Some people have a knack for cooking; some don’t. That is wisdom learned the hard way by culinary instructors I know, and a view that has become clear to me from fielding readers’ questions.
Now, that doesn’t mean those with less aptitude get a pass. Just about everybody ought to cook at home, for the reasons long touted: It’s cost-effective. It’s a lifelong skill. It’s sociable. We all deserve to eat well.
When cooking becomes an effort that’s Sisyphean instead of satisfying, the thing to do — for everyone, really — is to aim for greater efficiency in the kitchen. That calls for critical thinking, organization and shortcuts.
The first step is a no-brainer, and perhaps that’s the hitch. When you are following a recipe, read it through with a critical eye. Comprehend the steps; do they make sense, or have you come across a better way to do the task at hand? Consider ingredient substitutions that might make the dish sing for you. Not all recipe headnotes flag steps that might require advance prep; nobody likes the surprise of a stop in the action to soak beans or pickle something.
Dianne Jacob reads a recipe, then visualizes what she’ll do. The food- and recipe-writing coach and author of “Will Write for Food” (Da Capo, 2010) has helped improve 18 cookbooks in the past 17 years, objecting to chef-driven directions along the lines of “Roast a duck in the usual manner.”
“Just because the recipe says ‘Using a sharp knife . . .’ to peel an eggplant doesn’t mean I have to. I prefer a vegetable peeler,” she says. Then again, if a chef’s knife is the utensil you wield most comfortably, go with it.
Jacob says that organization does not necessarily entail mise en place, the French way of referring to a cadre of ingredients chopped and at the ready. It’s all too easy to season the gravy with pre-measured salt that was meant to be shared with the meat.
“It doesn’t make sense to prep the garnish before you start the onions for a stew,” she says. But having some things done in advance works for her, especially with a multi-step recipe when she’s pressed for time. Jacob will marinate, shred, measure and even chop the night before.
Better yet, she reaches for the convenience of prepped produce at the grocery store. Sometimes that’s a more expensive exercise, but the trade-off works for her. She buys the amount she needs and throws away fewer vegetables gone bad.
A looser form of mise en place is helpful, however. Oakland culinary instructor Linda Carucci gathers ingredients and equipment as a second step, after reading the recipe.
“That goat cheese I had in the fridge. . . . I can make sure it’s good to use,” she says. “I don’t want to be surprised by less of something than I thought I had.”
The most important step Carucci has learned seems to fly in the face of saving time. “I rinse stuff off as soon as I use it,” she says. “It always takes me longer to clean up if I leave things all over the kitchen.” Once she measures out olive oil, its cup goes right in the dishwasher. In fact, she empties the dishwasher before she starts to cook.
As the owner of a small kitchen, I need to adopt that strategy.
Red Cabbage and Apple Salad
MAKES about 3 servings
For the dressing
2 tablespoons fresh orange juice
1 1/2 tablespoons white balsamic vinegar
3/4 teaspoon sherry vinegar
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
3 tablespoons hazelnut oil
Pinch kosher salt
For the salad
2 medium Pink Lady apples
2 medium oranges, preferably navel
3 generous cups thinly sliced red cabbage
2 tablespoons chopped hazelnuts, toasted
2 tablespoons golden raisins
1/8 to 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1/8 to 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
8 to 10 chives, finely chopped
For the dressing: Whisk together the orange juice, vinegars, oils and salt in a mixing bowl to form an emulsified vinaigrette.
For the salad: Core the apple, then cut it into medium dice, adding the pieces to the dressing as you work.
Cut off the top and bottom of the oranges; stand on each one end. Working vertically around the oranges, one at a time, use a serrated knife to cut away and discard the peel and white pith. Slice between the membranes to remove all the orange segments, letting them drop into the mixing bowl with the dressing and apple.
Add the cabbage, hazelnuts, raisins and 1/8 teaspoon each of the salt and pepper; toss to incorporate. Taste, and add the remaining seasoning as needed.
Transfer to a serving bowl and sprinkle with the chives; serve right away, or cover and refrigerate for up to 1 hour before serving.
