We’re not brain surgeons, nor are we saving the world when we step up to battle in the kitchen, but trying to put together a meaningful meal can sometimes seem just as important as the above. Feeding family and friends is an important part of our social structure. It builds trust, encourages conversation, and adds to our overall life’s happiness through a physical showing of care and concern for the well-being of our diners.
At its base, food is fuel to get us through our daily lives. It is potential energy stored until we coax it into something palatable and consume it in total trust that it won’t do any harm to us. So why do we put so much pressure on ourselves in our own kitchens? There isn’t a handsome British chef breathing down our necks calling us incompetent, and usually we aren’t charging our guests for the meal that they are eating at our monetary, emotional, and physical expense. If we follow very basic, common sense sanitary rules, we won’t kill anybody. So where’s the pressure?
Sure, we aim to impress others around us with our culinary prowess and amazing ability to piece together a menu that is both cohesive and intriguing. However, when you factor in self-imposed stress and deadlines, the event can become much less enjoyable for oneself. Do you want to spend your evening upset over (vegetarians: please insert the proper soy product) turkey? I didn’t think so. Here are some tricks to smooth out the pressure and stress of cooking at home.
Planning is everything. We all have our own ways and methodologies of doing this. Be it clipboards and flow charts or power points and sticky notes, whatever works for you already should be copied to your typical menu planning and kitchen production. Why reinvent the wheel when you are already learning dozens of new techniques and honing your “cook sense” through repetition and application. Go with what already works for you, but do it ahead of time and visualize yourself attacking the steps of each recipe and procedure. Think about equipment needs, availability of workspace, and be generous with the amount of time needed to complete each task. Formulate an attack plan starting with your longest cooking and most tedious items. You’d much rather be mincing parsley at the zero hour rather than braising a lamb shoulder. Plan out your menu a week ahead of time and you’ll see just how many ideas and tricks of your own you’ll develop before you even peel that first clove of garlic.
A well thought out menu is one that is written around the capabilities of both the kitchen and the cook. Do you actually have the pots, pans, tools, oven space and serving dishes to prepare the menu that’s scheming in your head? Can you afford the price of certain ingredients so that you don’t need to cut corners at the checkout line? Are your knives sharp and ready for battle? Having space to move around and set prep bowls and pots should be a consideration when deciding just what you and your cucina are able to produce. Room to store meats and produce in the days ahead should be a menu shaper as well. Setting up your work station so that everything is either parallel or perpendicular to your cutting board is a way to allow your mind to relax because it is focusing on a familiar pattern of uniformity — clean station, clean head, clean plate.
If a relationship is to remain sustainable, both parties have to empower each other. Defend and respect your kitchen and it will do the same to you in kind. In your kitchen, you are the chef. Protect the space and the time needed to prepare from distractions and annoyances. If you have to ask Uncle Fred and Aunt Tina to move the cribbage game into the living room so you can use the table for overflow, do it. Don’t set the wine and liquor up on the kitchen counter when you need that space for your braised pork shoulder to rest. This will help to cut down on the half-hearted offers of help from family and guests that meander their way into the kitchen in search of libations.
Dry chicken breasts and overcooked roasts are things that happen to even the most skilled and attentive chefs. Every mistake is merely a lesson in disguise, and as Julia Child once said “don’t ever apologize for what you cook.” It derides your self-confidence and puts the emphasis of the meal on your performance rather than the gift of food. Letting the perfect editing of television shows convince you that the celebrity chefs don’t ever have off days is an easy way to set yourself up for failure. Remember, it’s only food. A home cooked meal of any size and shape is a blessing and another ingredient to a well-seasoned life.
Bradford Lewis is a graduate of The Culinary Institute of America, has his entry level sommelier certification and has been a professional chef for 15 years. He lives with his wife and son in Charlevoix, Mich.