Joyce Goldstein's 5 Simple But Important Essentials for Home Cooks

Expert Essentials

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When I knew I would be talking with Joyce Goldstein about her 5 Essentials picks, I revisited one of her most beloved cookbooks, Back to Square One, a collection of recipes from her still-missed San Francisco restaurant, Square One. The book is over 20 years old but it could have been published yesterday. Here you find a fresh, modern take on recipes not just from Italy and France, but from Persia, Greece, Morocco, Lebanon, Spain, North Africa.

The recipes didn't feel chefy or overly complicated but each one made my mouth water. This well-respected chef clearly knew a lot about home cooking!

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Actually, Joyce Goldstein has written 26 cookbooks, so even if I hadn't fallen in love with Back to Square One again, I knew we'd be in good hands. She has been involved in the Bay Area cooking scene for decades, including a 3-year stint as chef at Chez Panisse Cafe, and of course chef and owner of Square One (and its next door cafe Cafe Quadro) for 12 years. She also founded and ran a cooking school, taught kitchen design at UC's Department of Architecture, and has won numerous awards including a James Beard and a Lifetime Achievement award from Women Chefs and Restauranteurs. Did I say good hands, or what?

Joyce has just published a new book from the University of California Press called Inside the California Food Revolution: 30 Years That Changed Our Culinary Consciousness. The book traces the development of California cuisine from its beginnings in 1970 through to today, where farm-to-table, foraging, and fusion cooking have become common throughout the country.

Joyce Goldstein's 5 Simple But Important Essentials for Home Cooks

  1. Cooking is not a competition!
    Slow down and take time to enjoy it while you are doing it. That way you will really appreciate the whole process cooking: chopping, smelling, tasting. It's like a moving meditation, that old hippie be-here-now thing: once you really get into the groove, it calms you down. If you come in with the wrong attitude, it revs you up and makes you crazy. Slow down, realize that cooking is for pleasure, to show people you care, to make something wonderful for yourself. It's not a race!

    Sometimes when I've had a stressful day, I'll go into the kitchen, I start chopping, and when I look up a half an hour later, I'm a different, much nicer person. I'm calmer, more relaxed. Having taught cooking for so many years, I've seen that the people who really get into it in this way become dedicated, fanatic, and happy cooks and people who do it for the wrong reasons never enjoy it. It really is all about attitude. I deliberately chose this as my first essential because if we start off with the wrong premise, it's never going to work, it's never going to be fun.

  2. Read the damn recipe!
    I've worked worked with cooking students, line cooks, professional cooks, all sorts of people and I always emphasize this point. Read the damn recipe! People start moving before they take the time to read through the recipe and familiarize themselves with it. It seems so obvious, but I have seen so many people get halfway into a recipe and realize they weren't supposed to add all the wine or that there's a 6-hour rest period in the middle. It may sound a little odd, but try reading a recipe out loud! I think it's a very valuable exercise because that way you have heard it as well as read it.

    Also, if you've changed a recipe, be sure that you've made a note on it. If it really needed lemon or if it was too salty, for instance, be sure you write in on the recipe so the next time you pull it down, you have a record.

  3. Use quality ingredients.
    Your ingredients aren't the place to skimp. If you buy crap, you're going to have to work a lot harder to make it taste good. Whereas if you buy quality, guess what: the ingredients do a lot of the work for you.

    There are farmers' markets all over the country now. There are also better grocery stores and cheaper grocery stores. Most people think that if they didn't spend money, they did a good thing but in the case of cooking, they often did a bad thing. The people in the United States spends less on food than any other country in the world because we think if it's cheap, then its good. We got a bargain! But then they wonder why what they cooked didn't taste very good. It's not a bargain! So seek out farmers' markets or shop at a better grocery stores. Make up for the cost by making less, wasting less. When you get quality stuff, you don't need as much of it. Also, ask for things you want at your grocery store. Believe it or not, they'll get it in for you.

  4. Be flexible. Sometimes we get an idea about a certain dish or ingredient, we get caught up in what it's supposed to be or how it's supposed to taste and when that doesn't happen, we freak out. So we need to taste as we go and leave things open for serendipity. This maybe doesn't work so much for baking but if you're cooking something and it turns out that the ingredient you bought wasn't quite what you expected, don't toss it out — roll with it! That way you're open to new ingredients, you try new things, you try new spices, you surprise yourself. But if you're rigid and closed-minded, you're going to be eating the same stuff over and over again for the rest of your life. Which is boring.

  5. The Flavor Adjustment Kit. Very simple: salt and lemon or vinegar. When you do the final tasting and seasoning, a dish usually needs one of two things: more salt or more acid, which could be lemon juice or vinegar. With the Flavor Adjustment Kit handy, I'm automatically prepared for this.

    First taste. If it's a little flat, try salt first. See how that works. Usually salt brings up everything else and you think, oh my God, it was there all the time. Occasionally, if it's just a little flat, add a few drops of lemon or balsamic vinegar. Or a dab of tomato paste diluted with a little water can round things out. This works 98% of the time. Salt is number one and lemon is number two.

    I know people are being told not to use salt but really, that's for processed food. You're never going to over-salt if you're cooking at home, so people shouldn't be concerned with over use. Without salt and lemon (and garlic and olive oil!) I would have to stop cooking. Magic bullets!

Bonus thoughts: Taste as you go along, not just in the end! We should rewrite all the recipes to say 'stop and taste' at every step.

I've been been teaching cooking since 1966 and when you work a lot with other cooks, one thing you learn is that everyone's palate is different. Everybody has a different take, there's no universal rule for taste. So break your own rules — see what happens!

Tell us a little about your new book: I've written 26 cookbooks, and Inside the California Food Revolution is not a cookbook. There's not one recipe in it. It's a history and it's more work than I have ever done in my life. I interviewed over 200 people, I wrote way too much and had to take it down from 700 to 340 pages, so sadly some people didn't make the cut.

I learned a lot when writing this book. It was an incredible experience. I'm amazed at how complicated it was to change how we eat. Fresh, seasonal, local is everywhere today but in the 1960s the food wasn't always fresh, hardly any of it was local and it was mostly not seasonal, either. So took a lot of work to make those changes, to find and develop sources for sustainable seafood, humanely raised meat.

Every little change made a big change. Menus went from being written once a year, to seasonally, to every day. Chef's now have to be a lot smarter, they have to know something about the farms and the providers of their ingredients. They no longer can go on autopilot, with just a few daily specials. This has created a ripple effect that has improved everybody's knowledge, including home cooks. We're crazy here in California, fanatics! But we eat very well!

Thank you, Joyce!

(Images: Gamma Nine Photography for Perbacco, via Food Gal; Margaretta K. Mitchell)