Cookbook author and teacher Andrea Nguyen is a favorite friend of The Kitchn. We adored her most recent book, Asian Tofu, and have tapped her for her expertise on Asian dumplings and freezing tofu. Her warmth, enthusiasm and broad knowledge have always steered us right. Read on for her five essential attitudes, approaches, and practices for becoming a great home cook.
1. Cook from cookbooks. Andrea has no problem with people getting recipes from the web, but she hopes that they won't stop reading and using cookbooks. When you read a cookbook, you are getting a larger, more holistic system and approach to cooking, she explains, which is a much richer and more instructive than just plucking a single recipe from the internet. When you page through a cookbook, you never know what you are going to find from one page to the next. You may stumble on something you weren't looking for, so there's an element of surprise, the thrill of discovery and the unexpected. It's the thrill of the chase!
2. Read recipes thoroughly. Andrea agrees with Yotam Ottolenghi that it's important to read a recipe thoroughly, be it in a book, magazine, or on the internet. There is a definite craft to reading a recipe. Don't read it just to understand how to make the dish, she advises, but also to educate yourself on how cooking works. Ask yourself why is this recipe leading me down this path, why these particular instructions, this particular direction? That way you'll build your understanding of how cooking works, which you can apply to other things you do. Many cooks have performance anxiety but when you understand a recipe thoroughly, you really begin to know what you're doing.
As a cookbook writer and recipe developer, Andrea strives to present enough information in her recipes to give cooks what they need without going overboard. I don't want to sound like a nag, she says, laughing. But she also feels it is important to give her readers tactile clues, such as how something smells or what it should taste like at a given point. I like to give them a visual picture, she says, so instead of just saying 'cut into a fine shred' I'll say something like 'cut into a fine shred, so that it looks like hair.'
3. Master fundamentals. Learn and understand cooking terms. Learn and understand the difference between chopping, dicing, mincing, and mashing and how each method affects your final product. Minced garlic and mashed garlic are not the same thing and won't produce the same results. Understanding basics is important, even simple things like the difference between boiling and simmering and just keeping the water hot, Andrea advises. (She recalls an old James Beard soup recipe where he uses the delightful phrase 'at a feeble simmer.')
People aren't learning how to cook from their parents so much these days, says Andrea. Given that and the fact that we live in a very diverse culture, there isn't a common body of cooking terms so we need to practice and experiment and keep asking why.
4. Establish and nurture relationships. Connect with people in your community. Talk to your farmers, butchers, bakers. Ask them questions beyond 'is this organic?' and be curious. Strike up conversations and ask the people you run into in the market 'what are you going to do with that?'
5. Remember that at the end of the day, it's just food. Don't be afraid to mess up, to make mistakes. There'll always be another pot of rice to cook. Remember that cooking is something to practice over and over again, says Andrea. Each time you'll get better. It's also good to be a little OCD, she jokes, but also have fun and remember that home cooking is something worth doing. It's cheaper than eating out so you save money and you engage in your communities and create relationships, a much greater take away.
Bonus recommendations: Sharp knives and a scale! Take your knives to be professionally sharpened and ask them how to keep them sharp between visits. Purchase and learn how to use a honing steel. Pick up a scale while your at it and use it as much as possible. Scales allow you to be more precise and they never lie.