The Kitchen Counter Cooking School: How a Few Simple Lessons Transformed Nine Culinary Novices into Fearless Home Cooks by Kathleen Flinn
Publication Date: October 3, 2011 by Viking
After graduating from Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, writer Kathleen Flinn returned with no idea what to do next, until one day at a supermarket she watched a woman loading her cart with ultraprocessed foods. Flinn's "chefternal" instinct kicked in: she persuaded the stranger to reload with fresh foods, offering her simple recipes for healthy, easy meals.
THE KITCHEN COUNTER COOKING SCHOOL includes practical, healthy tips that boost readers' culinary self-confidence, and strategies to get the most from their grocery dollar, and simple recipes that get readers cooking.
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A Conversation with Kathleen Flinn
Q: What was your inspiration for writing THE KITCHEN COUNTER COOKING SCHOOL?
A: It turned out to be a confluence of events. I was asked to do a graduation speech at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris and it hit me. Who am I to give anyone advice? I’m not even working as a chef. Right after that, I ran into a woman shopping with her young daughter in a supermarket, her cart packed with processed foods. I observed her through the store and ultimately ended up talking to her. She was a smart woman who relied on convenience foods because she felt she was a poor cook and that got me thinking. Is this the real state of cooking in America? So I set on a project to find out.
Q: Whatever happened with that woman?
A: I wish I knew. I didn't get her contact information, something I truly regret. I didn't ask. I thought it was weird enough that I stalked her through the store and then prompted her to get rid of all the boxes of food in her cart. But I think about her all the time. Did she follow the advice? I hope one day she knows what she inspired.
Q: Many inexperienced cooks can be intimidated by the instructional language of recipes. Can you give 1-2 examples of an instruction that sounds complicated, but is actually quite easy?
A: The top example is the classic “season to taste.” I talk to home cooks all the time and they think “what does that mean? What’s season? To whose taste?” It’s simply referring to adding salt and pepper until you think it tastes good to you as a cook. The other one is the infamous “cook until done.” What the heck is done? What does it look like? If you’ve never cooked something like a roast chicken then how would you know what this means? Modern recipe writers worth their salt (forgive the pun) know this issue and address it. So here’s my answer to that dilemma: if you’re using an older recipe and you run into this phrase, search out a reliable source of recent recipe for the same thing and see what they say.
Q: This brings up a good issue. How do you find “reliable” recipes, especially online?
A: I’m a fan of any recipe in which the proprietors actively test and stand by their recipes, which generally includes most cookbook authors, newspapers, magazines and high-quality online sites. The reality is that most cookbook authors who have several books under their belt know the awful experience of hearing from readers that recipes don’t work, ditto for magazines and newspapers, so they do their very best to assure what they’re publishing for posterity works for home cooks. Online, I look for sites in which the proprietors have a lot at stake in terms of their recipes working and dedicate themselves to quality work. There’s a lot of terrific stuff happening on food blogs and a lot of sloppy work, too. It’s hard for novice cooks to gauge whether a recipe works or not, so I recommend that starting out, you try to stick to people who have a strong history.
Q: What online sites do you use for recipes?
A: Ok, I’ll admit it. I have more than 800 cookbooks but often when I come down to, say, that last tomato, bit of kale and chicken in the fridge, I’ll put those ingredients into a search engine and see what comes up. Or, it’s zucchini season, so what to make? Sites I find reliable include Food52, Foodista, Fine Cooking, SimplyRecipes, SmittenKitchen, WhiteOnRice, Epicurious, Leite’s Culinaria, AllRecipes, FoodNetwork but that’s a very short list among the dozens that I frequent. I’m dubious of sites that seem to be populated with thousands of recipes that have no determinable origin. I wouldn’t trust those. I’m dubious of most personal food blogging sites. Many lack the kind of rigor and discipline that’s involved in traditional food writing. I suggest if you find someone whose voice you like, try one of their recipes and see how it goes. You’ll find they’re making up recipes out of thin air or they’re you’re new best friend in the kitchen.
Q: What are things you always have on hand in your own kitchen?
A: I believe in the power of a good pantry. I always keep garlic, onions, celery, carrots and chicken or vegetable stock around. I feel lost without a basil plant on my kitchen window. I keep around various kinds of whole wheat pasta, brown rice, fast-cooking whole grains such as quinoa, good canned tomatoes, cans of various colored beans (white beans are the household favorite), tinned local clams, frozen wild shrimp, dried mushrooms, ingredients for curry sauces, anchovies and small doses of high-quality, fresh spices. Among those items, you can make almost anything.
Q: Any three ingredients you think are the most important?
A: I’d venture garlic, onion and chicken or vegetable stock since they’re kind of the basis of everything. Did I mention the basil plant?
Q: Is there a dish/ingredient you’d never spend money on? Do you think there’s one dish/ingredient that’s worth splurging on?
