Be A Better Cook - Use Only Fresh, High Quality Ingredients

This is gonna take a while. 

I want to share a little with you about using fresh and high quality ingredients. But compared to discussing and sharing good recipes, teaching some techniques for prepping and cooking, or recommending pots, pans and specialty cooking tools, ingredient selection is HARD. And there's a lot to say. 

So I'm (temporarily) throwing away my two and a half page outline of how to select good ingredients (classified into produce, proteins, staples and specialty items). Instead, let me tell a few stories and we'll pick up the syllabus a little more slowly over time. 

I think I began cooking "seriously" over 30 years ago. The dish I recall as a turning point was a broccoli/pasta salad for a friend's family picnic. It wasn't a special recipe, but it was MY dish. And not a lot of 18 year olds bring home-cooked dishes to someone else's 4th of July party. I'll admit there could have been an ulterior motive involving my friend's sister Becky, but I think she was too young at that time and my crush really developed a few years later.

The recipe for that suburban standard was wholly forgettable, I'm sure; broccoli, pasta, some sort of semi-homemade salad dressing, and probably something exotic like a red bell pepper. Despite the lack of sophistication in recipe design, this dish still had the chance of being a picnic showcase. IF the broccoli were very fresh and well cooked; IF the pasta was a brand that contained semolina flour and was not overcooked; IF the proportion of other ingredients was well composed and created a pleasant balance.

However, if the broccoli was tasteless or the pasta was of a brand from which the only obtainable taste was starchy and gummy, even a world class picnic recipe (if there is such a thing) would fail. And so would my chances with Becky (or was it Amy?).

If you don't use fresh, high quality ingredients your recipe and technique can only make up a little ground. You're not likely to succeed otherwise. 

I'll give you a more current example. Last night we had a simple Family Sandwich Night. At my house, this involved making fresh bread and generally taking things too far, thus compromising the concept of "simple family sandwich night". We had muffalettas with olive spread from the Central Grocery in New Orleans, on the aforementioned freshly baked bread.

But I also made an exceedingly traditional Cole Slaw, from a classic recipe I found in the Essential New York Times Cookbook.This is rare for me. Usually slaw is made with Napa Cabbage, or is a zesty mix of non-traditional ingredients. This slaw was excellent, yet not because it's a classic recipe (which it is, frankly, it's an exceptional version of a slaw recipe). Rather the secret was that every ingredient that went into this everyday, made-across-America dish was very fresh and carefully chosen. And I'm talking Cole Slaw here.

It's a couple days after St. Patrick's Day. Even in Houston there's plenty of fresh (I mean really, really fresh) cabbage on hand at bargain prices. Green pepper is used in a small quantity in the dressing mix, almost pureed, with green apple. I used an exceedingly beautiful poblano and a very crisp Granny Smith. My bottle of  apple cider vinegar is NOT 2-3 years old (sassy children help account for that, if you know what I'm referring to). My spices are freshly obtained from a bulk provider, not stale seeds and powders that sit in grocery store warehouses for years. The small amount of shredded carrot is organic (not always a formula for great taste, but I find organic carrots to be invaluable).

So why all the fuss and blatant bragging about cole slaw? Because there are alternatives.
  • Buy a package of pre-shredded cole slaw  - at 5 or 10 times the price of cabbage. 
  • Add a few globs of jarred coleslaw dressing - again, at an exorbitant price. Be sure to read the ingredient list on the jar - you'll surely find some chemicals you'd prefer to not be in your body, if you were to think about it. 
  • Maybe add a few shakes of celery salt, or fresh cilantro, or some other "twist" to make it your own. (Tom.....careful, you're treading on thin ice now.....almost mocking the creativity of people who want to make their coleslaw into "their own version"....don't offend). 
  • Or worse, buy some really inexpensive coleslaw in a plastic tub from the deli section.
Sure, you could do those things, but you wouldn't be a better cook if you did. And you wouldn't have had a sublime coleslaw. And if you DID grab that NYT recipe and made it, you MIGHT have an 8 year old who asked if she could have that for her school lunch the next day, along with a slab or two of that fresh bread.

To me, that's why it's worth trying to be a better cook. Ingredient selection......possibly the most important aspect of all. We'll talk some more. 

PS - I didn't make homemade mayonnaise for the slaw. But, boy, that would have made it insanely good. 

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