It’s important to tell you now that I did not grow up cooking. I also didn’t grow up having all kinds of healthy/exotic things cooked for me (no secret, Mom). I was the most finicky of eaters, consuming peanut-butter and jelly, varied with the occasional hot dogs cut up into my Kraft mac and cheese. This was the extent of my diet outside chocolate milk.
Sometime in high school I realized the term vegetarian best encompassed my food preferences, and I mentioned this on a visit to the family of my oldest friend, Chelsey. Her mom responded, “Wait. You don’t eat hot dogs anymore? What am I going to cook for you, Lindsey?!!!” This disappointment was shared by my family who fear I lacked vital protein and nutrients by cutting hot dogs out of my daily diet. And now I’m in Nutrition school.
Once I knew what I didn’t know, that is, what I did like to eat, I started experimenting. And it grew to this: reading cookbooks like they’re Agatha Christie novels. And then the novel idea (no pun intended), cooking from them. See Secret To Success, above.
I’m going to tell you how to make mediocre food great. Whether you’re having canned pasta sauce tonight or roast lamb. You see, I thought great food only came from Chefs–you know, culinary school, restaurant resumes, etc. I was mistaken for years that They had this secret to bringing food to a level I just couldn’t at home.
But I was determined to find out. I spent the summer of 2009 living and interning in Baltimore at Azafran Cafe and Catering for a number of reasons:
- I adore the Chef and Owner, Irena Stein. (That’s ear-ANE-uh, and roll the r). She has this vision for a welcoming environment to all cultures and flavors, and believe me when I say hers is the most memorable food.
- I wanted to learn from her how to run a successful business, as she does, on unwavering principles of quality, kindness, and honesty.
- They say when you’re jobless, you should keep building your resume.
I knew it was impossible to start my own food endeavors one day without understanding what it is that makes great, unforgettable food. Working as Irena’s assistant, I paced myself for the big question.
Lindsey: Irena, how do you know when a food is really finished?
Irena: What do you mean?
Lindsey: Like when it’s so good, how do you know it’s just right?
Irena: You just taste it.
Lindsey: But how do you know what it’s missing?
Irena: You just do.
And that’s it, my friends. That’s the secret. Well, at least it changed the way I cooked forever. I keep a cute little blue glass near my stove (because it’s chipped; see In My Cupboard above) with an array of small spoons. Whether I’m making a sauce from scratch or adjusting something from a jar, I heat it up, take a big spoon (that I do not touch with my mouth) and pour a wee bit onto my tasting spoon. Then I say, yes but it’s just not exciting. So I squeeze in a little lemon juice (only from a lemon, not those plastic lemons with scary-chemical everything-but-lemon-juice molding inside) or sprinkle in some pepper or Kosher salt (Kosher is lowest in sodium that all salts, and we all need to watch our hearts, right?) And you’re adding traces of salt not until you taste the salt, but until it brightens the other flavors and you say, ah there’s the onion. Fresh herbs would be ideal to add, but we’ll talk about those some other time.
Go home (or stay home, if you’re snowed in like me today) and do this:
- Make dinner
- Taste it before you serve it
- Add just a little kick of something that makes sense (wine, lemon juice, orange/lime zest, pepper, salt)
- Enjoy it just that much more
The photo above is the bleu cheese salad (with dates and walnuts and other lovely flavors I didn’t know I loved until I tasted this combination) Azafran served at our wedding. Our photographer Ryan, said, “That salad changed my life.” And that’s what good food should do: inspire us to be joyful and healthy, and maybe make us giddy with glee.
But don’t go crazy on the salt.