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Monday, August 8, 2011

The Cooking Comfort Zone and How to Get There

Does the idea of baking a cake from scratch terrify you? Is the only option for ethnic food take out? Do you laugh (and maybe cry) at the suggestion of homemade bread? Well, you’re not the only one. But that doesn’t mean you can’t do it. In five steps, you can transform your kitchen skills from industrial pawn to creative chef.

Step One: Be active in the kitchen. So maybe your meals come from a drive-through window, or out of a box. The first step to becoming a better cook is to take the leap of faith and start cooking on your own. If you already cook, but your skills are limited—keep up the good work. After all, practice makes perfect.  Create simple meals, snacks and desserts. Integrate what you know with fresh ingredients. Although you can use boxed preparation for pastas, potatoes, brownies, etc., throwing in fresh herbs for savory foods and sweet accents like chocolate chips in a dessert will start to grow your confidence.

Step Two: Try a simple recipe. At this point, you should start leaving your addiction to premade foods behind. It’s okay to use this angle as a crutch for harder recipes, but let’s improve your capabilities by seeking out a few simple recipes. For something to cook, try a straightforward stir-fry.  That doesn’t mean its Asian influenced. Toss some similar sized chicken and vegetables together in a pan and cook it up. If you’d like to try your hand at baking, cookies is a good place to start. Search out more simple recipes from family and friends or even the internet.  

Step Three: Buy a cookbook. Now you have several simple recipes under your belt and a solid confidence to increase the difficulty (and flavor!) or your repertoire. Put together a meal that uses red meat or fish as these are proteins that take several repetitions to fully understand at what point and in what manner of cooking they taste best. To keep the menu healthy, use eggplant or mushrooms as the star of the plate. Risotto is another good dish to try. Keep things small for baking. Cupcakes, bars and other petite confections. Search through your cookbook for ideas as it is now your best friend.  

Step Four: Take it up a notch! Experiment with the flavor palate you have developed and start creating ideas for the dinner course. Cirtus and herbs love seafood. Bold flavors beef up hearty meats and poultry has become versatile. Toss accents into salads and sides like nuts and dried fruits. Try making your pasta fresh with homemade Italian bread. Challenge yourself to create complex goodies like pies and cheesecakes. Turn your favorite cupcake recipe into a two layered cake, using the same icing to decorate. Hopefully you’ve found dishes at either end of the spectrum that are your go-to plan for impromptu dinner parties and holidays.

Step Five: Dazzle with your food.  When reaching this milestone, you can experiment with the succulent offerings of the world. Until now you have likely focused on whatever cultural food you’ve grown up with or your region’s staples, but it’s time to expand. Look to the major culinary fads for inspiration and try making a meal you would have purchased previously only at a restaurant. This same concept translates to the after dinner treats. Something as common as ice cream is now within your reach to make at home. Quality kitchen equipment can now be invested in with the promise of a worthwhile reward. Your skills can span breakfast, lunch and dinner and all pit-stops in-between.

These steps aren’t offered as something you can accomplish overnight or even in a week. Becoming comfortable, flexible and self-reliant in the kitchen takes time. But you should enjoy each step as you go and manage them at your own pace. When recipes become effortless you should move your study to the next level. A variety of cookbooks, supermarkets, farmer’s markets and specialty stores are at your disposal for gaining knowledge and encouragement. And once you have completed the process, you can share your newfound wisdom with others through the gregarious gift of global, fun and flavorful food.

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