Some people have a knack for cooking; some don't. That is wisdom learned the hard way by culinary instructors I know, and a view that has become clear to me from fielding readers' questions.
Now, that doesn't mean those with less aptitude get a pass. Just about everybody ought to cook at home, for the reasons long touted: It's cost-effective. It's a lifelong skill. It's sociable. We all deserve to eat well.
When cooking becomes an effort that's Sisyphean instead of satisfying, the thing to do — for everyone, really — is to aim for greater efficiency in the kitchen. That calls for critical thinking, organization and shortcuts.
The first step is a no-brainer, and perhaps that's the hitch. When you are following a recipe, read it through with a critical eye. Comprehend the steps; do they make sense, or have you come across a better way to do the task at hand? Consider ingredient substitutions that might make the dish sing for you. Not all recipe headnotes flag steps that might require advance prep; nobody likes the surprise of a stop in the action to soak beans or pickle something.
Dianne Jacob reads a recipe, then visualizes what she'll do. The food- and recipe-writing coach and author of "Will Write for Food" (Da Capo, 2010) has helped improve 18 cookbooks in the past 17 years, objecting to chef-driven directions along the lines of "Roast a duck in the usual manner."
"Just because the recipe says 'Using a sharp knife ...' to peel an eggplant doesn't mean I have to. I prefer a vegetable peeler," she says. Then again, if a chef's knife is the utensil you wield most comfortably, go with it.
Jacob says that organization does not necessarily entail mise en place, the French way of referring to a cadre of ingredients chopped and at the ready. It's all too easy to season the gravy with pre-measured salt that was meant to be shared with the meat.
"It doesn't make sense to prep the garnish before you start the onions for a stew," she says. But doing some things in advance works for her, especially with a multi-step recipe when she's pressed for time. Jacob will marinate, shred, measure and chop the night before.
Better yet, she reaches for the convenience of prepped produce at the grocery store. Sometimes that's a more expensive exercise, but the trade-off works for her. She buys the amount she needs and throws away fewer vegetables gone bad.
Oakland culinary instructor Linda Carucci gathers ingredients and equipment as a second step, after reading the recipe. "That goat cheese I had in the fridge ... I can make sure it's good to use," she says. "I don't want to be surprised by less of something than I thought I had." The most important step Carucci has learned seems to fly in the face of saving time. "I rinse stuff off as soon as I use it," she says. "It always takes me longer to clean up if I leave things all over the kitchen."
Parsnip Soup With Orange and Ginger
4 servings (Makes 5 1/3 cups).
The soup can be refrigerated, minus the cream, for up to 5 days. Adapted from a recipe by Daily Telegraph columnist Xanthe Clay’s cookbook, “It’s Raining Plums” (Simon & Schuster, 2006), that appears in “Recipes From an Edwardian Country House,” by Jane Fearnley-Whittingstall (Atria Books/Marble Arch Press, 2013). To cook the parsnips, they are added after the ginger and before the flour.
1 tablespoon plus 2 teaspoons unsalted butter
1 cup chopped onion (see headnote; may substitute 1 medium onion, chopped)
1 pound parsnips
1 large orange
1-inch piece ginger root
1 tablespoon flour
2 1/2 cups light-colored homemade or store-bought, no-salt-added vegetable broth (may replace half of the broth with water; see headnote)
1/2 cup water, or as needed
1/2 cup light cream
Melt the butter in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add the onion and cook for 5 to 8 minutes, stirring often, until the onion is softened but not colored.
Meanwhile, peel the parsnips, then cut them into small pieces of equal size. Grate the zest of the orange over the onion in the saucepan, then squeeze the juice of the orange into a liquid measuring cup.
Use a spoon to peel the ginger, then grate the ginger into the saucepan. Add the parsnips and the flour; stir to incorporate. Increase the heat to medium-high, stirring in the broth gradually so the flour doesn’t lump together. Once the mixture comes to a boil, reduce the heat to medium-low. Cover and cook for about 20 minutes.
