“Food for Thought”

STEP ONE:  WALK INTO YOUR KITCHEN

Dear Friends and Cooking Comrades,

Welcome back home!

Those first steps toward entering the kitchen and actually cooking can seem like the longest mile – maybe even a marathon.  Maybe you’ve never cooked.  Maybe you’ve cooked a little.  Maybe you’ve just gotten out of the habit and need to kick-start yourself.  Or maybe you’re stuck in a rut.

Some days I find it daunting to get into the kitchen and start cooking; I’m too tired, too busy, too something.  There are a hundred reasons I can come up with for avoiding the kitchen, but it’s funny, once I’m there the time just flies.  I get into the “zone” and I find it liberating.  Some of the dishes turn out great, some need revisions, some of the mistakes get eaten.  Some surefire things turn out to be less sure than I thought.  It’s all okay.  Growth is so exciting, perfection is so dull!

Every time I prepare a dish or work with ingredients they are always a little different.  The surprises and variety are what make cooking really interesting.  It keeps me on my toes.  No two apples have the same sweetness and crispness.  No two tomatoes have the same level of firmness and acidity.  No two legs of lamb are ever exactly the same.  It’s always fascinating.

So don’t fake yourself out or scare yourself into not jumping in and cooking.  It is such a wonderful thing.  And the more you do it, the better you’ll become.  Walk through the door of your kitchen and say hello.

Owning a kitchen and not cooking is like having a car and not driving, or having a swimming pool and not swimming.  It’s a terrible waste.  You and I have such a terrific creative outlet right at hand – the kitchen.  Can’t sleep?  Cook.  Can’t figure out a problem?  Cook.  Got the blues?  Cook.  Jumping for joy?  Cook.  Make something.  Work with your hands.  Double the recipe and make something extra for a friend in need.  No judgments or self-punishment.  Take raw ingredients and create culinary magic.  It is balm for a weary soul.

You are useful.  You and I can cook.

Now stop reading this and get in there and whip something up.  Take those first steps and get into your kitchen, it may seem like the longest mile to get there, but once you are there it is bliss.  I’m cheering you on!

Yours,

Chef  David

 

 

 

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What a Crock!

Dear Friends and Cooking Comrades,

Welcome back home!

I was watching a food program the other day.  The food was beautifully styled on expensive china by a team of experts, perfectly lit and shot through a filtered lens on the camera, the flowers were professionally arranged and pristine, the linens were pressed without a wrinkle, and the background music was soothing.  They didn’t really provide recipes, or even the amounts of ingredients necessary to cook the dish that was being prepared – they cut away to a commercial and when they came back to the program they’d skipped ahead so many steps that I couldn’t follow what was going on in the recipe – and I’m a chef!  There was the host of the show with a perfect manicure, spanking-clean clothes, perfect makeup, showing no signs of breaking a sweat, or even breathing heavily.  And I thought:  What a crock!

No wonder folks think they can’t cook and quickly become discouraged.  I couldn’t cook like that without a team of 10 people behind the scenes.  How disheartening it can be that your recipe doesn’t turn out as perfect as the one on T.V., unless you know better and realize that it is all fakery and showbiz.  Let me tell you, perfection is boring.

For Learn How to Cook (and eat your mistakes)!, I personally created, tested and cooked every recipe in a variety of kitchens.  If I couldn’t do it, how could our cooking comrades do it at home?  I personally prepped the ingredients for every recipe (with our brilliant Sous Chef Kathy coming in to help me prep on a few of our really heavy shooting days).  But we kept it real.  We kept it authentic.  We shot the learning system in a real kitchen, we didn’t try to fool people with a phony, idealized set, or a gathering of make-believe friends.  And I have a confession to make:  My kitchen has never been as clean and uncluttered as those kitchen sets I see on T.V.  Where’s the dog’s dish?

We didn’t go for exotic, impossible-to-find ingredients.  What’s the point?  If folks can’t cook the recipes I created, then I’d just be floating on a big ego trip.  We shot real food in real time for real people.

Were we slick?  Maybe not.  Sincere?  Yes, as sincere as Linus’ pumpkin patch.  Real, authentic and genuine?  Yes, absolutely.  We cooked from the heart.

