A gentle curl of steam wafts up from the bowl resting on the kitchen counter. Glistening golden yolks peek out from behind tender slices of meat, and noodles swim in herb-garnished broth. I lean forward, and jolt awake to the familiar buzzing of my alarm. Top ramen and takeout eradicate my decadent dreams of homemade cuisine … At least, that’s how it was before quarantine. After the initial shock of being inside practically 24/7, I decided that I would use the extra time to sharpen my kitchen skills, so to speak. Who doesn’t fantasize about posting cute, home-made, “foodie” content on their Instagram? Plus, I’ve always wanted to wear one of those infamous “kiss the cook” aprons!
Unfortunately, trying to take on every aspect of cooking at once was baking me crazy! Smoke billowed from the oven where my latest attempt at chocolate chip cookies had turned into a charcoal catastrophe, and I vividly envisioned Gordon Ramsay pronouncing me an “idiot sandwich.” Well, if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen! So, I did. I took a break from my culinary conquest for a few months. But, when I moved to my aunt and uncle’s house in September, I was once again forced to open the kitchen cabinet and cook … because both of them are graduates of culinary school! While neither of them are professional chefs, they have a variety of experiences, from catering to garnishing to the unparalleled art of barbecue, under their belts. I decided to take advantage of their knowledge and pass it on to my fellow college students. Who knows? Maybe it’ll help us transform our instant-ramen-and-energy-drink meals into almost-five-star-Michelin-worthy dishes!
Q&A With Culinary School Graduates
I’ve collected a few tips and tricks that I’ve learned while living and cooking with my aunt and uncle so far! Here are their takes on the basics of learning and perfecting culinary skills on your own — a particularly useful topic for college students preparing to rent or buy their own living space in the near future. They added some general and personal notes in each category listed below.
Kitchen Equipment: The Basics
- The most important items: a good quality cutting knife and knife sharpener. Though you don’t need to splurge on these, they’re essential for a simpler, and less dangerous, cutting and cooking process.
- A good set of teaspoons/tablespoons and measuring cups. Remember to get supplies that are marked in both cups and ounces — it saves a lot of stress and guesswork.
- A heavy-duty stove-top (sauté) pan is another staple in cooking and baking.
- A stand mixer (if you’re looking to bake cookies, cakes or bread frequently) is a useful investment, as it’s really nice to relieve wrist tension when combining ingredients in dough.
- A cooking (meat) thermometer is especially necessary to get the most out of both safety and taste.
Essential Groceries for the Cooking Newbie
- Good quality sugar, flour, dried beans and grains/pasta are inexpensive and easy to add to any meal.
- Dairy or nondairy milk. My aunt, who is lactose intolerant, is fond of almond milk. My uncle added that it’s always a good idea to have evaporated milk around to extend a soup (as long as it has a cream base). Plus, it stays edible for a long time!
- Broth or stock (chicken/beef/vegetable). Speaking of soup, keeping broth and/or stock in the cupboard is usually a smart idea for a quick bite (or a meal addition) as well.
- Carrots, celery and onions! At least in my uncle’s French-cuisine-based instruction, those particular vegetables are the most essential ones in cooking.
Meals/Snacks/Desserts: A few favorites, plus some general cooking/baking tips!
- Chocolate chip cookies! My uncle swears by his tried-and-true chocolate chip cookie recipe, which he’s perfected after countless attempts over the years. He says that brown sugar, a little bit of karo syrup and molasses are key to making the best-tasting cookies.
- Spiced-up artichoke ravioli! My aunt said one of her favorite experiments with food started when she took a pack of pre-made artichoke ravioli and cooked them as usual, but topped them with a mix of smoked trout, tomatoes, capers, green onions and dill chevre (goat) cheese. She seasoned the dish with a combination of lemon juice, black pepper and a bit of Sriracha sauce. The dill flavor with a kick of spice really enhances the flavor of the ravioli!
