Surprisingly Simple Ways to Become a Better Cook

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Kate Christensen is an award-winning novelist and the author of two culinary memoirs: Blue Plate Specialand most recently, How to Cook A Moose, a book that celebrates New England cuisine (with an emphasis on Maine and New Hampshire) and the local food movement. Food is more than sustenance in Christensen's eye. She effortlessly translates gastronomical pleasures to the page, and she's capable of making meals — whether enjoyed by herself or her fictional characters — seem simultaneously accessible and an art form in themselves. That expertise comes from not just improvising, but using recipes, too. "I'm not a foodie — I'm an eater: I'm hungry," Christensen writes in her latest book. And after reading her books, you’ll be hungry, too — and eager to get in the kitchen.

Who, Where, & When Contribute to Memorable Meals
The things that make a meal memorable can vary: what you cook, the occasion, the people present, the place, the time. Sometimes, it's all of the above. A number of years ago, shortly after my novel The Epicure's Lament was published, in the late winter of 2004, I invited my editor and his wife, my publicist and her husband, and several close friends over to my house for dinner in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. I based the night's menu on that of the Christmas feast cooked at the end of the novel by its narrator, Hugo Whittier. The meal was remarkable chiefly for its carbohydrate content, but also for its homey but festive deliciousness. We started with shrimp cocktails and excellent cheeses, and then everybody sat down at the table, which was festooned with lit candles, boughs, pine cones, and tangerines, and I served bowls of pureed (wildly out of season and therefore luxurious) fresh pea soup with thyme and creme fraiche, and then came the meal, which, as Hugo puts it, contained "far too many components and courses" (even though I omitted the baked ham with holiday sauce): roast Cornish game hens with MFK Fisher's oyster stuffing; puréed butternut squash with pancetta; baked yams; green beans with lemon butter; mashed potatoes and gravy. Then came a "snooty winter salad" of endive and orange sections and toasted walnuts, and then, for dessert, gingerbread with maple whipped cream and Calvados. We drank copious amounts of robust, peasant-y red wine and talked long into the night and laughed a lot, fueled by a surfeit of carbohydrates and calories, of course, but also the fun of a convivial holiday meal in bleak, barren, frigid February.

Don’t Let Your Emotions Stop You
I've cooked plenty of meals when I was sad, lonely, depressed, angry, bored, and/or under the weather. My primary aim in these circumstances is generally to cheer myself up, to fill my stomach with something warm so I can feel comforted and fed, usually just with a quick soup or an omelet. Cooking in that case is a means to an end, whereas cooking in a state of joy is an end in itself. Chopping an onion, browning chicken thighs, measuring rice, mincing chives, it all feels like playing, like easy, focused fun. 

Don’t Be a Food Snob
Most of all, I love unfussy, unpretentious, simple food made with excellent ingredients. If I'm a snob, it's about quality, not cuisine. One of my favorite winter meals is the one-pot cardamom chicken from Ottolenghi’s Jerusalem cookbook: a savory, comforting, nourishing melange of basmati rice, chicken thighs, olive oil, spices, herbs, and yogurt. In the summer, there’s nothing better than pasta with a fresh tomato sauce and a bit of grated cheese on top and maybe a plain salad alongside. Or a plate heaped with steamed just-picked vegetables, or a baked piece of fish with lemon on a bed of cut-up boiled potato. On the other hand, I do not enjoy eating in restaurants where the food is more about the chef’s ego than it is about the diner’s happiness. It makes me nuts. I don’t want to have to think too hard when I’m eating, and I don't want to have to try to guess what the hell everything on my plate is. 

Be Willing to Try New Things
I started out with an aversion to recipes, because I distrust authority and am arrogantly self-taught, but I finally realized I was being stupid, and now I love recipes and use them a lot. When I was younger, I threw things together and hoped for the best. As you might guess, the results were hit-and-miss. Now I look for interesting new recipes and return to old favorites. I recently discovered Maria Elia’s Smashing Plates cookbook, a modern take on Greek cooking. Sometimes I make eight or nine of her recipes over the course of a week and just live on those for dinners, since they all combine so beautifully. In the olden days, I basically cooked from Mollie Katzen's Broccoli Forest and The Joy of Cooking, and that was it as far as my classic repertoire went; those are both excellent cookbooks, but I didn’t venture much beyond them. Now that I’ve discovered the likes of Madhur Jaffrey, David Lebovitz, and Ina Garten, I'm much more curious to try new combinations of ingredients, as well as more open-minded and adventurous, and as a result, I make better and more interesting food. And my ability to improvise has also improved. I’m inspired now to take a couple of cooking classes: a sauce class, a pickling workshop. That would be fun.

