Gourmet cooking (or at least my version of it) is all about ingredients, love, and confidence. Technique can be learned. Experience and knowledge come with time and practice.
Love is very important in cooking. Does that sound fanciful and silly? Not to me! Love of people is first and foremost. If you are a single person and cook mostly for yourself, you can appreciate the notion of taking care of yourself! Giving yourself the very best in health, taste, and experience. It all rests on your shoulders :) If you are IN LOVE and cooking for your sweetheart, then you know what it means to want to please. Food can create romance, excitement and a feeling of great care. Spending some time in the kitchen creating a delicious meal for your love gives great pleasure to both the cook and the eater.
My arena is family. I have a husband that I love in epic proportions. He's my best friend, and we've enjoyed eating together for 24 years (19 married). We discovered good food when we were in college, and despite pizza and burgers being the mainstay of our diet, we enjoyed the trip to the gourmet cheese shop for some brie, pate', prosciutto, baguette, olives and some nice wine. When I graduated and began living in my own house, that's when I discovered my love of real cooking! And I had this skinny boyfriend that could eat and eat, so I cooked and cooked! We had friends over often, and I cooked for them. I branched out to having family holidays at our house, and I loved the challenge of putting the huge meal together, and then seeing the looks and hearing the sighs of contentment filled me with great pleasure.
Then all these sassy kids came along, and it was about quantity as well as quality! Turns out my kids like to eat good food too, and it still gives me great pleasure to spend time planning and cooking and serving, only to watch husband and children gobble and sigh and thank me profusely. Knowing that I pleased and filled them with tasty and nourishing food is a great source of happiness for me. We have a large extended family and lots of friends that we enjoy having over for meals, and it never ceases to amaze me at the energy I get from having company. Food shows love. Love of food shows love for the cook!
Since I wrote about confidence in the first post of this blog, I'll leave you to re-read that in your spare time.
And now we get to ingredients. In case you missed it, I'm kind of fussy about ingredients. What goes into the food I cook, or what is in the products I purchase, is very important to me! Whole, natural, organic, simple things are at the top of my list. Not only are they the best for us in terms of health, but they are far above all others in terms of taste.
Whole grains - like whole wheat flour, brown rice, whole oats, stone ground corn - all have oodles of flavor. They stand alone on their own for flavor, but also enhance and stand up to other ingredients. Fruits and vegetables in their whole and natural state taste amazing! Frozen has a place, but fresh should usually come first. Meat that has been raised with integrity and care is both good for humans and good for animals.
Wouldn't you rather eat a chicken that has been running around eating bugs, or a cow that was allowed to graze on grass in a field, or fish that swim in their native waters? Eggs from chickens that have happy homes and air to breathe taste completely different than eggs essentially forced from miserable hens in cages who are fed a disgusting diet of soy and chemicals. If you have not watched the movie "Food, Inc." please take the time to do so. "Fast Food Nation" is definitely worth seeing, too, though I would say it is not for younger children.
The flavor of beef from a cow that has grazed peacefully on grass is not even comparable to factory-raised, feed-lot beef. There is a rich, intensely beefy taste that can only be described as heavenly. What about the products that also come from cows - milk, cheese, yogurt and butter? I guarantee that the cow's life and diet and care determine the flavor and integrity of those products as well.
Buy local! Sounds corny and trendy, but it matters. Supporting small, local farms keeps them in business, helps them to continue to raise and produce excellent products, and enhances the life of your community. Visit a farm, see the crops and the animals and the garden. Go to farmer's markets and co-ops and TALK to people. Talk a lot. Find sources and make friends. If a farmer cares about his family and his animals and his land, he is more likely to care about the people who buy products from him as well. He will go out of his way to please you, because YOU, the consumer, are his life-line. Whew! Gotta be careful not to get into an anti-factory-farm-big-government tirade here :)
That brings us to FAT. One of my favorite things in the world, and essential in gourmet and delicious cooking. Real fat, full fat, animal fat. Butter from happy cows, naturally rendered lard from happy pigs, extra virgin olive oil, virgin coconut oil. You should hear me wax poetic about heavy cream. Think of it this way: if the product has gone through nothing harsh or chemical to get from source to your kitchen, buy it. If it has been refined, heated, whipped, 'fat reduced', treated and abused, leave it on the shelf. And if you are concerned about the "dangers of saturated fat" then I strongly encourage you to read both sides of the research - medical and natural - and draw your own conclusions. Again, pick up a copy of "Nourishing Traditions" and see what Sally Fallon has to say on the subject.
SALT is my friend. But only real salt. That's actually the brand I buy: Redmond Real Salt. It is a salt taken from ancient sea beds and the minerals are left intact. The salt most Americans buy is "table salt" which is bleached, dried, heated, and treated with chemicals. It has a sharp bite and bitter taste to it, straight on the tongue. Redmond Real Salt has a delicate flavor that works perfectly in all cooking and seasoning. No, I'm not a paid spokesperson :) There are other fine natural sea salts on the market - just make sure it's not lily white. Do you love seasoned salt? Maybe a Lawry's type of thing? Skip it, and buy something to mix with your good salt. I get a 14.5 ounce bottle of "Kirkland Organic No-Salt Seasoning" at Costco and add it to a shaker with my salt. It has 21 organic herbs and spices. And it goes on everything. Right now it's on pumpkin seeds roasting in the oven! The container at Costco costs a few dollars and lasts a very long time. I even make the salt blend and give it as gifts.
SWEET, how we love sweet here in America. I am not one of those healthy people who avoids sweets. I'm a mom of 6 kids, for pete's sake - they want sweets! Moderation in all things, I say, and we try to be judicial. When you are cooking with sweeteners, like anything else, you want to look for the best quality and most natural form. Organic cane juice crystals are my go-to for a 'white sugar' substitute. Regular white sugar is bleached, refined, heated, treated and crystallized. Skip it. Pure maple syrup is great for baking and of course topping pancakes. Raw honey from a smart and local beekeeper is our preferred honey. We use it in bread, tea, on toast, and as a base for some home made sore throat or cough remedies.
Now you all will fuss and tell me how expensive these things are, or that you live in a rural area and can't get to a gourmet shop or natural foods store, or there's no Costco for 800 miles. Stop fussing! as I holler at my kids. If you're reading this, you have internet and therefore you can order everything I mentioned while you sit in your jammies. Ok, maybe not a side of beef, but everything else. And cost? I promise you this: when you cook with the very best ingredients and eat whole foods, you will eat less. No joke. And guess what? You don't have to change everything this week or month or year! Replace one item at a time - start with salt! Or butter! Or eggs! If you don't taste and feel a difference, please let me know.
I am not a doctor, I don't even play one on television. I quit watching doctor shows when ER went off the air. Still bitter about that one. Anyway, please don't take my advice without doing your research and even talking to your own health care professional.
Then, tonight, bake a nice organic potato, and top it with real butter, full-fat sour cream, real salt and freshly ground pepper, and a little bit of freshly snipped chives or green onions. Then sit down, close your eyes, and really taste it. Taste each ingredient, each part of the experience. Eat it slowly. You don't need a steak or even a salad to go with it. Think of the farmer that grew the potato, the cow that ate grass and contributed to the butter and sour cream. Think of some ancient sea far away that provided the salt. Be grateful that you can find these things at your store! And then open your eyes and look at your family. Count your blessings, tell them you love them, and listen to their "thanks!" for the good food.