just say no to food additives as often as you can.

Another way to keep simplicity in mind is in how you stock your kitchen, however small (warning: it's a video), like Deb at Smitten Kitchen's. Or natural foods oriented, like Heidi's over at 101Cookbooks. Or regarding flavor profiles.

And if you think simple and tasty means hard work, check out Amy's Stupidly Simple Snacks video series over at AmyBlogsChow.

There. Three simple rules, plus a little help from friends with tasty habits, to start your own cooking adventure. Enjoy!

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