Ed Behr has been writing and editing The Art of Eating, a quarterly publication on all things culinary and gastronomic, since the mid-1980s when it was released as a hand-typed newsletter. He is a passionate, opinionated, reliable, informed, and good-humored food writer and a perfect candidate for our Expert Essentials series. Read on for his thoughts on the 5 essential things that will help us to be great home cooks
Ed is very excited about the release his new book 50 Foods: The Essentials of Good Taste, which should be on shelves next week. "This is my big book. It's the summary of everything I've been doing and working up to. There really isn't anything quite like 50 Foods out there because it's just about eating, about how to find more pleasure in food and eating. There have been 10 zillion cookbooks published but no one has written about eating! It's highly accessible and at the same time it's uncompromised in the quality of its information. It reaches both the everyday cook and the culinary professional."
"I'm try to get at the essence of each food, to really focus on the sensual, on what the best means for each one," Ed says. "I've worked hard to give practical information, not so much the lore and the history, so it's all about how to buy, use, prepare food. And freshness, ripeness, seasons, varieties, aging. What complementary foods and flavors work best, and what wines to serve with each one."
Edward Behr's 5 Essentials for Delicious, Sensual Home Cooking
1. You really have to enjoy the physical process of cooking. "Some people come home from work and find it very relaxing to prepare a meal at the end of the day. But despite all the badgering from good folks such as Mark Bittman, many people find that cooking is a lot of work. They don't find pleasure in it. The people who do enjoy it, often what they're reacting to, what they're responding to, is the physical pleasure of cooking, the pleasure found in cutting vegetables neatly with a sharp knife or the sound of sautéing or taking a little taste of delicious olive oil. The pleasure in the physical, in the sensual, is so critical if you're going to enjoy cooking. If the only thing you're thinking is that you have to be done by 7:30 or that you don't want to wash the dishes afterwards or stressing out about everyone's food allergies, then it's just not going to be an enjoyable experience."
What encourages people who aren't naturally inclined to enjoy cooking? What about the beginner who isn't yet comfortable in the kitchen? "You have to remember not to think of it primarily as work. Think of it primarily as a form of sensuality. Be sure you have a few ingredients you really love on hand (see number 3 below). It can be anything that really brings you pleasure, from a really good olive oil or a beautiful piece of meat that you only cook once a week to a great glass of wine. You may have to take a leap of confidence at first. A great place to start is with something that's simple but uses great ingredients and cook them simply. Begin modestly with things you're sure of and you'll build the confidence you need."
2. You really have to love to eat, and it helps to love to feed other people. "People love to eat. Some may have forgotten that but still, deep down, people love to eat. Really good foods can give a deep sense of satisfaction and help you to not eat quite as much. Stuff like fast food only encourages us to overeat because its never quite satisfying. Feeding other people can be hard and complicated sometimes. People don't like to eat certain things and it can seem challenging. I have two sons and one loves to eat fish, for instance, and the other just can't get past the fishiness of fish. But he loves rillettes! So you can always find something that people love and that will make them happy."
3. You need at least a few ingredients that give you special pleasure. "Be sure to stock your kitchen with things that are very fresh or appropriately aged, or very well produced, or simply something you really like. They could be beautiful carrots from a farm stand, a great Parmigiano Reggiano, some delicious olive oil, or a pint of wild blueberries that a friend picked and gave you."
4. You need at least one or two pieces of equipment that you really enjoy. "Or things make your work easier and the results better. A dull knife is misery. Still, except perhaps for that knife, you can cook great food with really bad equipment. Before we got our current stove, we were down to two burners on a cheap old electric stove. You could heat a frying pan plenty hot enough for a steak, if you were willing to wait and then add the meat. But it doesn't have to be a sharp knife, it could be your brand new food processor. Or things that mean something special: I have my mother's yellow pyrex mixing bowl as well as her mother's bowl, one of those cream earthenware with a stripe. Or maybe try an old cast iron frying pan (the vintage ones are better)."
5. You have to trust your own palate. "Maybe you still have a lot to learn, but your palate is the most important tool you have. This may be a leap of faith for some people, but if you don't go by your own palate, you're just lost. You just have to be yourself and that's your anchor, that's your foundation. Your tastes will evolve and change and maybe even become more sophisticated but you have to jump in somewhere. You have to just leap in and do it and not worry about someone else's palate."
Bonus: Besides the essentials above, here are a few more things that aren't quite essential, but helpful anyway:
- If you're not a teetotaler, it helps to drink a glass of wine or beer with your food, or for that matter as you cook — a bottle that more or less goes with what you’re eating and increases the pleasure of it. (Of course you can also be both a teetotaler and a great cook, too!)
- It also helps to cook in a pleasant environment; it’s hard to prepare good food in a depressing kitchen.
- Perhaps more of a 6th essential than merely useful: you have to know how to use salt. Most home cooks under-salt, meaning they use less than people are used to.
Thank you, Ed!
(Image credits: Natalie Stultz)