A: I can’t imagine buying a simple vinaigrette. It’s one of the most expensive things you can buy in terms of volume in a supermarket, yet so simple and inexpensive to make at home. I spend money on are quality meats, poultry and seafood. I’d rather eat less and know that it’s good quality in terms of being grass-fed, hormone free and so on than having a huge piece of cheap stuff of dubious origin. With that in mind, we try to keep in mind that a portion of protein is four ounces. It’s pretty small, so even the expensive stuff in small doses doesn’t have to be expensive.
Q: Why do you think so many Americans are insecure about their cooking abilities? How has our relationship to food changed over the past few generations?
A: As a culture, we’ve downgraded the value of cooking. A lot of people never learned to cook from their parents, or, if they did they don’t consider it worthy of their time. Some of this blame falls at the feet of food manufacturers which have for years been spending millions of dollars in marketing to convince people that cooking isn’t worth the effort. As a result, they’ve successfully sold products that are little more than dressed-up military rations to a couple generations of cooks. When you buy a boxed pasta mix that has 27 ingredients but it’s meant to replicate the flavor of olive oil tossed with cheese or a simple cream sauce, guess what? You’re eating the equivalent of Army rations – and often paying a steep price per serving. But there’s something odd. Once something comes in a box, whether it’s cake mix or cheese sauce, it suddenly seems like it’s too hard to make from scratch. It’s like the box erases our ability to remember the original.
Q: But what about people who don’t have time to cook?
A: A fraction of people are genuinely time pressed. Most people suffer from what researchers refer to as a “concept of time poverty.” They don’t perceive cooking as important as, say, picking the kids up from piano lessons or, in some cases, even watching television. So, therefore, they don’t have “time” to cook. Unfortunately, our society reinforces this. After all, what is a headline that yells “20-minute meals” doing other than underscoring that the less time you spend cooking, the better?
Q: In the book, you go into the correlations of the wide availability of food and its impact on food waste in America. Can you talk about that?
A: You can get food anywhere and you don’t have to make it. But this doesn’t mean it’s good food. In the United States, we spend the least amount of our paycheck as a percentage on food, about 10 percent. So as a society, we spend a very small amount of time and a relatively little amount of money on one the key things to nourish us in our lives. This lack of investment may also explain why we collectively waste so much food about 30% to 35% of all the food an average person brings home from the grocery store.
Jonathan Bloom, the author of the blog and book of the same name, Wasted Food, notes that a lot of us shop for our “aspirational lives,” and not our real ones. I’ve been guilty of that too. We think we’re supposed to eat a lot of fruit and vegetables so we buy them only to watch them die a slow death in our crisper drawers while we eat out, heat up leftovers or eat something else that doesn’t involve a lot of food preparation.
Q: What kinds of things can people do to cut their food waste?
A: Here’s one suggestion. For two weeks, mark all of your food in a fridge with sticky notes with the price of each item. When you throw anything away, collect the notes. You’ll be surprised how much it adds up. You might throw away a head of lettuce and some vegetables with a slight wince and a shrug of regret. But how would you react to tossing a five- or ten-dollar bill in the trash? Probably not with a wince and a shrug. In a nation of plenty, we have plenty to learn about how to shop and how to cook to use up our leftovers to avoid waste. One thing this experiment usually teaches people is that rather than stocking up, they’re better off shopping more frequently and buying less. It might take a little more time but saves money in the long run.
Q: What do you think is the ultimate downside to not knowing how to cook?
A: Studies show that the more you cook at home, the healthier you are as a general rule. If you can’t cook, you put yourself at the mercy of companies to feed you and they’re interests are purely financial. Honestly, do any of us want to be reliant on companies for something so critical? If you can’t cook, you’re often going from one pre-packaged item from a company to another, starting with the corn-syrup laced pre-packaged breakfast sandwich at a coffee shop chain to the fast food chicken sandwich at lunch to the frozen dinner at a grocery store. As a general rule, they don’t care if they feed you well and they don’t care about your health. All they care about is that they maximize profits, often by serving the cheapest, low-quality products possible or engineering their foods for the longest possible shelf life or even to eat more than you need. Most companies don’t care if their food contributes to obesity, diabetes or heart disease as long as whatever they do makes a profit. It’s one downside to capitalism.
Q: So what can consumers do?
A: Ruth Reichl often says that “You only get to vote for president once every four years, but you vote every day, three times a day with your dollar.” If you demand better quality work, you’ll get it. The thing that will work the best is if we all demand it.
Q: After your research, what are the top lessons that will change how people cook?
A: Get a chef’s knife and learn basic knife skills. Hands down, that has the biggest long-term impact. The second thing is to learn fundamentals of roasting, steaming, braising and sautéing. Learn to use a whole chicken. For the same costs as a package of boneless skinless chicken breasts, you can buy the entire bird. Once you get the hang of it, it takes less than 10 minutes to cut one up. But I think a key thing is that the sterile nature of plastic-wrapped chicken breasts often makes us forget that was once an animal; working with a whole chicken helps you remember and, as a results, I found consistently that people waste less meat when they work with this in mind after starting with a whole chicken.
So here's your chance to win a copy of THE KITCHEN COUNTER COOKING SCHOOL along with this magnet for your fridge.
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