Why are some people good cooks, while others are just so so or (to put it kindly) just not talented in that area? After all, anybody can follow a recipe. What goes into making a good cook? Or, to kick it up a notch, a great chef?
Fresh, quality ingredients are the overall basis for food that nourishes us. Most fresh ingredients taste good on their own, simply seasoned, without the addition of strong flavors that mask or overpower the natural taste of the food.
That said, I think we’d all agree that the same piece of beef that makes a succulent pot roast when seasoned, seared, and roasted for several hours in a low, slow oven isn’t all that appealing if you just put it in a pot with water and boil it for several hours. The boiled beef would help sustain life, for sure, but eating it wouldn’t bring much enjoyment or satisfaction beyond a full belly.
Not everyone is a terrific, creative cook. After all, if we were all closet chefs, who would be left to simply eat and appreciate all that wonderful food?
Finding a balance between eating to live and living to eat is important. You learn a lot growing up around a creative cook. However, even if mom didn’t put the consummate pot roast on the table every night, most people who have been cooking for a while learn as they go along what it takes to cook a flavorful, satisfying meal.
So what do you need to keep really good food coming day after day? How do people earn the reputation for being consistently good cooks?
It helps to know what flavors enhance your basic ingredients. For example, some jarred red sauces taste pretty good as they are, but next time you make a quick spaghetti dinner with ready-made red sauce, add half a teaspoon of fennel seeds to the sauce and simmer for 15 minutes at the same time the pasta boils. This doesn’t add to prep time. The fennel releases its flavor while the pasta cooks. You’ll serve a sauce that tastes homemade every time with the addition of a few fennel seeds.
Cooking with broth instead of plain water enhances the flavor of lots of vegetables. Fresh green beans taste great cooked in a little chicken broth or vegetable broth, if you wish. The difference is subtle but noticeable.
Fresh garlic is a staple in my kitchen. Crushed and stirred into some dishes toward the end of the cooking time, it smells and tastes delicious as it brightens the flavor of the food. The same garlic cloves, roasted, are mild and sweet-tasting dissolved into gravy.
Most cooks have signature flavors. One of mine is tarragon. My children say it reminds them of the food that came out of my kitchen when they were growing up. Just remember, too much of one flavor can easily overpower the taste of the dish it’s supposed to enhance. (Much like too much perfume on a co-worker in the same elevator.)
Try using different herbs or spices you particularly enjoy in this simple dish (one at a time).
QUICK SAUTEED CHICKEN
8 skinned, boneless pieces of raw chicken
1/4 cup flour
2 tablespoons butter
1 medium clove garlic, crushed
1/2 teaspoon herb of choice (mine is tarragon or basil)
1 cup chicken broth
In a large skillet, melt butter over medium low heat.
Coat chicken pieces in flour; shake off excess. When butter is hot, place chicken pieces into pan, four at a time. Saute 4 minutes on each side to cook partially. Repeat with remaining four pieces.
Add herbs and chicken broth to the pan. Loosen any browned bits in the pan. Turn broth mixture to low heat; add chicken pieces. Cover and cook 5-7 more minutes, just until meat is no longer pink inside. Remove chicken pieces from broth and keep warm.
Reduce broth for 1-2 more minutes until it thickens slightly. Pour over chicken pieces and serve right away with steamed rice or pasta.
Linda Conway Eriksson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.