Recently I overhead a restaurant patron sigh and say, “I wish I could cook like this at home.” Well, guess what? You can!
Busy people can easily get stuck in a culinary rut, churning out the same boring repertoire of dishes at home week after week, that “ho-hum, here we go again” dinner that stares as glumly up from your plate as you do looking down at it. Here are a few easy pointers that might help elevate your home cooking to something more like what you get at your favorite restaurant.
Stop using recipes as a safety net. Cookbook and magazine recipes should serve as inspiration, not marching orders. Unless you are baking bread or pastry, don’t feel obligated to follow a recipe to the letter. Get creative. Use the recipe as a technical guide if you’re unsure of the cooking method, but don’t be a slave to the ingredient list.
Source ingredients from different places. No single store stocks a whole range of quality ingredients at a decent price. Buy your staples at the larger places, but visit a butcher for meat. Go to the farmers market for the freshest produce. Buy seafood from a vendor who actually knows how to source and store it. Quality ingredients are the cornerstone of good restaurant food. Shopping can be time-consuming, but careful planning will save all that time you spend standing in Aisle 3, eyes roaming over the shelves, thinking, “What the heck am I going to cook tonight?”
Start buying quality cookware. This is important. First, get a decent sauté pan. Get rid of those cheap, thin pans that you hate anyway – especially the elderly Teflon-coated ones that flake black stuff into your food. Restaurant cooks use non-stick pans for only one thing: omelets. If you learn to cook food at the proper temperature and use the right amount of lubrication, it will not stick.
For heaven’s sake, use some butter, some salt, some fresh herbs and good olive oil! If you want something to taste really special, season it properly. Use real butter. Use kosher or sea salt in your cooking and throw away that iodized salt. Get rid of that metal box of gray dust labeled “ground black pepper” and get a pepper grinder and some fresh whole black peppercorns to go in it. Skip the ridiculously expensive “fresh” herbs in flat plastic packages at the grocery; buy them from a produce purveyor. And splurge on a bottle of delicious extra virgin olive oil.
Garnish your food. Eating involves the look of things, too. Go the extra mile and put that sprig of fresh thyme on the top of those potatoes, or a disc of good blue cheese on top of that sizzling steak, and – voila! – your dining room’s a bistro!
Now, get shopping. And leave the recipe at home!
Marsha Lynch is a graduate of Sullivan University and has worked at many Louisville independent restaurants including Limestone, Jack Fry’s, Jarfi’s, L&N Wine Bar and Bistro and Café Lou Lou.