I have been cooking for approx 40 years, and can produce mediocre, passable and excellent meals, depending on my mood, ingredients and motivation. I have found that most cooks tend to categorize their meals in the same way and it will be near on impossible to cook home meals every day of your life without sometimes (or often) producing just “filling the gap” meals.
The first steps to cooking often seems like a daunting task to the inexperienced cook. Looking at pictures of prepared dishes can be intimidating to a novice and create the feeling of being too advanced to attempt without help or assistance. There are a few basic principles involved in cooking that has not changed over the years and getting to know these principles is the first step towards being successful in your kitchen, without stress.
In spite of new techniques and cooking methods, these guidelines have never failed, i.e. beef, lamb and chicken can all successfully be cooked with onion, tomato and garlic (safe meals) and by adding wine, cream or yogurt, balsamic vinegar, soy sauce and a few herbs can be turned into “impress meals.” Fish can impress without adding anything because it has such a distinctive flavor and aroma, although by adding a few simple ingredients like wine and cream can become real “wow” meals. It is so satisfying to experiment and produce a tasty dish, all it needs is a bit of courage and a glass of fine wine for settling the nerves.
When you start learning to cook get into the habit of smelling what you intend adding to your meat or vegetables. The stronger the smell, the less you need to add to enhance a simple dish. Garlic, pepper, herbs, soy sauce and wine or balsamic vinegar are so popular in cooking, but so often when used without restraint it can overpower whatever you are cooking. Rule of thumb is always, “less is better.” It is easy to add a touch more than to try and disguise the overuse of flavorings. Test your dish while it is cooking by smell, if one aroma comes across stronger than the rest, it is probably too much.
Another tip in cooking, don’t cook anything you don’t particularly like eating yourself. I have found that I cook the things I love eating far better than those my guests expect to have on an “impress” plate. In this category artichokes are top of my list, my palate rejects the flavor and I will avoid cooking it at all costs.
Each item, meat or vegetables, has its own distinctive taste. An inexperienced cook should concentrate on cooking them individually to maintain their own favor rather than mixing what does not always combine well. Personally I would rather eat carrots that taste of carrot instead of heavy wine and spices or herbs. Although some combinations can really produce a “wow” meal, it takes some experimenting to achieve if you are not cooking from a recipe.
Now to recap; onion, tomato and garlic for the basis of most meat dishes. The adding of herbs and spices should be controlled by smell. Strong smell, use less. Taste and smell the dish while cooking. This gives a very good indication of the strength of your additives. And finally, stay with what you enjoy eating but by adding a little wine, cream or yogurt you can turn the dish into a “wow” dish and no longer be regarded as a beginner when it comes to cooking for others.