How to Be a Better Cook in 5 Recipes
How to Be a Better Cook in 5 Recipes

I admire my mother when she is in the kitchen preparing food for our entire family. The ease and grace with which she prepares each dish makes me a little envious. She has let me help her in the kitchen since before I can remember and it seems that the better I get at cooking, the better she gets too. She rarely uses recipes because she knows the timing and textures by heart - but it hasn't always been this way.

My mother grew up on a farm (probably the best place to learn how to cook) and was the oldest of her sisters and brothers. This meant that after she finished her chores around the farm she got to help around the house by preparing the meals for her younger brothers and sisters. This is where her culinary adventure began, and where she started mastering the basics that she would go on to teach me. "Everyone must first walk before they can run, and cooks must be able to use a knife properly before they can back-slice herbs."

Basically, in order to become a better cook you must do just that - cook. It doesn't need to be anything extravagant, just the act of preparing daily meals, becoming fluid with your cooking utensils and understanding times and textures will make you a better cook naturally. Some tips and tricks probably wouldn't hurt either.

We've come up with a variety of different recipes so you can practice your cooking skills while creating dishes that look like you've been a pro for years. These recipes will also serve as the perfect backup if company drops by during any point of the day. With enough practice you'll be able to whip one up in no time and your guests are sure to be impressed.


It's All in the Details

Many of my favorite recipes not only taste good, but they look good too. When cooking for yourself it is easy to skimp on the details that you would otherwise add if company was coming to dine. Practicing these details, even though they might be small, will help engrain the practice of being attentive to detail without even thinking about it.

The recipe we will use to practice attention to detail is Manzanillo Scrambled Eggs in Wonton Shells. They look fantastic and are great when making breakfast for the family or taking to brunch. When making these pay special attention to the wonton shells. They are delicate and can create a fantastic contrast to the eggs, but make sure you place them carefully so your edges are even.

Another thing that we love about this recipe is that it uses muffin tins. Muffin tins can be used in a number of ways in the kitchen anywhere from these breakfast cups to the perfect serving size of mac and cheese. When we look to buy new tools for the kitchen, we especially like those that have more than one function. This helps keep the kitchen more organized and less cluttered.


Chop, Chop

When it comes to preparing food quickly and safely, knives are one of the most important tools in the kitchen. Knives can range in price from $5 at the grocery store to hundreds of dollars at special culinary stores. If you are planning on truly committing to spending more time in your kitchen, our favorite local chef has told us on several occasions his #1 kitchen secret is to invest in the highest quality set of knives that matches your budget. In this case you should look at quality over quantity. Yes, it would be nice to have an 18 piece set of knives for every occasion imaginable, but a basic arsenal of everyday knives will do just fine. This should include a paring knife, chef's knife, boning knife, bread knife and utility knife. The key is to buy knives that stay sharp or can be sharpened easily. Believe it or not, this will make a noticeable difference in your cooking and presentation of meals.

To practice your chopping skills, first make sure your chef knife if nice and sharp. This knife will become one of your favorite tools if you love vegetables as much as we do. The recipe we will use to practice our chopping skills is Garbanzo Bean Salad. This salad has a variety of vegetables that need to be cut into bite sized pieces. It is an easy salad for a hot summer night or preparing the night before an outdoor party or picnic.


Mise En Place

Some recipes require little or no prep time, while others require an exorbitant amount. When it comes to those that require ingredients to be prepped, this should not be overlooked. Reading through your list of ingredients and steps in a recipe is important but it should not be intimidating. This is where the concept of Mise en place comes into play. This French expression means "putting in place", or putting everything in its place, referring to prepping your cooking area and the ingredients that will be used in the dish. This term is typically used in restaurants where cooks need everything required to make a dish within arm's reach. If you prepare your cooking area with everything you will need including but not limited to cooking utensils, ingredients, plates and bowls, measuring cups, this will help the cooking process go more smoothly.

To practice Mise En Place we will be making Chicken Fried Rice with Lime and Makrut Lime Leaves. This recipe will not only need you to pay attention to the recipe and different ingredients that need to be prepped, but you will also get a chance to continue to practice your chopping skills and attention to detail. It may seem a little complicated, but this is a good opportunity to practice going step by step and in the end you will have a delicious dinner that you're excited to share.

Layer the Flavor

Many of the best meals that you have eaten probably have had a variety of different flavors that mingled together to form a symphony on your taste buds. This is created by layering flavors and adding herbs and spices from beginning to end while cooking a dish. Now that you have some experience with chopping, prepping and paying attention to presentation details it is time to get a little more in depth with a variety of flavors in one dish. We love spices, seasonings and the exceptional flavors that can be provided when these are added to a dish at just the right time. Fresh fruits, vegetables, herbs and spices are added at different times in the cooking process than their dried cousins. This is important to know to get the most flavors out of each, while not burning any ingredient.   

To practice adding flavors throughout the cooking process we will be making a Ramen Soup Bowl with Shichimi Togarashi. This Japanese soup brings together a variety of flavors to create a healthy ramen dish. While making the recipe, remember to prep by gathering all of the utensils and ingredients that you will need and keep them within an arm's reach. As you add the ingredients, take note of the flavors that each one will add to the dish. While eating your soup, try to distinguish these ingredients and the flavor combinations that they provide.   


Fresh is Best

We've mentioned numerous times that we love fresh produce, not that there is anything wrong with frozen fruit and vegetables at all. But when you are at the grocery store or fresh produce stand, it is convenient to know the different ways to use fresh fruits and vegetables, and where they can replace other ingredients in one of your favorite dishes to make it healthier and even more delicious.

We love pasta, but it isn't always packed with the vitamins and minerals that we actually want in our diet. How do we eat healthier without sacrificing the flavor or texture? Vegetables. There are actually a few different vegetables that can be used in place of noodles in pasta dishes including zucchini, spaghetti squash and eggplant. The first time you replace noodles with one of these vegetables you may find that it tastes a little different. That's because it does! But after one or two tries you might be surprised to find that you actually prefer the healthier vegetable version compared to the high carb pasta.

To practice preparing vegetables as a healthier option to pasta we will be making Beef and Zucchini Parmigiana. The most important part of this recipe is to note the texture of the zucchini before and after it is cooked, along with the amount of time it is cooked for. This will help you not only when preparing this recipe for a second time, but also as a guide on cooking other similar vegetables such as eggplant and spaghetti squash.

Now that you have prepared five different meals you are well on your way to becoming a better cook. Throughout the process you should have become more comfortable and in tune with your heat source, cooking utensils and ingredients. You also now know the importance of prepping your ingredients and having them readily available when it comes time to cook. In addition, you may have gotten some inspiration from the cooking styles and cookware (like the muffin pans) that you can use when making future recipes. Plus, the best part of all, if company is stopping by and you need a recipe, you have already practiced these and can confidently prepare them again.


How Much Spice to Use and When to Add
Flavor Characteristics of Spices
What Spice Go with What Meat?
The Best Fruit and Vegetable Seasonings