Working in batches, transfer ladlefuls of the mixture to a blender with the center knob removed from its lid so steam can escape. Place a paper towel over the opening. Puree to form a smooth soup, then pour into a mixing bowl. Taste, and season with 1/8-teaspoon increments of salt until you can taste the individual ingredients. Repeat with the remaining mixture from the saucepan. If the soup seems too thick, add water as needed to achieve the desired consistency.
Pour the soup back into the saucepan and warm through over medium-low heat. Stir in the orange juice; taste, and add salt as needed.
At this point, the soup can be divided among individual bowls. Swirl equal amounts of cream into each portion. Or cool the soup completely (without the cream) and refrigerate until well chilled. Swirl equal amounts of the cream into each portion just before serving.
TIPS: Look for fresh, moist parsnips on the small side, with fairly smooth, root-free skin. They might need only a thorough scrubbing instead of peeling.
Have the flour ready to go in a small bowl or piled on a paper towel.
Use a spoon to peel the ginger and a wide Microplane zester or the large holes of a box grater to grate the ginger directly over the saucepan.
Per serving 170 calories, 5 g fat, 3 g saturated fat, 15 mg cholesterol, 270 mg sodium, 32 g carbohydrates, 3 g dietary fiber, 12 g sugar, 2 g protein. Per serving (with the cream) 230 calories, 11 g fat, 7 g saturated fat, 35 mg cholesterol, 290 mg sodium, 33 g carbohydrates, 6 g dietary fiber, 12 g sugar, 3 g protein.
Red Cabbage and Apple Salad
3 servings (Makes 4 cups).
The salad can be refrigerated for up to 1 hour; this is preferable, to blend the flavors. Adapted from a recipe by chef Raphael Duntoye of La Petite Maison, in “GQ Eats: The Cookbook for Men of Seriously Good Taste,” edited by Paul Henderson (Hachette, 2013).
For the dressing:
2 tablespoons fresh orange juice
1½ tablespoons white balsamic vinegar
¾ teaspoon sherry vinegar
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
3 tablespoons hazelnut oil (may substitute walnut oil)
Pinch kosher salt
For the salad:
2 medium (4 or 5 ounces each) Pink Lady apples
2 medium oranges, preferably navel
5 ounces (3 generous cups) thinly sliced red cabbage
2 tablespoons chopped hazelnuts, toasted (see NOTE)
2 tablespoons golden raisins
1/8 to ¼ teaspoon kosher salt
1/8 to ¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
8 to 10 chives, finely chopped
For the dressing: Whisk together the orange juice, vinegars, oils and salt in a mixing bowl to form an emulsified vinaigrette.
For the salad: Core the apple, then cut it into medium dice, adding the pieces to the dressing as you work.
Cut off the top and bottom of the oranges; stand on each one end. Working vertically around the oranges, one at a time, use a serrated knife to cut away and discard the peel and white pith. Slice between the membranes to remove all the orange segments, letting them drop into the mixing bowl with the dressing and apple.
Add the cabbage, hazelnuts, raisins and 1/8 teaspoon each of the salt and pepper; toss to incorporate. Taste, and add the remaining seasoning as needed.
Transfer to a serving bowl and sprinkle with the chives; serve right away, or cover and refrigerate for up to 1 hour before serving.
NOTE: Toast the chopped hazelnuts in a small dry skillet over medium heat for 2 minutes or so, stirring to avoid scorching, until lightly browned and fragrant. Cool completely before chopping.
TIPS: Using prepped cabbage from the grocery store salad bar cuts the chopping time.
If you buy skin-on hazelnuts, their skins will crack as they toast. Transfer them immediately to a dish towel and rub to remove the skins before cooling and chopping.
Because the salad’s flavor improves with a little time, we’ve reordered the recipe so the dressing is made first, in the same bowl you use to build the salad.
As you prep the salad ingredients, they can be tossed in the dressing. That will keep the apple from oxidizing as you chop other ingredients.
Refrigerate any nut oil after it has been opened, to prolong its shelf life (up to a year) and keep it from getting rancid.
Per serving: 320 calories, 3 g protein, 33 g carbohydrates, 21 g fat, 2 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 180 mg sodium, 6 g dietary fiber, 22 g sugar