As you know, although my cooking skills skyrocketed when I studied cooking and got certified as a plant based cook, most of my skills and creativity in the kitchen was something that developed over time, and something that simply came from huge curiosity and practice. Not to mention all the wonderful and unexpected teachers I had along the way.
Most of what I know about cooking was completely self-taught and is the result of over 19 years of simply spending time in the kitchen and having the desire to get better and better and learn what I needed to learn. It's also the result of just loving food and being a serious eater! That's the funnest part.
Whenever friends come over for dinner or I listen to them talk about their cooking, I always hear the same thing, people have the firm belief that outstanding restaurant-like cooking is reserved for just a select few, and that you're either born with the gift or went to the best cooking school in Paris. They also use time as an excuse not to create varied and creative meals... "if I had more time I could make more interesting meals, but now I only cook the same foods over and over again". Sound familiar?
I also hear from people that they don't have any space in their kitchen, or they can't afford fancy equipment. For this one I have a little story to share with you. The best cook I've ever met was my uncle Aly. My uncle majored in film direction, was also a cab driver in NYC at one point, he was a writer and for most of his life worked as a journalist. He was also a musician, played at CBGB's with his band The Leisure Units, he had the most awesome voice on the planet, and other than being a sandwich counter boy at one of the most famous New York delis for a period of time, he had no formal training in cooking. In spite of that though, he became an informal student of cooking, taught me everything I know about cooking methods, French techniques and especially making gravy and the best sauces. He never once took a class, and the best meal he ever made me, other than his famous potato latkes, was made in an old cast iron skillet, over an open fire, outside in the middle of the woods behind his house. Yup! No formal training, just one pan and no kitchen!
Here's the deal, if you've ever thought creating delicious restaurant style meals was only for a lucky few, think again. Anyone can get better at cooking, better at plant-based cooking and start creating scrumptious meals on a day to day basis. Once you start learning some basics, they don't take any additional effort, they don't even require you to use a recipe, you learn them, internalize them and they just become the way you cook. Of course, you also need to practice, good news is you get three or more chances each and every day!
To help you along this journey, today I want to share my top 5 beginner tips to help you improve your plant-based cooking skills. We all need to start somewhere, and these are my favorites to get you started:
Tip#1: Set a rule for yourself and make one new recipe per week
Recipes are the best thing ever. Someone has already gone through hours and hours of recipe testing for you (trust me when I tell you this is no easy task), which means that recipe, when followed correctly, will turn out great every time. It's also a lovely moment to relax and give into the directions. Since I'm constantly creating my own recipes and doing testing, days in which I decide to simply follow one from a cookbook or the internet feel like the most fun vacation! Recipes rock, and once you get familiar with them you can start improving them and playing around with them. What I recommend is that you set a day in your calendar when you and your family get together for a meal, or in which you have some downtime for yourself and make that your new recipe day. Once a week, grab a cookbook or glance at your Pinterest boards and make a new dish. Make this a habit, that means try to do this every week, as a little sacred date with yourself and your kitchen. This is the best way to start improving your skills and skip over the fear of cooking or those endless rows of beautiful cookbooks lining your shelves that you've only used as eye candy and never once cooked from. Time to open them up and add some gravy stains to those pages!
Tip #2 Read a recipe or two a week, without making it
Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking taught me a big important lesson on a day in which my flight was delayed on my way back home from Paris. Now, this is not a vegan book by any means, but if there's someone who knows and understands technique and how to explain it, it's Julia. She taught me right then and there that a cookbook is just a book, and you can read it like a novel, from cover to cover. Granted, this is for serious food lovers, but if you're not a food lover you're probably not reading this blog! Trust me when I tell you t hat reading cookbooks and recipes even when you're not making them will expand your vision on how different techniques are best suited for certain ingredients, you'll learn countless tricks and tips, and it will be catnip laced with crack for your creativity. This is a ritual I perform weekly!
Tip #3 Buy one unusual vegetable, fruit, spice or other ingredient and try to incorporate it in a meal this week
Even if you incorporate these newbies in your usual repertoire and dishes, this will help you understand their flavors and textures, what works together and what doesn't. I often go to a little international fruit and veggie store we have here in Madrid called Fruits of the World, in which I find the most unusual ingredients. I choose one, ask the vendor what it's called and if he's ever cooked with it (fruit and vegetable vendors are like the Yodas of cooking), I come home and google it. I quickly glance at a few recipes and see what some typical pairings are and then I just try to use my creativity or add it to dishes I already make. I've discovered so many delicious ingredients this way, and this is definitely true of spices as well.
Tip #4 Start becoming familiar with food pairings through books and by becoming a student of restaurant menus
Did you ever watch that beautiful cartoon of the two hats that were in love and made for each other? Food is the same way. You try and try different combinations of flavors, some work, some shouldn't be in the same room together, and some are like two peas in a pod (hello strawberry and rhubarb! Or chocolate and raspberries!). Understanding food pairings has been one of those tools that really started to take my cooking to the next level. Why? Well... you've heard me talk before about flexing your cooking by instinct muscle. That way, when you're pressed for time you can cook a delicious meal without the need to measure ingredients or follow a recipe. Understanding food pairings and knowing what flavors are going to work together are the best tools to help you on that journey. You'll know how to get your dish started every time with what you have in the fridge and pantry.
My favorite two ways to do this is through cookbooks and books about world cuisines or food in general. A fantastic book for this is The Vegetarian Flavor Bible by Karen Page and also How to Cook Everything Vegetarian by Mark Bittman (which also works as a handy self defense weapon!). Both have plenty of vegan content in spite of their names. The other way I use to learn about food pairings, is something that made me find my vegan sweet spot fast, and something I had never done consciously before going vegan. I began to study the menus of great restaurants online. It's food pairing Nirvana, and you'll get a ton of flavor combination ideas and inspiration.
Tip #5 Watch cooking videos
If you've read our post about my journey into cooking, you know that other than my uncle, and my formal training, cooking videos were my number one teacher. I would race home from school straight to the TV and spend hours in front of the Food Network with a notebook in hand. To this day I feel video is the most powerful tool for cooking because even if you're not cooking in that moment, your brain is processing what that is actually going to look like and be like when you do. This is why we created our online program entirely in video format, so you could take your vegan cooking to the next level, and learn the way I learned. No stress, no pressure, you watch and you practice. This is of course a shameless plug for our baby, our online program My Brownble, in which we add new content every single week and which you can learn more about here, and if you can't join yet, or are waiting to see if your loved one will gift you a membership for Christmas, you can also enjoy our youtube channel with lots of videos to get you started and more coming soon, and of course all the other wonderful cooking videos from other vegan cooks out there.
In a future post I'll take you further along this journey with some more advanced tips, but these are my top 5. Five that I still do weekly to this day. They work like a charm to help you gain confidence and knowledge in the kitchen.
Is there a resource or tool that has helped you improve your cooking skills? Leave it in the comments and don't forget to share this post with anyone you know who is trying to cook and eat more at home and wants to have delicious restaurant-style meals made in their very own kitchen.
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