People frequently ask me where I learned to cook, and by their expressions, I imagine they envision a hidden, subterranean cavern. There, a secret, munificent cabal of home cooks presides, practicing the ancient rites of both spice mingling and time juggling.
“In the kitchen,” I always reply. They typically eye me with suspicion and disbelief.
The “why” of my cooking is equally elusive, but just as easily answered: I love it.
For me, cooking is a creative energy release, something I try to pass along to kitchen-wary friends. Cooking provides endless opportunities to cut loose, get silly, and trifle with folly. Kindergarten teachers know such forays are essential, hence the finger-painting and pipe cleaner sculptures. The paints and pipe cleaners may be long gone, but not the need.
Thankfully, learning to cook can be fun from the start. First, consider every recipe (with the exception of baking) as a set of guidelines, not rules. A recipe is not an organic chemistry report. What matters most and least will come to light the longer you cook; none of us learned linguistic theory before learning the alphabet.
Use your intuition, even at the baby-step stage (this applies to seasoned cooks, too, looking to try new techniques and challenges). Trust yourself. You have been eating all of your life, making decisions about what is or is not to your liking since you spat whirred green beans from your highchair perch.
Mistakes are common, catastrophes rare; revel in both. It means you have joined the worldwide fray of home cooking. Moreover, while successes make great dinners, disasters make magnificent memories. A squeeze of ketchup or some melted chocolate will render almost anything edible anyway. Keep the pantry stocked with both.
Since I’m pledging to write about easy vegetable options for the start of this new year, I suggest contemplating oven fries for your next flirtation with culinary empiricism. I use the term “fries” loosely—the potatoes are actually roasted, bypassing bubbling vats of oil and the accompanying calories.
The recipe is also one of those preparations that take no time to make and taste better than it has any right to taste. Keep the potatoes plain, or add some “zing” (spices and seasonings) per your preference. I offer options ranging from restrained sprinklings of salt and pepper to bodacious applications of spice, the latter enough to terrify an alchemist. Make “no regrets” your motto and keep breath mints handy.
A word of caution for these excellent spuds: beware of browning. When white potatoes are cut, browning occurs as a result of oxidation. The exact details are technical, but the solution is easy: place the peeled and cut potatoes in a large bowl of water as you work.
I am so glad that the low carb diet movement has gone the way of the dinosaurs—so many wonderful foods, including potatoes, were dismissed as “bad” without merit. Potatoes are in fact an excellent source of nutrition: one medium-small potato has 45% of your daily supply of vitamin C and 21% of your daily supply of potassium, plus significant amounts of vitamin B6, dietary fiber, and 4 grams of protein. There is also the cheap and easy factor, always important in my book when it comes to vegetables. Be sure to take the potatoes out of any plastic bags and store in a cool, dry place—they’ll keep for several weeks, perfect for easy eating options like these awesome oven fries.
In a large bowl toss the potatoes, oil, salt and pepper. Spread potatoes in single layer on prepared baking sheet.
Roast until tender and brown in spots, turning occasionally, about 45 minutes. Adjust seasoning with salt and pepper as desired and serve. Sprinkle with herbs, if desired.
Tip: If you want some extra browning at the end, consider switching the oven to broil for a final minute. Be careful, though (i.e., don’t take any calls during the process); just a couple of minutes too long under the broiler will lead to blackened ruin (I speak from experience).
“Zing” Options: Sometimes salt & pepper are just the thing, but I also love adding some spice, too. These are some of my favorite spice creations–but have fun developing your own to suit your tastes (Thai Potatoes anyone???) Rosemary-Garlic Potatoes:Replace salt with garlic salt and add 2 tablespoons chopped fresh rosemary leaves.; if desired, sprinkle finished fries with 2-3 tablespoons finely grated Parmesan or Romano cheese. Madras Potatoes: Replace cracked pepper with 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper and add 2 and 1/2 teaspoons mild curry powder. Moroccan Potatoes: Add 1 teaspoon paprika and 1/4 teaspoon each of cinnamon, cardamom, cumin and coriander; sprinkle finished fries with 2-3 tablespoons minced cilantro leaves. Smoky-Lime Potatoes: Replace cracked pepper with 1 teaspoon ground chipotle chile powder; add 3/4 teaspoon cumin. Toss hot finished fries with 2 teaspoons finely grated lime zest and 1 tablespoon lime juice.