In this day and age, the Internet marinates us in all manner of delicious but endless ideas for eating well, eating poorly, eating copious bacon piles, and for different levels of wealth. Never before have we as a species had this vast a resource for culinary intrigue, but this in turn makes the question of what to eat and what to cook really difficult (help us, Michael Pollan!). I think, though, that any respectable cook (whether a self-feeding human or someone bent on nourishing massive quantities of folk) should have some form of code to creatively nosh by. I’ve tried to devise a set of ideas/rules that could help, seasoned chef and beginner alike.
Always have the basics on hand. These vary from person to person, but every human should have the makings for a fundamental dinner in their home. Say you get back after a long day and don’t have the energy to cook something complex. You should still cook (delivery is notoriously unhealthy and expensive), but relish in simplicity. Have in your kitchen the ingredients to make your favorite grain topped with a simple vegetable sauce (cans of tomatoes are super useful). And for breakfast, make sure to always have fruit lying around the kitchen, maybe some milk and oatmeal, and coffee already set to make (keep the grounds in that expensive machine of yours). Basics are vital, and should always be kept simple.
Make sure to stock up on weird and crazy spices (a creative cook doesn’t just have the basics!). Any basic dish can be made into a madness-inducing delicious pile of awesome with a handful of curry or spicy paprika, and Sriracha is the mightiest of basic hot sauces. Stir fry not doing what you want? A little maple syrup and honey can augment the deliciousness, or chopping up a hot pepper you should already have. This idea goes for cheese too; you never know when you’ll need to cheese something.
Invest in an immersion blender or a food processor. These tools are vital for sauces, soups, stews, spice mixtures of all kinds, really anything that needs a good mashing. Processing a pile of delicious substance forces the flavors to blend, so buy one and make your own pesto and other awesome stuff.
For carnivores, learn to listen to your meats. Know how your animal products want to be cooked (you know, never press down on a burger, as it wants to retain its juices), and learn some damn patience. A big bird wants to sit in the oven forever, so let it. Slow cookin’ is the best way to maintain juicy meats, and rushing the process could leave you with a plate filled with dried out husks with little to no flavor. Or, if you’re crazy, make your own corned beef (again, mostly time).
For vegetarians and vegans, take the time to create your own versions of over processed foods (veggie burgers made by hand are far more delicious anyway). I’m not saying make your own tofu (it’s not actually that difficult), but know that even though there is no meat in some popular products for folks of your gastronomic disposition, there may still be chemicals. So fabricate that spicy black bean burger all by yourself!
For carnivores (again), learn the vegetarian and vegan equivalents to your favorite dishes, or learn new cooking ideas altogether. One very important rule I hold near and dear is if you can’t cook vegan, you can’t cook. Meat and cheese are both cheat codes for delicious cuisine, and knowing the alternatives is an extremely useful skill and differentiates you from many cooks and chefs. Vegan cuisine is at the forefront of culinary innovation, and even die hard meat eaters have to admit some vegan options are super damn delicious. Knowing how to use tofu, seitan, tempeh, and weird vegetables you may not be accustomed to makes you a more creative cook, and may win over more folks in the process. Know your eating audience.
Don’t let foodies or activities change the way you perceive food. You have your favorite dishes, your guilty pleasures, and your vices. They should remain as such. If you have to be creative about substituting ingredients so as to healthify your food, then so be it, but you are the only person who really knows how food makes you feel. Michael Pollan said everyone used to be an expert about what they ate, before science and processed food, so take that into consideration when planning your gustatory life.
Happy noshing, Internet friends!