There was a moment during my journey that stands out, what Oprah would call an “aha!” moment.
It came from Ina Garten, the Barefoot Contessa on The Food Network.
For months I hadn’t been able to focus on a book, movie or tv show. I had no appetite nor interest in food or cooking which had been passions of mine.
I’d lost my mojo.
Enter The Barefoot Contessa. I’d tuned into her show out of a need to fill the silence with a familiar voice but then found myself engaging. Ina’s on-screen warmth drew me in and whatever she was cooking (though I can’t recall what it was) had my full attention. Her joy of cooking ignited a spark in me and at that moment I felt a shift as my inner foodie began reconnecting with my heart. It was a big step forward. Though she’ll never know, just by being herself, Ina Garten helped me on the path to healing myself.
I like to think I came upon my cooking skills from God-given talent, inspiration by family cooks, collecting and reading numerous cookbooks plus my avid interest in food. What I know for sure is that I’m far better today due to my obsession with watching The Food Network. Keep in mind that I was well into adulthood before The Food Network was ever conceived and what now may pass for common knowledge was not so common back in the day. I’m nowhere close to knowing it all and will continue “my education” while watching my friends/instructors Rachael, Ina, Giada, Bobby, Mario, Michael, Geoffrey, Alex and Jeff, to name a few.
Here are the top ten things that I’ve learned from The Food Network
1. Cooking with Wine – Only cook with a wine you’d drink, as it will reduce. If you wouldn’t drink it (think “cooking wine” ick!) then it isn’t worth cooking with.
2. Salt your pasta water – I’m not talking a dash of salt. Get your “salt on” and in doing so you’ll flavor the pasta while cooking it. It makes more of a difference than you’d think.
3. Dry your Sea Scallops – Spence and I love sea scallops yet for years I sadly wasn’t getting a nice golden crust on these tasty treats. Lay out a paper towel and spread them out, now lay another paper towel over the top and press lightly, removing excess moisture, then let them continue to air dry a bit more. Add dry scallops to a searing hot pan and you’ll get lovely, golden scallops on your plate.
4. Don’t fear the Anchovy – I’ve always liked anchovies but thought of them in terms of topping pizza or an ingredient in a Caesar dressing. Where they really shine is as the “salt” element and that little “je ne sais quoi” when added into a sauce or pasta dish. They “melt” into what you’re making (use the back of a wooden spoon to break down if you want). You will not taste any fishy flavor but I guarantee, they add a depth of flavor that takes any dish up a notch.
5. How to make a better pot roast – I always thought I made a darn good pot roast and I probably did. Then, watching Jeff Mauro (The Sandwich King) who’d just won The Next Food Network Star, I learned something that rocked my pot roast loving world. I rarely follow recipes (I tend to “wing it”) but after having made this one time, I have not deviated since. The most important lesson – sear not just the top and bottom of the roast but all the sides. I use a big fork to achieve this, propping the meat as I turn it, getting a nice sear on all surfaces. But then the recipe is so perfect that honestly, I believe each step is critical to the final success, even the cooking time as something magical happens in the last 30 minutes. Jeff eventually turns this into a sandwich (which I’ve no doubt is fabulous) but I serve it as a pot roast. The gravy that results with the broth, red wine and pan drippings is phenomenal. Here’s a link to the recipe: http://foodnetwork.com/recipes/jeff-mauro/c/ch/chi/chic/chicago-italian-beef-pot-roast-style-recipe.html
6. Use fresh shrimp – It’s so easy now to get raw, easy-peel, deveined shrimp and cooking with raw shrimp is not time-consuming but the flavor and texture is so much better. For years I would buy cleaned, cooked frozen shrimp and just pop them in at the end of a recipe for shrimp scampi (as an example). Using raw shrimp in any preparation is far superior. An example? Try my Shrimp Ceviche (link below) and then report back to me. I also make a cream of shrimp soup (recipe will appear in the future) using raw shrimp and there is a depth of flavor raw shrimp adds.
7. Don’t Fear Red Pepper Flakes – There was a time that I only used red pepper flakes to enhance my pizza. Not so any longer. My friends/instructors at The Food Network always add red pepper flakes to recipes to “kick up the heat” and now I constantly have them at the ready. Use a little or a lot depending on your need for heat but there’s something magical about what they do to the most basic recipe. Trust me.
8. Use good ingredients – When you really love to cook/eat/entertain – wow your friends and family, don’t skimp. I love Ina Garten, The Barefoot Contessa. If you’ve watched her show or bought one of her cookbooks you’ll notice that she strongly suggests using a good olive oil, mayonnaise or champagne vinegar (as examples). Why? Because when you use good ingredients, your end result is better. Like a Hallmark Card, you care enough to send the very best? Then use good ingredients. Enough said.
9. Deglaze, carmelize, braise, brine – Just knowing terminology and how to apply this to your cooking can put you ahead of other home cooks. I still believe that one day I’ll be competing on The Food Network simply because of the techniques and technologies I’ve learned.
10. The Power of Compound Butter – I love butter. Slathered on an english muffin or mashed potatoes, in a really great shortbread or taking it to the next level and creating a Compound Butter by integrating another ingredient or several ingredients to softened butter, then using that compound to create something magical. It’s no longer just butter. It’s a burst of flavor and I have numerous recipes, here’s one below that you can use for a roast turkey or chicken.