A friend of mine is really getting interested in cooking and food. She enrolled in a cooking school – not a professional course, but one to give her a more solid foundation so she could feel more confident in her skills.
She told me that one of the main things that she wanted to learn was how to combine flavors. What works together? What tastes good with what, and why? She asked her teacher, and the teacher told her that she should read cookbooks.
Hmmm, the teacher’s answer seems too short. Although cookbooks are a good place to start (I actually do read cookbooks), I’m not sure they will give her the answers she seeks. I thought a lot about her question.
It’s a question that could simply be answered with a short and brief statement. But, so many chefs are experimenting with different flavors. And, well, not everyone likes the same things. I’m not a fan of ginger. But, a good ginger ale is sooo good. My husband doesn’t like raw tomatoes, but loves cooked ones, like in salsa and ketchup. So, the answer is extremely personal. It requires much self-reflection. Sometimes it’s easy to know what works, like when your family tells you they don’t like bitter greens (ok, no more kale or radicchio for dinner). But, how do you start cooking and learning if you aren’t sure where to start?
Well, the most simple answer (and yet the most complicated one)… Cook. Cook lots! Take notes on the things you like and don’t like. Every recipe I’ve ever used has notes next to it. Even in really nice cookbooks. I write the date I made it, the overall interpretation (great, good, top-notch, etc), and any additional things like, use fewer onions, or needed to cook 20 minutes longer than it said, or whatever. At this point in my life, I don’t keep any recipe that I didn’t like (well, I don’t tear out cookbook pages, but you get it). But, that took me a while to get to.
Continue cooking… try new dishes all the time. Maybe you want to do a weekly tour of worldly foods. This week may be Thai food. Cook some Pad Thai at home. Then, go out to your local Thai place and order a different dish. Try something different each week (or month or day)… Indian food, Persian, Korean, Texas BBQ, New Orleans Cajun, California fresh, Italian, Mexican, etc. And, as you get more comfortable, try changing the recipe a little – more cayenne, more onions, less vinegar, whatever.
I know what my family likes, so I change a recipe before I ever even cook it most of the time. I don’t like celery or fennel, so I add the same amount of onion in exchange for celery or fennel. So, don’t be afraid to change things that you don’t care for, esp. in dinner dishes. If you don’t like hot things, leave out the cayenne pepper. etc.
Watch cooking shows. I’d highly recommend Julia and Jacques cooking at home – they’ll teach you lots! And, America’s Test Kitchen rocks! Real cooking shows, not the ones on the Food Network (ok, before you say I’m a hater, the ones on Food Network in the daytime aren’t bad for teaching, but the nighttime ones are to teaching cooking as American Idol is to teaching singing). Watch Rick Bayless for Mexican dishes. Or, Ming Tsai for east-west dishes. Watch Lidia for Italian. Watch the shows where they cook the recipe in front of you. I have a channel that I watch called Create, and they have great shows. I also like the Live Well Network.
As for books, get a good basic book like the Joy of Cooking. Subscribe to a food magazine like Food and Wine or Bon Appetit. Both will help you on your journey and will give you new ideas and things to cook.
And, read food blogs. There are some great ones out there. Of course, I like this one: hee hee! But, look at others too, like 101 Cookbooks and Orangette. There are so many great ones that inspire me all the time.
Well, there’s my super long babble to her question. Of course, I also offered that I’d be happy to cook and chat together anytime! And, here’s a starting point for using fresh or dried herbs and spices in your cooking:
Asian – basil, sesame seed, ginger, black pepper, cilantro, chives, kaffir lime leaf, lemon basil, lemongrass
Bouquet Garnis (a classic trio) – parsley, thyme, and bay leaf… use in soups, stews, broths
Fresh flavors – basil, chives, dill, marjoram, mint, rosemary, sage, thyme… good to grow in your garden so that you can go cut a little and use it to bump up dinner a bit, sauces, stuffing, bread,
Fruity – allspice, cardamom, chamomile, lemon balm, lemon verbena, mint … use in fruit salads, jams, desserts
Indian – basil, cardamom, curry, cinnamon, ginger, black pepper, turmeric
Italian – oregano, basil, bay leaf, parsley, rosemary… sauce, bread, pastas
Licorice flavored – tarragon, fennel, anise, dill, basil
Mexican – coriander, cilantro, parsley, chili powder, cumin, black pepper, cayenne
Oniony – chives, garlic, onion seeds, shallots
Spicy – chile peppers, cilantro, cumin, garlic, cinnamon, ginger, black pepper, coriander … add to salsa, chicken, pasta, heck just about anything
Sweet – allspice, anise, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, mint, cardamom, mace, poppy seed, liquors… add to desserts, jams, bread