We can’t set unrealistic expectations for ourselves, no one and nothing is perfect, but we can try our best.  We can love what we’re doing.  We can keep learning and growing and keep on keeping it real.

Instead of eating heartless, show-off food, I’d gladly eat real food that tastes great and is made with soul any day.  Honest-to-goodness!

Yours,

Chef  David

 

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Fresh-Baked Anything

Dear Friends and Cooking Comrades,

Welcome back home!

What is it about fresh-baked goods that make a house a home?  Is it getting your hands messy with flour and butter?  Is it the aroma of yeast when you open the oven?  Is it the impatience of eating something warm and gooey – before it’s had a chance to cool?  Maybe it’s the lack of preservatives, stabilizers and other odd things that are packed into commercial baked items.  The word “wholesome” comes to mind.

Baking at home is an experience that can’t be replicated by store-bought baked goods.  Buying a loaf of bread is not as rewarding as making your own.  Cookies in a box are a poor substitute for cookies from the oven.  I think that’s why bake sales are always a perennial favorite.

I call baking “throwing flour around” because that’s what I typically end up doing.   My eyeglasses are covered in flour, I’ve got white handprints on my apron, my shoes are dusted white and I have a preheated oven just waiting to work magic on my ingredients.

Some folks think baking is a real challenge or far too difficult, but it’s really easy chemistry – heat applied to your carefully measured ingredients and leavenings make for something amazing.  It is so satisfying to bake something yourself and that satisfaction is as close as a few steps to your kitchen – and typically using some flour, butter, sugar, leavening, eggs, a little salt and lots of love for a big abracadabra.

The evocative legacy of your grandma, mom, or an aunt baking in her kitchen can be your legacy for a new generation of family and friends.  Don’t let that legacy disappear, keep it going.  Bake!  You can do it.

Yours,

Chef  David

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Resurrection

Dear Friends and Cooking Comrades,

Welcome back home!

Spring is starting to arrive in the Northeast.  Those of you in the South have already started to see signs of Spring, but we hearty northerners have been impatiently waiting for it.  Every late snow storm or hard frost seems to be a personal affront to us at this point.  It’s been a long, cold winter.  There were times it looked as if the earth was dormant and nothing green would ever shoot up again.

In our little town, folks tend to hibernate in the winter.  Having to navigate the snow and ice makes us stay home and glue an ear to the weather report.  There are friends you don’t see all winter long, but as the crocuses and daffodils start their ascent along with the sprouts of tulip greens, our friends and neighbors start to sprout and appear.

Spring is such an incredible time of hope – a bud on a branch can mean lilacs, the greening of the grass signals picnics to come, the ability to get out of bed without having cold feet is such a pleasure when your toes hit the floorboards.

I’m calling for a resurrection in your kitchen, too.  A chance to shake off the winter doldrums and really bud and blossom as a cook.  It always seems like a million miles to get to my kitchen – with a million reasons why I don’t have time to get there – but once I do get into the kitchen it is so much fun and so satisfying to cook and be with my thoughts.  The promise of something we’ve made that comes from a pot, or a skillet, or springs from our ovens is most certainly a resurrection of our talents, a bud of generosity for others – and even the hope of being good to ourselves.  We’re nourishing our creativity and our appetites and creating a healthy relationship with food.

Be inspired by the fresh Spring green emerging around you, make this Spring a time to blossom in your kitchen, and tiptoe through the culinary tulips with me!

Yours,

Chef  David

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In the Weeds

Dear Friends and Cooking Comrades,

Welcome back home!

There’s a phrase used in the professional kitchen when you are behind, when you are struggling to be ready in time for food service, when you can’t move or prep fast enough.  You say, “I’m in the weeds.”

Well, you say it out loud if you’re actually willing to admit it.  Although everyone in the kitchen already knows you’re in the weeds, because you’re sweating bullets, you’re cursing more than usual with panic in your eyes, and you’re panting like a dog in August.  It’s running for a finish line on a timetable you know you’ll never make.  Hungry guests are not very forgiving in a professional setting.  “Where’s my food!?!”

