It’s a lofty goal requiring a great deal of time and effort, and even after you get to the top, it requires constant diligence to stay there. A sweet young stay at home mom moves in who has a killer French potato salad in her arsenal, someone retires and works for months on the perfect miso glazed salmon and then invites everyone over for a lovely dinner and bam, you get knocked off your pedestal and someone else is the “best cook in the neighborhood.” It’s not pretty, people. Should you decide, however, that you want to make a run for the title, here’s how to do it:
Start with the basics. Either take a class in basic cooking techniques or read some books to brush up on your technique. A few of my favorites are “I’m Just Here for the Food,” by Alton Brown; The Making of a Cook by Madeleine Kamman, and, of course, “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” by Julia Child (if you don’t already have a copy, the 40th anniversary edition is quite nice.)
After learning or reviewing the basics, make sure you have the proper equipment and a well-stocked pantry.
A short basic equipment list might be:
Cast iron frying pan (my favorite cooking utensil)
Enameled cast iron dutch oven (my second favorite cooking utensil)
Two or three different size saucepans with lids (I especially like Le Crueset)
Two or three half sheet size baking pans
Two or three different size casserole dishes
Standard size muffin tin
9 inch pie pan
Two 9 inch cake tins
Various sizes of mixing bowls
Knives: (I like Wustof)
8 or 10” chef’s knife
3 or 4” paring knife
Various and assorted measuring cups and spoons
One set of stainless steel cups for dry ingredients
Glass cups with spouts for liquids
Mixer – either a hand mixer or a stand mixer or both
Hand held micro plane
Several different sizes of whisks
Basic Pantry Items might look like this:
In the refrigerator:
Cream or ½ and ½
Some sort of citrus – lemons or limes
Dried beans & legumes
Black peppercorns for grinding
Various spices and herbs: cinnamon, thyme, rosemary, basil, allspice, ginger, nutmeg, cloves, rosemary, chili powder, oregano, etc.
I keep a kitchen journal with recipes, pairings and notes, and in the front of it is a notepad to jot down what I need for a new recipe I want to try, or staples I’m running out of and need to replace. I would be at a complete loss without my journal and list. Lists are my life, actually!
Then, just start cooking! One way to get a reputation is to develop a few specialties that people start to identify you with. The best way to do that is to start with a basic recipe and then tinker with it until it’s perfect. Make it several times to get it just right before taking it to potlucks and the like. Pretty soon people will talk about “your” pear salad or salsa or green beans.
A walk around the Farmer’s Market or even a walk around the local grocery can work wonders getting me excited about cooking. Sometimes just looking at photos of food either from magazines or FoodSpotting (a new obsession I’ve recently found) can make the difference between a ho hum grilled cheese sandwich or a shrimp pasta with some kind of lovely pesto for dinner. Food shows on television are another source of inspiration.
Typically, I start with an ingredient sometimes fresh, sometimes not (when you live as far out as I do, driving to the market on a whim isn’t something you do on a regular basis) and then build on it. So, for example, if you see a gorgeous bunch of asparagus or sweet, perfect peaches in the market, buy them and then just walk around and try to figure out what might taste good with them. Maybe the asparagus seem a little too light for that particular day and needs some sort of creamy sauce. Maybe the peaches need a little heat to counteract the sweetness. Or, later at home, looking in the pantry, you see a can of Italian tomatoes. Maybe there’s a little fresh basil in the fridge, or some left over white beans that would make a wonderful stew.
On this note, buy the very best, freshest ingredients you can find. If there’s a Farmer’s Market near you, check it out.
If not, try sourcing directly from local farmers. You’ll be helping out the local economy AND your reputation as a great cook
Another thing that inspires me is wine. Sometimes if I can’t figure out what a recipe needs, opening a bottle of wine and sipping it while I think helps (hah). Sometimes what the recipe needs is the wine itself!
I love recipes from great cooks, don’t get me wrong. I’m all about letting someone far more experienced than I tell me how to make a great sauce, a perfectly balanced soup or a tangy salad dressing. Sometimes though, I find it satisfying to follow my instincts and make whatever it is my soul seems to be asking for right at that moment. There are times when that doesn’t work out and the food is not very good. When that happens, I look at it as a learning experience and the next time I make that item, I tweak the recipe or the cooking time or whatever it needs. I keep detailed notes about what works and what doesn’t, what wine pairings I’ve tried that are great and those that are not so great. A kitchen journal is an invaluable tool to those of us who are more competitive about our cooking (ahem). I keep track of just about everything I make with the goal of making it better next time.
The most important thing in my kitchen though is love. I truly love cooking and I love cooking for the people I care about. Even if I’m just cooking for myself, I try to put love into the food. After all, if we don’t love ourselves, how can we expect other people to love us?
When the food turns out exactly as I intended and I sigh a little while I eat it, or if it’s the first thing to go at the neighborhood pot luck and everyone is asking for the recipe, there really isn’t much in this world that can make me feel more competent and well, just plain happy!
At any rate, keep this up for a while and soon you’ll have people referring to you as a “good” cook or maybe as the “best” cook in the neighborhood.
Just be aware, however, that it’s lonely at the top and there is always some new young gun in town looking for a shootout!
Have fun cooking my friends…