I’ve Learned (Almost) More About Cooking from This Book than I Did in Culinary School

published May 11, 2022
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Credit: Rochelle Bilow

After a decade of professional cooking and food writing, and a degree from culinary school, I feel pretty confident in the kitchen. And as a result, I rarely use cookbooks. (Jesse Szewczyk’s Cookies is an exception!) But when a friend suggested I check out The Nimble Cook by Ronna Welsh, my interest was piqued. 

Welsh’s style is all about fresh, simple preparations that sing with the seasons. Instead of glossy photos, the book is filled with soft, gentle illustrations. She doesn’t talk down to her readers (that may be in large part due to her “day job” as the owner of Purple Kale, a cooking school). She encourages home cooks to use what they have, rather than sourcing a zillion ingredients they’ll use once or twice. And best of all, her ingredient combinations are surprising, and yet perfectly complementary. 

After grabbing my copy of The Nimble Cook, I read it cover to cover. And then I cooked from it! I prepared dishes from every chapter (the recipes are divided into ingredient-forward categories, like “leaves,” “poultry,” and “pasta and polenta.”) After spending time with Welsh’s recipes and instructions, I realized that I felt inspired in new ways … and I’d learned a lot. Its pages are packed with conceptual tips that may change the way you cook, as well as mini aha moments that will absolutely make your daily kitchen tasks easier, and your meals tastier. I highly recommend this cookbook to any home cook, no matter what their skill level. Need more incentive? Here are my top five takeaways from The Nimble Cook

Credit: Rochelle Bilow

1. Think “ingredients first.”

This ethos is listed on the very first page of the cookbook. In a quick bulleted list, Welsh explains that The Nimble Cook will teach you how to “put ingredients, not recipes first.” While I usually tackle dinner with intuition rather than recipes, I realized that I wasn’t actually focusing on the ingredients. I considered sweet potatoes much the same way I considered arugula — as a problem to be solved. But Welsh’s book encouraged me to honor each individual ingredient’s strengths and shortcomings. By dividing her book into ingredient-focused chapters, Welsh helps readers understand what each one does. (Herbs brighten, roots ground, and so on.)

Need examples? Most of her root veggie recipes coax out their sweetness with lower, slower cooking methods. Grains and seeds become fun and exciting, with lots of texture — hello, popcorn quinoa! Now, I’m more thoughtful about the preparations I use with the produce, grains, and proteins in my pantry.

2. Rethink meal planning.

Another “big picture” tip I gleaned from this cookbook is that meal planning is, generally, not worth the effort. While having a general roadmap is helpful, Welsh points out that “recipes don’t always take into account the food we have on hand, not to mention our appetite, available time, and mood.” In other words, that ambitious casserole you planned on Sunday might not be what you’re craving on Wednesday. Or maybe your favorite Instagram influencer suggested a meal that sounds good, but will require trips to three different grocery stores. By focusing on what’s available to you — in terms of your personal pantry, and your local food sources — Welsh explains that you’ll reduce waste and trim unnecessary work.

Credit: Rochelle Bilow

3. Make herbs last longer with an herb tank.

Okay, this tiny tip blew my mind. Welsh didn’t have to convince me to cook with fresh herbs — I’m already a big fan. But for years, I’ve wondered about the best way to store them. There are so many methods, and they all have flaws. I’ve tried keeping them upright in a glass of water, wrapped in a damp paper towel, and even just stuffed in a grocery store plastic bag. But after a couple weeks of using Welsh’s “Herb Tank” method, I’m a convert. My rosemary looked harvest-day fresh even on day five.

Here’s how you do it: First, buy really fresh herbs. If they’re already wilted or sad-looking, pass ‘em by. When you get home, prep them by releasing them from their rubber band or twistie. Rinse gently in cold water, then trim the stems (but don’t bother stripping the leaves off). Then, place a few ice cubes in a large clear glass or plastic container that’s large enough to comfortably hold the herbs without squishing them. Add the herbs, keeping woody varieties like rosemary and thyme together, and grouping the soft and tender stuff, like parsley and tarragon, on the other side. Add a few more ice cubes and top with cold water. Cover tightly and store in the refrigerator. Welsh notes that the best place for your Herb Tank is a very cold spot — not the condiment drawer. In a few days, the water may cloud. No big! Just swap it out. When you’re ready to use the herbs, remove what you need and wrap gently in a paper towel to blot dry.

Credit: Rochelle Bilow

4. Braise your vegetables.

Braised short ribs? I’m on it. Braised chicken thighs? A no-brainer. But as I read through The Nimble Cook, I noticed a theme: Welsh regularly treats her veggies to a luxurious braise. She has a recipe for triple-braised wild mushrooms (the combination of wine, stock, and time is truly transformative here), braised celeriac (which can then become a gratin or soup), braised fennel (it gets so sweet!), and wine-braised leeks (could eat every day for the rest of my life). This slower, gentler technique encourages deep flavor concentration, and keeps the veg moist. While I love a sheet tray of crispy roasted potatoes as much as the next person, my new go-to method for cooking vegetables is braising.

5. Make two types of chicken stock — one for summer, and one for winter.

Like me, you probably don’t need convincing that homemade chicken stock tastes better than the boxed or concentrated stuff. But I’m betting that, also like me, you’ll be surprised to learn that it’s even better when you make a seasonally appropriate version. In the “poultry” section of The Nimble Cook, Welsh includes a recipe for “worth-it chicken stock.” There are plenty of clever tricks, such as skimming the foam, and cooking it in the oven, but what really makes it are the two variations. Summer chicken stock is bright and light, with the addition of lemon, thyme, and white peppercorns. Winter stock is deeper and heartier, with cloves, black peppercorn, and — surprise! — cardamom pods. Because chicken stock forms the base of so many of my favorite meals, I’ll definitely be updating my methods to reflect these insights.

Have you used The Nimble Cook? Share your favorite takeaways with me in the comments!