Sometimes you’re just off your game.  It happens.  Sometimes you miscalculate how long it will take you to prepare everything.  It happens.  Sometimes hours of prep goes flying and lands on the floor in a million pieces, or you forget to make something, or you work all day on a dish and then burn it.  When you are so behind that you don’t have time to say the full phrase, we often say “I’m weeded” or “weedsie.”  It happens to the best chefs in the world.  And it certainly has happened to me.  Actors have nightmares about forgetting their lines.  Students have nightmares about showing up to class naked.  Chefs have nightmares about being “weeded.”

No one seems to be certain where this phrase came from:  “In the weeds.”  Some say it dates to prohibition when a speakeasy owner would hide his illegal liquor out back in the weeds during a raid (and then have trouble finding it again).  I’ve also heard that the phrase is an adaptation of the coarser French phrase “dans la merde.”   Then I heard that it was coined because being swamped in the kitchen is the same as trying to walk through tall swamp weeds.  There is also an attribution that says it came from pilots in Vietnam during the war, flying low through the weeds and brush (nervous and wary of hitting objects obscured by the greenery).  So take your pick, or make up a meaning of your own.  But you’ll know it when it happens to you!

If this disastrous state of being happens to professional chefs, it will also happen to home cooks.  It is part of cooking.  It is a right of passage.  You don’t have to like it – and you don’t have to make the same mistake twice – but it will happen.  I guarantee it.

Being as prepared as you can, giving yourself a little extra time, and measuring out your ingredients ahead can all help you negotiate the weeds.  Sometimes you just don’t know how long certain techniques and preparations will take you.  There are a lot of variables:  Your chicken was 2 ½ pounds last time and this chicken is 3 pounds; ingredients are colder than they were last time and require more time to cook; you have a tougher roast and it needs more time in the oven to get tender.  This is what makes cooking interesting.

As you cook more you’ll get faster.  You get a kitchen rhythm and some speed.  With a little experience, you won’t have to think about things quite as much and you’ll start to move more instinctively.  Your hands usurp your brain and start to get a mind of their own.

I print out recipes and read through them before I start cooking, so I am familiar enough to know what I need to do.  I write notes on my recipes:  “Need an extra half hour for this one;” “This dough has to rise overnight;” “This one calls for special ingredients;” “This recipe needs 3 hours of oven time.”  I write lots of helpful notes – almost like a dialogue with my recipes – you should see some of my cookbooks with my madman scrawl in the margins.

Presenting an exterior of peaceful calm (whether you feel calm or not) can help you take a machete to the weeds and come out the other side of the jungle victorious.  Don’t panic.  Center yourself. This is not a time to beat up on yourself (that’s a waste of time).  Cry later.  Your first instinct should be about solving the problem, not blaming someone or falling apart.  Use your nervous energy to work through it and fix it.  Chalk it up to experience and wear your weeds like a laurel-wreath crown of glory, it means you’re really cooking and challenging yourself.

I don’t think Scarlett O’Hara ever cooked, but if she did, she would struggle through the weeds and say, “Tomorrow is another day and another meal!”  Turn your weeds into flowers.

Yours,

Chef  David

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Making Your Kitchen Comfortable

Dear Friends and Cooking Comrades,

Welcome back home!

What is it that makes your kitchen comfortable? If you don’t like being in your kitchen, let’s change it!  I’m not talking about a kitchen makeover here, I’m talking about some simple stuff that can make a world of difference and will make your kitchen a pleasant place for you.

Add some music. How about a radio, or an MP3 player, or a mini-stereo?  There’s nothing like music to put you in a good mood, get you chopping and get you into the rhythm of the kitchen.

Let the sunshine in. Cleaning the windows and clearing the cob webs out of the window screens – giving you more light pouring into your kitchen – can help make it a lot brighter and more welcoming.  You don’t have a kitchen window?  Increase the wattage of the light bulbs so the kitchen is brighter and you have good task lighting to see what you’re doing.  Sometimes just adding some cheer-you-up curtains on the windows, or a new set of hand towels helps.  Use your favorite colors.  Make it your room.

