Tips from Culinary School To Take Your Cooking from Good to Great

Wow, it's been a month and a half without so much as a single recipe from me. This is all because I severely underestimated how consuming culinary school would be. As my classmate Pamela said, "I used to think about food a lot but now I'm totally obsessed with it." It's true. When not in class cooking up a storm, I'm writing up recipes and analyzing their nutritional content (homework), going to the farmers market or trying out new recipes at home. Oh and don't forget that mess of cookbooks and cooking magazines I flip through looking for inspiration.

I thought you all might enjoy some tips from the culinary kitchen that you can start using right now to take your recipes from good to great.

1. Start using lots of fresh herbs and spices. Get rid of any old stale spices in your spice cabinet and replace them with fresh organic spices. Buy small quantities and put a date on the bottom of the jar. Don't be afraid to throw in a handful of fresh herbs to spark up the flavor of a dish. This time of year why not plant a couple of pots with basil and Italian parsley, rosemary and thyme? Then you can just go out and snip off what you need which is cheaper than buying fresh organic herbs in the market.

2. Upgrade your salt. Most chefs love salt and they love it because it brings out the flavor in their dishes. Unless you're on a restricted salt diet, go buy yourself some good sea salt. The one I'm using right now for everyday cooking is called Redmond Real Salt "ancient all natural sea salt " and boasts "unrefined sea salt mined from ancient sea bed contains 50+ trace minerals, including iodine. Okay, I'll tell you one of my salt secrets. I take some salt and put it in a little jar. I grab an herb, say rosemary or the lovely purple flower off of a lavender plant. I gentle crush it just a bit in a small mortar and pestle and toss it with the salt and then use that to season things like soup or roasted vegies. Delicious.

3. Invest in a good chef knife. This act alone will change your life. When dylan and i were just friends she would come over and we would cook dinner together. one time she was over and trying to cut the skin off a kabocha squash which is already difficult but with my dull knives it was ridiculous. Well, that put her over the edge and the next time she came over to cook she brought me a "real" knife. It was a Henckel 8" Chefs Knife and I've been using it every since. And well we've been together for years now so you see it really can change your life!

4. How to Balance Flavors. Have you ever cooked up something only to taste it and realize it's way too spicy or way too sweet? Here is the key to fixing those situations:

flavor to balance add

too sweet sour (acid)/heat... such as lemon jc, chili sauce, vinegar
too salty sour (acid)...lemon jc, vinegar
too hot, spicy sweet/fat...such as agave, honey, olive oil, butter
too sour(acidic) sweet/fat...agave, honey, olive oil, butter
too bland add salt/heat/herbs/spices
needs brightness acid/aromatics/heat...balsamic vinegar, wine, lemon/lime jc, zest, spices, herbs, chili sauce
needs depth herbs such as thyme and rosemary, maybe some salt to bring our flavors
too harsh/strong sweet such as agave, honey, molasses

5. Turn it up a notch with zest. A really nice microplane runs about $12 and will definitely take your cooking from good to great or is that grate! Start adding zest to things and see what happens. Wash your lemon, lime or orange first then zest the peel without getting the white pith as that part is bitter.

6. Make your life easier with natural parchment paper. If I'm going to roast or bake something I line that pan with parchment paper and let me tell you it beats the heck out of soaking and scrubbing those pans.

7. Make your own salad dressings. No, don't grumble, seriously you can do this. Your dressing will be fresh and taste better, you'll know exactly what ingredients are in it and it will cost you way less than buying bottled dressing. So here is the ratio: 1 part acid (usually vinegar) to 3 parts oil (usually olive oil). Use only 2 parts oil for a stronger more intense flavored dressing and 3 parts for a more subtle flavor. Okay, an example of one I throw together that has a slightly sweet taste: 1 part white wine vinegar, 2 parts olive oil, a little orange zest then a squeeze of orange juice, few drops of agave, salt and pepper.

I hope you will try some of these tips and do let me know how your dishes turn out.