We all have to eat. For many people it can be a challenge when first starting down the road of culinary delights to really settle on what are the things that they truly need to devote their time to learning. As time goes on we learn short cuts and figure out which things are more trouble than they are worth. We also learn how to “cheat” on a recipe and what substitutions are acceptable and which will only bring a disaster to our plates. When I first started cooking I was all over the place. I bought way too many cookbooks and developed a habit of making too many menus that were overly complicated and hard to keep up with. In short, I ended up seeing cooking as a dreaded chore instead of the adventure it had first seemed to me. After a while though I arrived at a wonderful place of compromise where I had standard dishes that were relatively simple and easy to fall back on and could be made with either pantry basics or were such that I could improvise with whatever we had on hand any given day. Occasionally I still make those every so delicate pastries and spend a few hours whipping up a masterpiece but I now feel far more free to experiment and take it easy only doing the more time intensive meals when inspiration and motivation strikes. Today I would like to share with you the top 5 things I believe every home cook should take the time to learn and in the end make cooking easier and more enjoyable.
Spice and Herb Blends
This is one of those things that I think many of us are afraid to try when we first start cooking. Particularly if you were not raised in a home where the person cooking trusted their own judgment and not that of a nice tidy foil package in flavoring their foods. This is also one of the single biggest, and easiest, things you can do to improve the flavor of your foods. There are countless websites and cook books that will walk you through the process step by step and that is a wonderful place to start getting the hang of it. After a while though you will start to discover that no blend will fit every family exactly right. We all have such varying preferences when it comes to food, not to mention allergies. This is where the fun part comes in, no, really! After you start learning how different spices and herbs affect your favorite meals you can start adapting the recipes to suit your own personal preferences. For instance many mixes will call for either flour or corn starch to help thicken the food (taco seasoning comes to mind) but I found that I much prefer to use arrow-root powder, also my husband has developed a much more sensitive stomach over the years and I have found that by reducing ingredients like cayenne pepper I can make some of his old favorites without it tearing his stomach up. Once I arrive at a combination that we all like I quadruple the ingredients mix them up and put them in an airtight container. When it is time to make my dish it makes it simple to just spoon out the required amount and move on. Trust me once you start making your own spice and herb blends you will never go back to the store-bought ones.
Let’s face it, casseroles are hard to get a good picture of. They are often ugly and spilling over the sides but wow are they easy and so tasty! The “Oh no, what can I cook tonight?” champion in my book. The casserole magical formula is take your leftovers (meat or veggies) or a cooked pasta and add a binding agent along with some seasoning. Cream soups and stuffings work great for this but I have used a few eggs beaten together with some milk in a pinch before. Bake at 350 degrees until it gets all bubbly and then let set on the counter until it cools down to a temperature less than that of a volcano. Dig in, and don’t be afraid to add cheese, it can make just about anything taste good.
Soups are another one of those wonderful “Let’s see what we got to throw in” sort of wonderfulness that I love so much. It, like the ever so forgiving casserole, is very forgiving and can be made with just about anything you happen to have on hand. It also has a magical formula. Take a base liquid preferably stock (chicken, beef, tomato, vegetable, water if you are desperate… you get the idea) and then just add what you have. You might make some stinkers along the way but I promise you will eventually learn what works together and what does not. One of my favorites that I made this way was my chicken stew. I started with a chicken stock that I swirled in a can of tomato paste and added cubed potatoes with the skin still on, sliced carrots, left over chicken that I pulled into bite size pieces and sliced fresh mushrooms. Then I seasoned it with dried minced onion, thyme, garlic powder, minced garlic, onion powder and sea salt. One of our favorite meals, hands down.
Is there anything more forgiving and easily adaptable than a salad? Growing up salad was some iceberg lettuce with some torn pieces of american cheese mixed in pushed somewhere off on the side of your plate. It makes me a little sad to think of all the years I missed out on the beauty that is a good salad. Throw some greens in a bowl add protein and anything else that sounds good and dinner is served. Does it get any easier? One of our favorites is to get several types of lettuce and add chicken, bacon, tomatoes and cheese. Simple and filling.
So I will admit that this one took about a year of trial and error to get just right. The mood would strike and I would try my hand at it again, reworking an old recipe or trying a new one. Now bread might not be easy and it certainly is not very forgiving when you get your measurements wrong but it is so worth it! You have not tasted garlic bread until you have had your own homemade fresh from the oven loaf. Top it will some marinated veggies or meat and you have yourself an amazing lunch. Before you know it you will be making not only your own bread but also crackers, croutons, and rolls all the while wondering why you tolerated the store-bought version for so long.
*Photos purchased from depositphotos.