Is a spring cleaning called for? I see crocuses in the garden, which means I have to ask myself, “Does the kitchen need a good spring cleaning?”  “Do I really need 3 egg separators when I have 2 hands?”  “Do I really need that Halloween candy?”  “Maybe it’s time to clear out the Chinese menus from 1994 (wasn’t that place closed by the Health Department?).”  Is there clutter that’s keeping me from having room for the important stuff – like cooking?  Oh, yeah, the kitchen is actually for cooking! Continue reading

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Portion Sizes

Dear Friends and Cooking Comrades,

Welcome back home!

How much is enough?  Most of the recipes in Learn How To Cook (and eat your mistakes)! are portioned for 4 eaters – with a few exceptions.

Are you cooking for two?  Well then you might have some leftovers.  (I don’t care what anyone says, I love leftovers for lunch the next day, or as a handy, ready-meal as the week gets busier).

Are you feeding big eaters?  Are you cooking for the football team, growing teens, a construction crew, or the firehouse?  Do you need to make more?  Remember, you can always double any recipe (not hard to do, it’s just using twice as much of each ingredient in the recipe).

My best friend Carla is a big eater; she was raised on a dairy farm, so I always tease her because she eats like a farmhand.  I love cooking for her because she always enjoys the food so much.  It does my heart good when people really tuck in with great gusto to the meals I prepare (although I also try to be considerate of those who are dieting and cutting back – and sometimes that includes me).

I’ve also had guests who eat like birds and ask me to cut an olive in half, so they don’t have to eat the whole thing!  Water and a lettuce leaf are not going to make it as dinner.  I want to holler at them, EAT for crying out loud.

Hey, we don’t have to gorge or super-size everything, but we do have to eat.  We have to responsibly nourish ourselves and our families.  We need to cultivate a natural relationship with food at both extremes.

I also hate seeing food go to waste, guests or family taking big portions and then leaving most of it on their plates.  “Can I wrap that up for you?”  “How about taking it for the ride home?”  “Would you like that for a midnight snack?”  Doggie bags are not for the dogs at our house.

It’s true sometimes our eyes are bigger than our stomachs (although I don’t seem to have that problem)!  They say you become a chef to feed yourself, or you become a chef to feed others – I think I became a chef because of a little bit of both.

Restaurant portions are often larger than normal.  Don’t you love friends that order just a salad at a restaurant and then spend the evening eating off everyone else’s plates – who do they think they’re kidding?  Question:  “Hey, can I order you an entrée, since you just ate half of mine?”  Answer:  “No, I’ll just pick.”  Yeah. . . pick my pocket!  I don’t want to cut back on my portion sizes because of someone else’s fork.

There was a recent phase when the dieting trend was all about “no carbs.”  As a professional chef, we would get up at dawn to make beautiful fresh breads – we didn’t want them to be even a day old for our clients:  Focaccia; cornbread; sourdough rolls.  And we would lovingly fill the bread baskets for the guests’ tables and each night I would be so saddened to see the bread baskets come back at the end of the meal with all the gorgeous breads uneaten.  I thought to myself, “Don’t they know the difference between delicious, handmade artisan breads and junky, empty-calorie, store-bought white bread?”  Gratefully, that trend has subsided and folks seem to be enjoying bread in moderation these days.  I guess great bread will always win out in the end.  Besides it’s so dang good.

Continue reading

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I Hear America Cooking!

Dear Friends and Cooking Comrades,

Welcome back home!

My friend, the brilliant food writer Betty Fussell wrote a terrific cookbook on American cuisine called, “I Hear America Cooking” – a play on the poet Walt Whitman’s “I Hear America Singing.”

Well, I find that an apt title for this blog, with a tip of the hat to Betty and Walt:  I Hear America Cooking!

The emails, comments, Facebook friends, Twitter followers are all sharing their experiences with us and I am so humbled and gratified.  Some days, I’m downright giddy!

We’re Hearing Things Like:

“After sautéing spinach, I will never buy canned spinach again.”

“I didn’t know I wasn’t supposed to put my knives in the dishwasher, no wonder they are always dull!  Thanks.”

“No one has ever taken the time to really show me the basics like this.  I find cookbooks really confusing.  I thought I couldn’t cook!”

