Thursday, August 21, 2008

11 Commandments for the Creative Cook from Master Chef Charlie Trotter

1. A positive attitude is an essential ingredient.

Have fun in the kitchen to get the best results. Cooking is as creative as music,

and involves many of the same elements: self-expression through harmony,

rhythm, balance, and experimentation. Be willing to try, and remember that so-called

“failure” is a natural part of the cooking process; roll with it! With this

approach, you’ll find cooking delightful and relaxing!

2. The three most important elements are freshness, freshness, and


In bygone years, food was chemically-free, grown and distributed locally, and

bought and cooked fresh every day. This food lifestyle is harder to maintain

today, but not impossible. Use the most local, organic, and seasonal ingredients

you can, from just-butchered meat to veggies and herbs right off the truck (or out

of the garden). Then prepare as much as possible right before serving – and

don’t overcook. The difference in food flavor, color, texture, and aroma is worth

the effort!

3. Let food be your friend.

Do you believe great food is by necessity fattening, and spending time in the

kitchen is an invitation to unwanted extra pounds? If so, you’ve made food your

enemy – which is a pity. The more you know about how to assess, select,

combine, and prepare good food, the better you can serve your nutritional needs

while satisfying your yearning for delicious taste!

4. The food “pyramid” is a useful guideline.

Although I don’t stick to it to the letter, I do agree with the government’s dietary

recommendations in its food “pyramid.” I emphasize fruits, vegetables, and

grains in my cooking while minimizing fat and dairy. I also don’t rely solely on fat,

sugar, and salt for flavor. Instead, I make creative use of sauces made from

vegetable juice-based vinaigrettes, light emulsified stocks and purées, delicate

broths, and herb-infused meat and fish essences.

5. Let less truly be more.

Good cooking doesn’t always require lots of ingredients; you can create magic

with just five or six. Maximize flavor by how you cook and prepare: indoor grilling

can enhance flavor more than broiling, and julienned vegetables have a flavor

not found in big chunks. Exotic combinations (chicken and figs!) can give the

illusion of ingredient volume. And when food tastes great and menus are

balanced, smaller portions will satisfy!

6. Treat recipes like suggestions, not binding contracts.

Except for baking (where precision is important until you really know the ropes),

recipes are outlines, not blueprints. Examine recipes (mine included!) and let

your personal tastes, as well as level of expertise, be your greater guide: use

your judgment in changing or omitting ingredients and preparation steps.

Combine elements of two or more recipes to create something unique. Don’t be

afraid to improvise, and when you find a winner, don’t be afraid to play with that,

too. I rarely make something the same way twice!

7. Let yourself wing it!

Many a great dish was born from leftovers or odd combinations of things that just

happened to be around some creative cook’s house. Keep the cookbook shut

and just check the fridge and cupboards and let your imagination be your guide.

Sometimes – as with altering recipes – the finished product may range from so-so

to inedible, but that’s part of the joy – and noise – of culinary improvisation.

And when you hit the right note, there’s no greater thrill.

8. Eat a world of different foods.

Cooking gets dull when you settle into a food rut. Even if they’re free-range

chickens and organic potatoes, how often can you have them before you dread

going into the kitchen? And there are seasoning horizons beyond garlic and

thyme. Experiment with foods, recipes, and seasonings from around the world –

and don’t be afraid to combine them! Who says lemon grass and guacamole

can’t work together?

9. Don’t wait for dinner to make eating a special experience.

I believe each and every meal should be a sensual treat – but that doesn’t mean

it has to be complicated. Fabulous bread with fine preserves and great coffee is

a fast breakfast that warms the heart. A simple bag lunch of good fruit, cheese,

olives, and fresh breadsticks beats a fast-food burger any day. If you start to

insist on fresh, real, wonderful food every time you eat, the vending machine,

snack stand, and convenience food aisle will soon become less tempting.

10. Don’t forget the wine.

Wine is the crowning glory of a fabulous meal. But as with food, take a creative,

relaxed approach to learning which wines are best and most appropriate for

different foods. Get advice from quality merchants and sommeliers; some

cookbooks suggest corresponding wines for their recipes; and wine magazines

are good guides. Non-drinkers, don’t feel left out. Explore the variety of bottled

waters, quality non-alcoholic beers and sparkling ciders, and the universe of

great coffees and teas.

11. Remember that presentation and ambiance are the final ingredients.

Whether you’re making a cozy family weeknight dinner, a romantic late-night

supper for two, or an elegant dinner party, use your creativity to make it special.

No matching china, linens, and expensive floral arrangements? Then set a

colorful, eclectic table with what you have, using candles, music, and even

daisies in a milk bottle for a cheerful, welcoming atmosphere. Most important,

allow your pleasure in cooking and desire to entertain come through.