- According to my uncle, it’s wise to age meat if you’re able, as it tenderizes it and breaks down protein. It even concentrates and enhances the flavor.
- Some general tips they came to a consensus on: When you follow recipes in cooking, play around with flavors! You don’t have to be exact, especially since cooking is a form of artistic expression and freedom. On the other hand, it’s less advisable to mess around with recipes when you’re baking. “Baking is a science, you’re following a formula,” my aunt warned me. “If you change the ingredients even a little, the end result can be altered a lot.”
- Lastly, in regards to oven temperature: “When in doubt, heat the oven to 350℉ and check it every ten minutes.”
A Quick and Easy Guide to Spices and Flavors
- Canola/cooking oil, salt and pepper. They may seem simple, but they’re the only seasonings you really need to improve the most basic of dishes!
- An acid of some sort. Acids are flavor enhancers, from lemon to even apple juice, and, of course, any kind of vinegar. My uncle says, when it comes to a “vinegar guide,” to consider the flavor of the dish itself. Apple cider vinegar is good for a tinge of sweetness, but rice vinegar is best in terms of versatility.
- A hot sauce — even a little bit does wonders! Use it freely in soups and stews, and beyond. My aunt swears by Japanese yuzu sauce, and she’s partial to a good old Sriracha sauce as well.
- Cinnamon. It’s a lifesaver, and I’ve used it a lot recently on baked goods, oatmeals, and yogurt parfaits, or even to take plain apple slices to the next level!
- Another all-rounder: thyme. The flavor isn’t overpowering or heavily associated with any one cuisine, and it’s good to blend with meat flavors.
- On finding your favorite flavors: It’s important to find flavors you like in foods, even if they’re intense. Some divisive flavors, such as dill or cilantro, can be repulsive for some people but favorites for others, so it’s essential to try out a variety of cuisines and expand your palate for yourself, when you can.
- Fresh vs. dried herbs and spices: Dried spices, if whole, should be heated in a pan to release oil and intensify flavor before being used. If powdered, they’re a little more prone to burning, but they should be cautiously mingled with a bit of oil (over heat) before use for best results. However, whenever possible, obtain or grow your own fresh herbs! Tubes of herbs in the grocery store produce section can be great quality, along with having a relatively long shelf life.
Plating (Sauces, Cutting, Garnishes)
- Never use a garnish you can’t eat! The number one rule of thumb when it comes to garnishes, at least in culinary school, is to keep everything edible. Sprigs of rosemary may be pretty, but they’re not the most appetizing topping for a meal.
- Bite-sized portions. When serving a more elegant course, most portions should be bite-sized, to minimize utensil-work. (Some meats, such as steak, are an exception.)
- Sauces: They can be included in a variety of ways, including as drizzled on courses, or served to the side and even underneath the course (for a spotless, unique look). In some cases, such as with meat or dessert, it ensures that the sauce is spread cleanly and evenly throughout the dish.
- Use a sharp paring knife (as opposed to a chopping/chef’s knife) for intricate garnish work. It’s essential when trying to shave off a single sheet from a carrot or turn cucumbers into aesthetically pleasing flowers!
- Creative cutting: Vary the shapes and sizes of your material (circles, matchsticks, cubes, shavings, etc.), slice on an angle or even use a melon baller or a spoon for rounded or oval shapes. Let your artistic side shine through!
Nowadays, it wouldn’t be a surprise to find me in the kitchen, dancing terribly to Michael Jackson as I crack eggs into a bowl and whisk them vigorously to the tune of “Beat It.” While I might not be nearly as good as the “MasterChef” contestants I binge-watch on sleep-deprived weekends, I can declare with pride that I’m no longer an idiot sandwich. Thanks to my aunt and uncle and their advice, I’ve gained a lot more confidence in the kitchen. Gone are the days of instant ramen and daily fast food runs. Cooking that perfect meal I’ve always dreamt about might not be such a fantasy after all … and baking? It’s a piece of cake!