Food52 is a website for home cooks but—shhh—there are chefs among us! And professional chefs are—no surprise here—some of the smartest home cooks we know.
Because when your work consists of slicing vegetables and stirring sauces and serving food to others, you better bet that—when it comes time to feed yourself at home—every added step needs to be worth that extra effort.
First I make it just the way someone tells me to, and then I can understand what’s important and what can be changed or modified.
Sara Jenkins is a chef who's "happiest cooking freely at home, without all the stuff that goes along with running a restaurant [Editor's note: Sara runs three.] and a kitchen." The techniques and ingredients she does bring home from her restaurant kitchen are those that add value—and are doable—for a home cook.
"It's the food I cook that I really want to eat, when I'm not worrying about using up an ingredient or pleasing my customers, and it's also food I cook in a non-professional environment, where I don't have a walk-in full of homemade chicken stock at my disposal and a prep cook to chop all kinds of things for me and a dishwasher to scrub everything up after."
Here are some of our favorite Sara Jenkins recipes—which we especially love when we're trying to channel our inner chefs—along with a few of the best tips and techniques they've taught us:
If you're going to add sweet potatoes—or squash, or carrots, or another hearty veg—to a soup and you want a crisp edge (and insurance against mush), brown them first: "It lets the sugars caramelize, which brings out the flavor complexity, and provides a textural contrast, too. The browning also adds a slight bitter note that dissipates but builds flavor."
- Don't toss cilantro stems: Purée or finely chop them, then add to marinades or when you cook down your alliums. "It adds another layer of cilantro flavor and, in today’s current 'no waste' state, makes practical sense."
- This completed dish is a keeper, but the do-it-all tahini sauce will become your new go-to—and it can make an appearance on your Thanksgiving table: "Blend in a little harissa or chopped jalapeño to add heat and fold it into mashed potatoes for something completely different and unexpected; stir in mint and serve it over a platter of dead-ripe summer tomatoes (or, these days, roasted squash); mix in lime or sour orange juice instead of lemon, then drizzle over a complex chopped salad of six or eight fresh and pickled vegetables."
- Before you bake pork chops, sear them on the stove, spooning hot oil over garlic and herbs resting on top: "Slightly frying herbs and garlic in hot cooking fat as they rest on top of the chops really does infuse the meat with flavor."
Add cream and mustard to a pot of lentils when they're almost done "to sharpen and sweeten their flavor: The mustard provides a slight piquancy and the cream, cooked away to the point where you can’t even see it, gives a full richness to these somewhat earthy legumes."
- Cooking a fish whole isn't as scary (or as hard) as it seem: "It’s much easier to pull the filets off the fish after it’s been cooked than to filet a whole fish raw, which takes sharp specialized knives, practice, and skill."
- And fish will taste better if you leave it whole as you cook it, and the bonus is that "you get to eat the cheeks, the most delicate and tender part of the fish." Sara prefers to cook everything cooked on the bone, from fish to chicken to steak, for that very reason.
If you're new to cooking fish, try steaming, which doesn't require any special equipment and will cook "the fish delicately—it's always moist, even if you overcook it a little. It also doesn’t stink up your kitchen the way pan-frying does."
For chicken that's the perfect texture for shredding, poach it: "The meat doesn’t get overcooked but instead remains moist as it absorbs the aromas of the poaching liquid—far beyond boring old chicken breast."
- Before you tweak a recipe, try it the way the writer intended. That's how Sara learned to make the kimchi she uses in this stew: "It’s the way I always work things out: First I make it just the way someone tells me to, and then I can understand what’s important and what can be changed or modified."
- If you're using fresh horseradish, add it right before you're ready to eat: Without the vinegar that preserves the shelf-stable kind, the flavor dissipates quickly.
Choose rib eye when you're cooking steak in a cast-iron and save the thinner cuts for the grill: "The fat to lean ratio works well in the pan (thin cuts like skirt or flank steak cuts are better suited to grilling)."
Try seasoning your steak after it's been cooked: "The salt melts into the hot, crispy outside of the steak, seasoning it without drawing out moisture and flavor before it’s been cooked."
Experiment (carefully!) with replacing olive oil with butter in desserts (more on how to do that here!): "Using olive oil instead of butter might sound weird, but it adds a richness to this classic dessert that everyone always loves."
And sometimes even a chef just wants pasta with oil, garlic, and chile for dinner...
Sara couldn't live without this one.
What do you make for dinner when you want to feel like a professional chef? Tell us in the comments.