Toss the drudgery of weight loss, thrift and cleaned-out attics.
Instead, make kitchen resolutions that are way more fun and flavorful, too. Here are 10 of mine — some old, some new, all well worth the effort.
1. Stretch once a week. I know from phone calls and conversations that there are legions of borderline cookbook hoarders out there. I’m guilty, too. So challenge yourself to make a recipe from one neglected cookbook each week, or each month, if that suits you better. I followed a friend’s example last year and discovered the pleasures of oxtail stew, shrimp bisque made with saved shells, preserved lemons and the French 75 cocktail.
2. Pretend you’re famous. Years ago, I investigated the validity of prep times in recipes. The conclusion: They’re grossly inaccurate. That is, unless you prepare the recipes the way they’re intended. When I interviewed glossy magazine food editors and cookbook authors, they all said the same thing — the times are based on having ingredients at the ready, like TV chefs do. That may sound tedious, but give it a try. It’s a lovely and less stressful way to cook.
3. Never skip a weigh in. Fill a measuring cup with flour, and you’ll have 8 ounces by volume. But turn it onto a scale, and you might have 3.5 ounces, 4.2 ounces or 5.5 ounces of flour — or more or less, depending on whether it’s been sifted or fluffed or packed into the cup.
Weighing equals precision, the hallmark of baking, and there’s not a professional baker worth his or her Hobart mixer who measures dry ingredients in a cup. Weighing ensures the same results every time and even saves money because you’ll generally use less flour.
Switch to weighing all your dry ingredients, and you’ll also save time because you can measure directly in the mixing bowl, eliminating the need for washing measuring cups and spoons. Be sure to buy a scale that has a “tare” function, one that will zero-out the weight of the bowl and other ingredients as you add them.
4. Be kneady. Winter is the best time to bake bread, as Virginia’s humid summers can make it tricky, especially for beginners. Bread is easier to make than you might think, and there’s a Zen to the kneading and shaping. Then there’s the bonus aroma of just-baked bread, and the bread itself. For beginners, I suggest using the basic recipe in "The New Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day" by Jeff Hertzberg. It’s foolproof.
5. Buy whole spices and then toast or dry-roast them. This was a shazaam! moment for me. For maximum aroma and flavor, place whole spices in a skillet over medium-low heat and shake until the aroma is released. Then grind them by hand or with a spice or coffee grinder. The elevated flavors are astonishing.
6. Go global. It didn’t used to be this way, but these days you can find all the ingredients you’ll need for most any dish in markets small and large. Mexican, Indian, Mediterranean, Colombian, Caribbean, Korean, Japanese, Eastern European — it’s all right here. And public library shelves are stuffed with exotic cookbooks. So go ahead, do a little traveling with your taste buds.
7. Enter the stock market. I never toss beef bones, chicken backs or necks, the tops of celery, shrimp shells, odd pieces of onion and carrot and other vegetables. Instead, I freeze them in big zipper baggies. When the bags are bulging, it’s time to make stock. You can be a precision stock maker and follow one of the zillions of recipes out there, or use cookbook author Michael Ruhlman’s basic ratio of 3 parts water: 2 parts bones. The other stuff should be roughly 20 percent of the water and bones.
Ruhlman explains: “If you have 2 pounds of chicken bones and 3 pounds of water, you’d want to add roughly a pound of onion, carrot and celery.”Feel free to alter the ratios based on what you have at hand. (See resolution No. 8.) And here’s my dirty little kitchen secret: Except for bones, I don’t strain my stock. Instead I use an immersion blender to create a thicker “stock” that gives my admittedly rustic soups a little more body. Consider adding a splash or so of dry vermouth, too.
8. Get loose. Be bold with this one. A good place to start is with the soup you’ll be making with that stock. Does a recipe call for pearled barley, and you only have farro? Use the farro. Alter the ratios if you have a lot of bones. If you want to make mac 'n' cheese, but have corkscrew pasta instead of elbows, use those. Riff with what’s in your spice cabinet and produce drawer. This will make you a better cook.
9. Throw a dinner party. I was so depressed this year when a big-name food savant predicted that the dinner party is dead. Please help me disprove this notion by hosting several dinner parties this year. They don’t need to be fancy. Almost every dinner party I’ve been to in the past 10 years has included time in the kitchen with the cook and a cocktail. What counts most is the gathering of friends.
If the dinner turns into a disaster, adopt my tried-and-true backup plan. Just order pizza. I’ve only had to invoke this once, when I dropped a chair on a fully-set table. The pizza arrived shortly thereafter, and the story lives on.
10. Give the good silver a daily workout. Treat yourself like company every day. I don’t coddle my good silver. We use it every day and it goes right into the dishwasher. Same with the china. Every day is a gift, so treat it like one!