I have a spoon rest on my stovetop that reads, “Sheila’s kitchen,” and that’s true. For me, there’s no question that the kitchen is the most important room in the house. Like mitochondria is to the cell, the kitchen is the powerhouse of the home.
For much of my adult life, I’ve loved to cook. It took me a few years to discover I not only could be quite good at it, but I thoroughly enjoy it. I find it helps to ease my stress and gives me something to focus on when the world seems a bit too much. Like the subtitled foreign film, “Like Water for Chocolate,” I put my emotion into what I’m whipping up, particularly when I’m baking.
Over the past year or so, I’ve turned to the kitchen often, whether to help ease quarantine boredom or to help me process when things have just seemed too much. I like to think I’ve learned a thing or two in my hours spent in the kitchen and, though I won’t often share specific recipes, I have no problem sharing some of the kitchen tips I find myself turning back to again and again.
• Ingredients matter: Garbage in results in garbage out. I’m not saying you have to buy the most expensive ingredients all the time, but I’ve found you can’t get a delicious product if you’re unwilling to invest in what goes into it, whether that be kitchen tools, food components and spices or simply time and energy. You get what you give.
• Avoid packaged and processed: I get it. It’s so tempting to reach for those products that line the grocery store shelves that purport to make our lives so much easier, saving us time and hassle. In terms of nutrition, finances, family time or whatever else, the easy way is often not the best way.
• If it appears too good to be true, it probably is: My social media feeds are frequently littered with recipes or ads for life-saving kitchen gadgets. Experience tells me that just because something looks good on Facebook doesn’t necessarily make it good in reality. Do your homework before going all in on fancy gadgets. Sometimes those recipes that look so pleasing actually aren’t.
• What looks good and what tastes good aren’t always the same: Appearances can be deceiving. The prettiest cake or pie or burger or roast turkey can be utterly disappointing and leave one completely unsatisfied. No amount of decorating or presentation can make up for dry or flavorless or otherwise lacking in substance.
• Don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty: Particularly when it comes to things like making crust or bread, wash those hands and then get them dirty. There is no substitute for the hands-on method, no matter how many handy kitchen appliances you may have invested in. Wash them, get them dirty, wash them again and repeat as many times as needed.
• Learn from others: One of my pandemic joys was binge watching “The Great British Baking Show.” There were numerous times the participants would mention something, and I would have no idea what they were talking about, so I looked it up. I’ve come away from that show with a whole lot of kitchen tricks that have left me saying, “I wonder why I didn’t think of that.”
• My family’s way isn’t the only way: I’ve learned a lot of cooking and baking from my mom and my grandmothers and other family members. I’ve also learned that the way they do something isn’t the way everybody else does something, and that’s OK. It turns out that sometimes our way isn’t the only, or even the best, way.
• Variety and color are awesome: I’m one of the pickiest people on the planet. Seriously, ask anybody who has known me for more than five minutes. But some of my current favorite foods are things I wouldn’t touch as a child or even 5-10 years ago. Changing up a routine and getting out of a comfort zone is fun — you never know what you might discover. As nutritionists will tell you, a colorful plate is a healthy plate and if your plate is all shades of beige, you’re probably missing out on essential nutrients.
• Condiments are overused: I’m a big believer in avoiding most condiments. If the food isn’t palatable without slopping a bunch of gunk on it, then I tend to want to avoid it rather than slathering it with stuff to make it go down easier.
• One bad apple can spoil the whole bunch: Keep an eye on your produce. One moldy strawberry, squishy banana, rotten potato or bad apple can not only destroy the entire bunch but fill your kitchen with pesky fruit flies. Be on the lookout for such things and throw them out quickly.
• Stir: I have very, very few recipes that I can put on the stovetop and walk away. Most need to be stirred regularly, if not constantly, to avoid burning or having a congealed film on the bottom of the pan. Stir the pot and don’t ever turn away from a pot on the verge of boiling. A boiled-over stovetop is no fun to clean up.
• Nobody makes sense when they’re hungry: A full and properly nourished stomach helps with all manner of problems. Kids and adults alike can’t learn, and people are more likely to argue, when they’re hungry. If you want to talk with someone, try feeding them first. I tend to get much further.
• Let other people cook too: I’m a complete control freak, which I’ll readily admit. Sometimes I must step back and let my husband cook or let my kids learn to cook or let somebody else host dinner. Stepping out of my role or roles, even ones I may have assigned to myself, allows me to learn and grow while providing others with opportunities they wouldn’t have if I kept them all to myself.
• Moderation in all things: I love cheeseburgers. They’re probably my favorite food. I also have a mean sweet tooth. Indulging every day, however, is unhealthy in many ways. There is such a thing as too much of a good thing and more, more, more can make one really sick, sick, sick.
• Clean up after yourself: Nobody wants to eat out of your grubby kitchen, and nobody wants to be the one following along behind you cleaning up your mess. Really. Just keep it clean to begin with; it’s so much easier.
• Keep it local: A trip to the local farmer’s market in the summer can not only lead to fresher products, but it can also help support your friends and neighbors while cutting down on food waste. And you never know what else you may discover there.
• Cook with love: Even for someone like myself who genuinely enjoys cooking, I sometimes forget why I’m doing it. It seems like just another chore I have to do. I must remind myself that I’m not cooking and eating just to fill the hole in my stomach, I’m nourishing my body and mind and those of the people I love. The love put into it is one of those key ingredients that really matters. Always remember the love — that’s the most important of the kitchen tips.