So: Two yams and one potato, peeled, sliced, boiled and mashed with a whole bulb of roast garlic, some butter, kosher salt and olive oil. Some quite nice young zucchini, sliced diagnonally and sauteed with, again, a little salt and olive oil. Two very nice rib-eye steaks (a little pricy, but a nice treat on a rare occasion) seasoned with a little salt and pepper, cooked in a cast-iron pan (because summer, sadly, is not yet here) and served with an acceptable bottle of red wine.
I have just had a wonderful meal. Could I have had cooked the meat just a little less, rare-to-blue as is my preference? Perhaps, perhaps. Could the wine have been a touch less sharp, perhaps had slightly more complex overtones, some touch more oak in the nose perhaps? It could, I suppose. Could the company have been perhaps a little better, the conversation slightly more rewarding? Absolutely not.
OK, nerds, listen up: whatever all those “life hack”, “getting things done”, moleskine, “signals” and “folders” people tell you, I need you to drop all that, because it is less important than what I am telling you right now: if you are going to do just one thing to make your life better, it is this.
Learn to cook.
I’m aware that you think you can’t cook, and I don’t care. Pay attention to and care about what you’re doing, and it’s not that difficult. Which is not to say that you’ll be able to cook as well as a professional chef in no time but to borrow a line from my brother, a professional chef himself, you have to remember that ninety percent of that workforce is twenty years old and fighting a killer hangover. Beating out all but the top ten percent of that field is just not all that hard. The biggest difference between restaurant food and your home-cooked meals isn’t brains or talent or drive, it’s butter and salt. Lots and lots of butter and salt.
The New York Times is, curiously, a good place to start reading up. Mark Bittman, author of How To Cook Everything, has written a ton of articles for the New York Times, and has a blog. If you’re only going to buy one cookbook this century “How To Cook Everything” is the one you want, but he’s also written some terrific introductory articles, like the $200 kitchen article that basically tells you how to go from zero to fully-functional kitchen on a budget, 101 meals you can cook in 10 minutes or less (later 111) and a bunch of others.
Generally speaking the skills required are, in order of importance, as folllows:
- Salt. Salting food properly brings out the natural taste and aromas of your food as you cook it, and doing this part well can forgive many other sins down the line. Salting food at the table is far, far too late, and cookbooks with names like “cooking without salt” or “salt-free whatever” are written exclusively by miserable old harridans who want you to eat food that tastes like burnt sand and then act like you’ve won something. You might as well buy a vegetarian cookbook called “YOU CAN REALLY BE HAPPY WITHOUT BACON REALLY” with the strained smile of some obviously despairing, emaciated hippie on the cover. Cooking without salt or, God help you, with some alien chemical salt substitute is a practice reserved for mental defectives, banana slugs and people whose taste buds were shot off in some third-world jungle conflict.
- Knife work, for reasons that are obvious once you’ve said them out loud: food needs to be cooked evenly, and to be cooked evenly it needs to be cut evenly. Despite Bittman’s strong argument for a $10 stainless-steel chef’s knife, in a professional setting those knives are provided to the restaurant, sharpened and cleaned by a knife service; at home having one well-made, hefty and cared-for chef’s knife in your collection will improve your cooking and (eventually!) eating experience quite a bit. (He’s right, though, that there’s no way a starting cook needs a hundred-dollar knife.)
- Temperature control. Well, you know, of course. Different foods will be ready at different temperatures, foods will taste different at different temperatures and there’s way more going on here than I, talented amateur that I might be, have the room or expertise to tell you about.
- Plating. I wouldn’t have thought this would be super-important for the home cook, but it turns out that just organizing your food on the plate a little before you serve it can make quite a bit of difference. No link, here; just find yourself some pictures of food-porn and decide how to lay it all out. It’s the sort of thing that you’d think shouldn’t matter, but really, really does matter – well-plated-but-average food will be better received and regarded than great food that looks like it’s just been slopped onto the plate.
Beyond that, I say only that if you do nothing but care about the quality of your ingredients and the quality of your work, you’ll consistently be able to surprise yourself. Don’t buy crap, and you won’t end up eating crap; fresh ingredients will get you an awfully long way, and you’ll be amazed at how much better you’ll feel after a week of eating good home-made food than the garbage an average restaurant feeds you. And all that, in fact, for a fraction the price.
Good night and good luck, internets.