“[My daughter] has already prepared sautéed chicken and snow peas, and chocolate-covered strawberries and has pictures of both that she would like to share with you!”

“[We] are thoroughly enjoying the DVDs!  We binged on several discs last night and are looking forward to more.  [My boyfriend], who is not a cook, is rapt.  He said, ‘I could really learn this!’  They really are great.”

“One thing I found was very useful was pinching the blade of the knife.  I found myself many times unknowingly reverting to my old ways, but you repeated it enough in the DVD that I think it stuck in my brain (the knowledge not the knife!).”

“Cookies, cookies, cookies.  I have to watch the last disk again to absorb the technique.  I can’t wait to try them.  Woo-hoo cooking just got interesting!”

“I just had to let you know that I just got my DVD set in the mail, and I just happen to have the day off tomorrow…Guess what I’ll be doing?  So excited!”

“I love making breakfasts for my family on the weekends now.  My daughter and I cook together and it’s the one time we don’t argue!”

“I think you’re going to get some groupies from the DVDs – there is a kind of addicting, therapeutic nature about them.”

“The level of detail in the series is amazing.  You don’t leave anything out.”

“I kicked my wife out of the kitchen and made dinner last night.”

“Is Chef David really that nice?”  (Answer:  Most days – but I do have a cranky side, but I try not to yell in my professional kitchen.)

WOW!  I am so humbled and touched that so many folks are discovering their kitchens, challenging themselves – and cooking away.  A huge thanks to all of you who have purchased and are using the learning system from Ohio to Florida, from New York to California, from Colorado to North Carolina – all across America.  I am so gratified that it’s helping so many folks get into the kitchen – leaving their culinary fear and anxiety in the garbage heap where it belongs.

I’ve often said, if you can drive a car, you can cook.  You just need someone to show you how.  I’m grateful you’re letting me share some ideas with you.  The more you cook, the better you become.  Hooray!

Keep on cooking with inspiration.  Cook from the heart.  Cook with confidence.  Eat your mistakes.  I’m here cheering you on.  You can do it!  Thanks for making me a happy guy and keep updating us on your progress.  I hear America cooking! And it tastes pretty darn good.

Yours,

Chef  David

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And now a word (or more) about chef’s knives

Dear Friends and Cooking Comrades,
Welcome back home!

The chef’s knife is the knife with the long triangle-shaped blade.  They come in all kinds of lengths and types – and lots of different price ranges.  The chef’s knife is the workhorse of the kitchen; probably the knife that you will pick up and use the most.

What are you looking for in a chef’s knife?  And I emphasize “you” because there is no single right answer. When I get together with my chef buddies (and “buddies” includes the gals, too), we all have different preferences in chef’s knives and can argue endlessly over which knives are the best.

 

Size of the Knife

Do you have big hands or small hands?  Chef’s knives can come in 5-inch, 6-inch, 7-inch, 8-inch, 9-inch, 10-inch, 11-inch sizes.  So you want to choose a length of blade that feels comfortable and balanced to you based on the size of your hands and your comfort level.  The longer the blade, the more work surface or edge you have for slicing, cutting and chopping, but long blades are not for everyone.  Julia Child used an 11-inch chef’s knife, but she was 6-foot, 2-inches tall!  For the record, I keep an 8-inch chef’s knife in my knife kit (I’m not as tall as Julia!) and it’s not super fancy or very expensive, but it works well for me and I keep it sharp.

Continue reading

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Welcome home!

Dear Friends and Cooking Comrades, Welcome home!

We’ve just finished all the principal photography for Learn How to Cook (and eat your mistakes)! Whew!  After months of planning, recipe testing, discussions, abandoned ideas, new ideas, then better ideas, it doesn’t seem possible that we have over 15 hours of video content with over 100 recipes and techniques covering 14 primary topics and methods.  I look down at my beat-up hands – that look and feel like raw hamburger after all the recipe testing and preparations – and I smile…

Wrapping up final photography

What is it that fuels all the long days and late nights?  It’s simple:  I really want folks to learn how to cook.  I like helping people, I love to cook and I care enormously about this learning system. Continue reading

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