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Volunteer at a Local Shelter
During the year or so I spent on the Thursday midday shift at Florence House, a women's shelter here in Portland, cooking and serving lunch and prepping for dinner and cleaning up, I learned that it’s good for the soul to cook for the truly hungry. In the book, I talk about how much more I feel I benefited from that experience than the homeless women I cooked for. Volunteering is a luxury. It feels better to give than to receive. My supervisor was a young woman who was half my age, but I learned so much from her, and not only about cooking. Soup kitchens are remarkable places. The people who eat in them aren’t in a position to be picky, you'd think, and yet they are extremely picky: "Not that one," they'd say, or when they heard that day’s lunch menu, they'd make a face and stomp off in disgust. It made me laugh, this attitude, but I was also moved by it, because it struck me as an expression of dignity, in a profound way.

Aim for Local Ingredients Whenever Possible
It's good, it's great, in fact, but not to the exclusion of having fun or being inventive, especially in the wintertime in New England. Whenever possible, I use local, fresh ingredients, just because it tastes and feels better to eat an egg or a tomato or a hamburger that wasn't flown halfway around the world, that didn't travel on a truck and get stuck in traffic jams, that hasn't been sitting in a supermarket's refrigerator case for days. I don’t know if it's necessarily cheaper, which is one of the screwed-up things about our food-supply system: it should be much cheaper. But it's probably healthier, and it gives me pleasure and peace of mind. If it's grown in Maine, it's not from a big-business farm, since those don’t exist here (it's not economically profitable because the soil is so thin, and we have Zone Four winters, and the growing season seems to last five minutes). I know there’s a lot of pride and integrity here among the farmers and fishermen and butchers and cheesemakers, in addition to incredibly high quality, because I know some of them personally. This also makes a difference in the experience of eating. Not to get all (other) Portlandia about it, but I do prefer to eat local food for all these reasons.

Savor What You Ate After the Meal is Finished
I used to write blog posts regularly, but now that I'm finishing a novel and concentrating on fiction again, cooking is a daily pleasure, but I don’t think as much about it in general as I did when I was blogging and food writing. I don't keep a journal, but I do seem to have an uncannily good memory for what I ate when. Some people remember what they wore, or what they said, or what they saw: I remember what I cooked or ate or ordered. Food and memory seem to go together for me in that way. That's one of the reasons I like to write about food. And I love to read about food, too, as much as I like to eat. It's all interconnected for me, and I'm always surprised when I'm reminded that not everyone is wired this way.  

Eat for Pleasure and Take Risks
In some ways, cooking live lobsters is as dicey as it gets, and I have no qualms about that. What's the point? Once you've bought the wretches, once you've brought them home wet and wriggling and pissed off in a bag, their end is a foregone conclusion, so there's no point in wringing your hands or equivocating. Foraging for mushrooms is a slightly different matter. You picked that thing up off the forest floor, and no one is making you cook or eat it. It's on you. I do love a whiff of risk in my food sometimes. But I draw the line. I've never eaten live octopus. Live oysters, yes, because they don't squirm in your mouth and they don’t have suckers that might attach themselves to your esophagus. I've never eaten calves’ brains, but that's just because I haven't had the opportunity. But I would balk if I were in a faraway land and they served me rat stew, or a half monkey's head, or a rotten sheep's head cheese. My palate is firmly rooted in my own culture. There is a fine line between delicious and disgusting, and I don’t enjoy crossing it for the sake of machismo, living to tell the tale, or pride. I eat for pleasure, and I live to eat, but if it comes down to a plate of roast worms or going hungry, I'll wait for the next meal. 

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