7 Simple Ways to Become a Better Cook

Recipes take you only so far. After that, instinct and experience must take over. We talked to some of our favorite experts to uncover easy ways to get you further down the path to kitchen fulfillment and control.

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3. Dig Into Plants

Early 2013 produced a microbuzz about the Cauliflower Steak, in which the weighty crucifer is cross-sectionally "butchered" to produce thick slabs that can be charred in a pan and finished in the oven like a T-bone. Farm-to-table chef/god Dan Barber serves it on a puree virtuously derived from the cauliflower's peripheral bits. Food blog Grubstreet nominated the cauliflower Vegetable Most Likely to Be Mistaken for a Piece of Meat. The CS is often on the menu of our favorite vegan restaurant in America, Vedge in Philadelphia.

Vegetarians are often teased for disguising vegetables as meat, as if they're not plant-proud (cue the seitan hot dogs). But chefs like Rich Landau at Vedge are after something else: main-course satisfaction that plays to the deepest potential of vegetables. He goes way past surfacing the obvious flavors of a plant; he deploys heat, time, and ingredients to build layers. This is important because in a healthier diet, plants need to move from character actor to star, avoiding what vegetable goddess Deborah Madison calls "the hole in the middle of the plate."

"It's all psychological," says Landau. "If you gave someone a bunch of chopped up cauliflower for an entrée, they'd say, 'Thanks for my vegan side dish. Now where's my dinner?' But if you give them a cauliflower steak, they pick up their knife and fork and start cutting. Zucchini is another plank-steak vegetable. Make a zucchini steak; then finish it with capers, tomatoes, and herbs like you would a piece of fish."

The most important plant cookbook of recent years is Madison's Vegetable Literacy, published this spring. It parses the plant kingdom—and its leaves, bulbs, stalks, roots, flowers, and herbs—according to family resemblances, kinship flavors and textures. "Cumin, caraway, cilantro, and dill all taste wonderful with carrots because they are relatives," Madison says. "Lettuce is in the daisy family. So are radicchio and artichokes." If you want to think the Madison way, buy the book now.

Producing main-course satisfaction is trickier when the sexy vegetables of summer and fall fade to the browns and duns of winter. "You look at a parsnip and go, 'Huh?'" Madison says. (We go, "Mash with carrots and smoked paprika, and drizzle with good olive oil.") Still, Madison says, "You can make a great red cabbage dish just by slicing it very thinly and sautéing it lightly. It's shiny, it's fresh." Dim sum restaurant Yank Sing in San Francisco does a dazzling thin-cut red cabbage salad that goes toe-to-toe with their shrimp dumplings—a trick that moves a salad to the center of all that dim sum starch and meat.

Other food cultures get this. "In Burma and northern Thailand," says Naomi Duguid, whose book Burma was one of our favorite cookbooks of 2012, "they serve steamed and raw vegetables on a platter, in much the same way we'd have a platter of chips or bread, that people can enjoy throughout the meal. Our equivalent would be a sad plate of baby carrots and celery sticks for kids." Be expansive with herbs, too: Put out bowls of fresh basil, mint, cilantro, and hot sauce.

Grill lettuce. Steam eggplant. Pan-fry pumpkin. Seek inspiration in the flavors and traditions of India, Hungary, Italy, China, Japan, Indonesia. Braise, roast, sauté. Be a plant-head.

4. Fire Things Up!

"The main ingredient in a Mexican salsa is fire," says Naomi Duguid, one of our favorite cookbook authors and a widely traveled food anthropologist. She isn't talking about chile heat here; she means that the flames that directly blister tomatoes, onions, and peppers in a salsa de molcajete are the soul of the dish. This is the best way to think of fire: as a zero-calorie, big-flavor ingredient in healthy cooking. You could even argue it's calorie-negative, since it melts fat out of meats.

"It's the most raw expression of heat," says fire-worshipper Adam Perry Lang, author of Charred and Scruffed. He throws meat directly onto smoldering coals, scores steaks to yield more surface area for fire to char, and moves chops around on the grill frantically for maximum, even fire effect. "There's also this element of bitter that adds such a counterbalance to sweetness that I think is so important," says Perry Lang.

Fire is easy, if you live year-round in Florida or SoCal and have someone to maintain your backyard fire pit. For the rest of us, it seems seasonal. However, with a bit of creativity, you can deploy the power of fire in your kitchen all year long. If you have a gas stove, of course, you can directly char peppers over a burner. If you have a winter woodstove, you can throw a whole eggplant into the firebox and retrieve a charred, perfectly cooked, smoky vegetable for curries or soups. You also have the power of the broiler—basically an upside-down grill—which is great if it's gas but fine, too, if it's a red-hot electric element. You can get creative with a culinary torch, like we did. You can create stovetop devices that impart fire's flavor cousin, smoke (right). You can heat pans—for the right pans, see page 230—to searing temperatures, creating a char that approximates that of direct fire.

For his vegan stock, Rich Landau uses intentional scorch to great effect: "We get the pan really hot and add a few hearty vegetables—carrots, rutabagas, celery root, and onions—and char the hell out of them. Then we add [fresh] vegetables and liquid on top of that. The levels of flavor it gives you are so beautiful and so intense. You taste the difference." Landau describes regular veggie stocks as "perfumed water." Modernist chef Maxime Bilet also loves to scorch and char but with a high-powered torch from a building-supply store—which he argues is far more energy-efficient than any broiler.

When grill season arrives, expand your horizons. Broccoli and other rugged vegetables benefit from fire, as do greens, dressed with a little fish sauce and then grilled—a treatment Duguid maintains will have kids fighting over them. Chef Wylie Dufresne likes to scorch lemons; it brings out their sugars and adds a pleasing bitter note.

Fire is flavor. Fire is fun. Fire away.


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