Parsnip Soup With Orange and Ginger
MAKES about 4 servings
Omit the tearful chopping work by using frozen chopped onion in this quick recipe; because this is a soup, the onion does not have to be defrosted before you toss it into the pan. For a lighter-colored soup, use a 50-50 mixture of store-bought vegetable broth and water.
It can be served warm or cold.
1 tablespoon plus 2 teaspoons unsalted butter
1 cup chopped onion
1 pound parsnips
1 large orange
1-inch piece ginger root
1 tablespoon flour
2 1/2 cups light-colored homemade or store-bought, no-salt-added vegetable broth
1/2 cup water, or as needed
1/2 cup light cream
Melt the butter in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add the onion and cook for 5 to 8 minutes, stirring often, until the onion is softened but not colored.
Meanwhile, peel the parsnips, then cut them into small pieces of equal size. Grate the zest of the orange over the onion in the saucepan, then squeeze the juice of the orange into a liquid measuring cup.
Use a spoon to peel the ginger, then grate the ginger into the saucepan. Add the parsnips and the flour; stir to incorporate. Increase the heat to medium-high, stirring in the broth gradually so the flour doesn’t lump together. Once the mixture comes to a boil, reduce the heat to medium-low. Cover and cook for about 20 minutes.
Working in batches, transfer ladlefuls of the mixture to a blender with the center knob removed from its lid so steam can escape. Place a paper towel over the opening. Puree to form a smooth soup, then pour into a mixing bowl. Taste, and season with 1/8-teaspoon increments of salt until you can taste the individual ingredients. Repeat with the remaining mixture from the saucepan. If the soup seems too thick, add water as needed to achieve the desired consistency.
Pour the soup back into the saucepan and warm through over medium-low heat. Stir in the orange juice; taste, and add salt as needed.
At this point, the soup can be divided among individual bowls. Swirl equal amounts of cream into each portion. Or cool the soup completely (without the cream) and refrigerate until well chilled. Swirl equal amounts of the cream into each portion just before serving.
• Using prepped cabbage from the grocery store salad bar cuts the chopping time.
• If you buy skin-on hazelnuts, their skins will crack as they toast. Transfer them immediately to a dish towel and rub to remove the skins before cooling and chopping.
• Look for fresh, moist parsnips on the small side, with fairly smooth, root-free skin. They might need only a thorough scrubbing instead of peeling.
If you want to cook smarter, experts recommend:
• Keep a copy of David Joachim’s “The Food Substitutions Bible” (Robert Rose, 2010) in the kitchen. It’s an invaluable, reliable resource.
• Copy/print out your recipe. Post it at eye level by taping it to a wall cabinet or beneath a refrigerator magnet close to where you’re working. There’s less chance you’ll miss a step.
• Take the recipe with you when you shop. You’re more likely to come home with everything you need.
• If you tend to use lots of garlic, buy whole peeled cloves in bulk. Transfer them to a tall, wide-mouthed glass jar, submerge them in canola oil, seal tightly and refrigerate indefinitely. (Olive oil will solidify in the cold.)
• Reach for the right size knife. Using a small one to chop small things can speed up prep time.
• Reorder the ingredients or steps to save time. There’s no need to chop everything beforehand if the first ingredients need to marinate or cook/bake for a while; those minutes can be used to prep what’s next on the list.
• Sling a dish towel over your shoulder or tuck it into your belt. It’ll keep you from reaching for too many paper towels.
• Use a cutting board that’s large enough to house the piles of ingredients you prep. You’ll have fewer bowls to wash.
• Seat a large, freezer-safe zip-top bag inside a mixing bowl. As you work, toss in scraps that can be used to make broth. You won’t have to wash the bowl.
• Cut vegetables and fruit to a similar size. They will cook evenly and, therefore, more efficiently.
• Invest in a heavy, enamel-on-cast-iron Dutch oven. Due to its ability to transfer and contain even heat, cooking in it might reduce the time it takes to finish a dish.
• Taste several times and add salt (or a suitable substitute) as the food cooks. The recipe might not specify that, but doing so will reduce the risk of ruining the dish by waiting until the very end to check the seasoning.