David Tanis’ 5 Uncomplicated Essentials for the Home Cook

published Dec 4, 2013
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We’re big fans of Davis Tanis here at The Kitchn. We love his new book One Good Dish, previous books (A Platter of Figs and Heart of the Artichoke), and his NYT column

City Kitchen

Thanksgivukkah! So it’s no wonder we tapped him for our 5 Essentials series and it’s no surprise that he came though with characteristic warmth and generosity.
(Image credit: Dana Velden)

David Tanis’ authority on cooking may have originated in the august Chez Panisse kitchens, where he was chef of both the upstairs and downstairs kitchens for several years. But he also passionately believes in home cooking, as his three cookbooks and dozens of NYT articles can attest.

Talking with David about what essentials are needed to help home cooks shine was a very comfortable fit. “It’s what I do,” he said. “It’s what I write about in my column, it’s what my books are about.” A true expert indeed!

David Tanis’ 5 Uncomplicated Essentials for the Home Cook

1. Have a sharp knife. “And even further, learn how to sharpen your knives.” What kind of sharpening method do you recommend? “I don’t really mind one method or the other. There are some good electric or semi-automatic sharpeners out there. But it’s not really hard to use a Japanese style sharpening stone and even better, it’s kind of pleasant work to use one.

“You don’t have to spend a fortune on a good knife. In fact, my favorite kitchen tool is a paring knife. A lot of people don’t think about their little paring knife so much but if your paring knife is dull, all the tasks you’re using it for are going to take a little longer and be much less enjoyable. You can find rather inexpensive paring knives with a serrated edge that don’t cost much, maybe $8. And they’re really useful! You can pick up a couple to have around — they also make inexpensive steak knives.”

2. Season meat ahead of time. “Whether it’s for a few hours or overnight, you will get better flavor with most meats if the seasoning has time to penetrate and perfume. At the very least season with salt but there are a lot of other flavorings, too, such as garlic and herbs. It just takes two minutes to do this in the morning before you leave for work and when you get home later that night, your meat will be ready to pop into the oven. The flavor is a million times better. A roast or a chicken or a cut of beef that you are going to braise — all these can benefit from seasoning at least a few hours ahead but often overnight.”

3. Fresh herbs. “You know how annoying it is to buy those fresh herbs in plastic clam shells? Maybe you just need a sprig for a recipe but then the remaining bunch ends up getting lost in the back of the refrigerator. It’s also galling to pay $3 for a spring of thyme! My solution is have a few pots of herbs on your windowsill or if you live in a temperate climate, you can just grow them outside your back door. I keep a few pots going on my windowsill in New York. It’s not an impossible idea and you’re more apt to use a sprig of thyme or a few bay leaves if they’re sitting right there.”

“In terms of fresh herbs that you’re going to use to finish a dish, it’s very good to chop them at the last minute. This is especially true for herbs like parsley, chives, tarragon, chervil. Parsley has a really wonderful flavor and if you chop it too far ahead, all the essential oils disappear. You can have the herbs already washed and dried and leaves picked, and then just run your knife through them. It takes maybe a half a minute. Or take a gremolata: if you can chop the fresh parsley lemon and garlic at the last minute, you’ll really maximize their flavor. This works with garlic, too, especially when you’re going to use it raw.”

4. Take up the European habit of smaller meat portions. “People are already leaning towards this idea, which is great. In France a 4-ounce portion of steak is considered to be the perfect portion whereas here in the US, burgers and steaks start at twice that, if not more. So start working with smaller portions. You get all the flavor, all the joy, but you haven’t eaten a giant slab of meat. And then you can feature your vegetables a little more prominently.”

5. Stay seasonal. “I know we always hear seasonal-local-organic these days but it’s also so tempting to eat asparagus in December! So I feel it still bears repeating.

“Weather is always going to drive what we eat. You may have to depend on a few fresh things from California here and there in the winter but most of the rest of the year, stay as seasonal as possible. It tastes so much better and feel so much better to eat things in season. You look forward to each coming thing — oh my gosh, we have pears and radicchio again!

“And of course, support farmers markets and local farmers. It’s really important. In fact, if it’s at all possible avoid the supermarkets altogether. I don’t like the one-stop shopping mode. I like having a smaller refrigerator and shopping more frequently. Supermarkets are really best for non-edible staples unless you’re lucky enough to have a supermarket that has great produce. Generally speaking, it’s my preference to use small stores, and shop everyday. I pick up a piece of fish on my way home, stop off at that place that has really good salad greens, it’s not a problem.

“In general, don’t overcomplicate things. Keep it simple. This is good advice for any kind of cook but especially the home cook. Make a commitment to cooking at home and once you get into the habit, you’ll find that it’s a lot better than ordering in or picking up a bad pizza on the way home. This is the focus of my new book, One Good Dish. Every recipe is simple and appeals to any level of cook. A novice cook can look at a recipe and say ‘I can do that!’ and a more experienced cook can say ‘I can do that and run with it!'”

Anything else? “Dress your salads lightly — you can always add more but you can’t add less!”

Thank you, David!

For more information, visit David Tanis’ website or follow him on Twitter: @DavidTanisCooks. Also check out his NYT column City Kitchen or pick up one of his three cookbooks.