Simple tips from Chef Maria Elia on how to think—and cook—like a chef in the kitchen.
Making food taste mouthwateringly good and supremely interesting is the ultimate goal for chefs. From the way they thoughtfully cook ingredients, to the side dishes they choose and to the way they garnish—everything has its flavorful purpose. So how do we follow by example and become home chefs without years of culinary training? Well, luckily for us, Maria Elia, chef and author of Full of Flavor: How to Create like a Chef, has passed on her tried and true tips to creating memorable meals that are “fit for a chef” but also for a family. For your next meal, try the following and your taste buds will thank you.
Think about the main ingredient’s natural flavor. “Consider the ingredient in its raw and simple state. For example, how amazing do freshly picked vine ripened tomatoes taste?” Maria recommends choosing complementing ingredients that don’t take away from the tomatoes natural flavor but rather “simply take it on a journey.”
Buy in season. Make a habit of visiting your local farmers’ market and you’ll develop a good barometer for what’s seasonal—tomatos in the summer, root vegetables in the winter, greens in the spring. Peak-season purchasing will ensure your fruits are juicier and veggies more flavorful—just using them in place of out-of-season ingredients can take an average dish to another level with no added effort on your part.
Work with less familiar ingredients. By using ingredients you don’t cook with often, you will find yourself thinking more about the way specific items smell, cook, change in texture and meld with other flavors in their respective dishes. Try this Masala Chai Rice Pudding that calls for fragrant (but far-too-rarely used) cardamom to boost the flavor. So go on, break out the fish paste, the turmeric and the dried blueberries—though not all at once we hope.
Use different cooking methods to vary texture. Take eggs for example—a hard-boiled egg tastes different than a fried egg, which tastes different than a scrambled egg. And an egg in baking? Now that’s a whole other ball-game. So next time you have a surplus of something, don’t gripe about how you’re tired of it—just flip that one ingredient countless ways.
Choose a dish that supplies all five (or at least four) of the flavors palates can recognize. Our palates know four basic flavors: bitter, sweet, sour, and salty, but they can also recognize what the Japanese call umami, which references a savory or meaty taste that is found in fermented or cured foods. By choosing a dish that calls upon multiple flavors, the experience of dining becomes deeper. Try Maria’s Orange and Sumac Scented Quinoa to experience that depth.
Don’t overwhelm your palate. While a good balance of flavors deepens, an overwhelming amount of flavors that do not complement each other can confuse. When choosing dishes with a variety of flavor profiles, be sure they all work well together without competing—you never want to lose the flavor of the central ingredient.
Draw “mind maps.” Maria uses a technique she calls building a mind map in which she starts with her main ingredient and draws lines coming from it to different cooking methods and flavors that she thinks will go well it. This helps her see all the different combinations and possibilities for her creation.
Garnish. No, we aren’t talking about a weed-ish sprig of something thrown a top a dish—we mean a thoughtful and lovingly selected edible note to the plate that plays well with what you’re serving. Maria suggests a tuff of pea shoots for a recipe with peas, or unsalted popcorn with something like cream of corn. A garnish should enhance the dish not simply look pretty.
Take favorite recipes and “lighten” them up. Watching your or your family’s waistline? Not to worry, that doesn’t mean you have to forego all your favorite recipes. Take old favorites and make healthful substitutions. Take a lamb recipe and substitute the meat for a white fish—you’ll still get the great flavors of the lamb dish you love while discovering new ones. These Shrimp, Peach, and Thai Basil Vietnamese Rice Paper Rolls are much healthier than the fried alternative and just as delicious.
Simplify. Sometimes recipes seem to be written in a foreign code that only chefs can understand and with ingredients that you’ve never heard of. In most cases, many of those ingredients can be hard to find if not impossible but, with a little creativity, can be replaced with something that we’re much more familiar with. Don’t have watercress? Use arugula. Almond flour busting your wallet? All-purpose will work just fine.
Don’t give up. Inevitably a dish will fail. Sometimes it may be worth discarding the recipe, but don’t throw it out so quickly. Try it again and make changes from the list above to suit you and the way that you like to cook. Just don’t get disheartened—you’ll be surprised by what you can do. For example, if you’ve been burned by a pizza recipe in the past, don’t toss all pizza possibilities out the window, instead try again and make a different homemade pizza like this New Potato Flatbread with Arugula, Mozzarella, and Porcini Salt.
Chai taken to a whole new level as a base for a light rice pudding.
Mozzarella and Porcini salt: a pair meant for each other found on this flatbread.
A quinoa recipe that supplies health benefits and great taste.
The quintessential healthy alternative to fried spring rolls.