In her latest book, journalist and chef Kathleen Flinn does What Not to Wear-style makeovers on nine women's kitchens, building their culinary confidence in the process. • Flinn, who lives in Seattle half the year and on Anna Maria Island the other half, was in Tampa last week as part of a book tour for The Kitchen Counter Cooking School: How a Few Simple Lessons Transformed Nine Culinary Novices Into Fearless Home Cooks (Viking/Penguin 2011). We went to lunch with her at Tampa's new Oxford Exchange (see review, Page 1E) to discuss just what might transform an all-thumbs, water-burning noncook into a Julia Child-channeling kitchen titan. • She has lots of guidance on that, but we got her to pare her voluminous cooking knowledge down to five suggestions for maximizing your success as a home cook. Here they are:
1 Hone knife skills
You don't need a drawer full of knives, just a chef's knife, a paring knife and a bread knife. One of the worst purchases, in Flinn's opinion: A knife block of inexpensive knives.
"I talk about the steel and feel: You need a knife that is good enough to hold an edge, maybe $50 for a chef's knife. Buy it somewhere where you can hold the knives — it has to feel comfortable in your hand."
Then learn how to use it. If it requires making a mountain of chopped onions, so be it, but Flinn says many cooking schools offer basic knife skills classes. Keep your knives professionally sharpened and never put them in the dishwasher.
2 Shop smart and plan meals
There are seven breakfasts, seven lunches and seven dinners each week. Figure out which you are eating out, then strategize about the rest. After a grocery visit, Flinn has a novel approach to keeping you on the ball: Affix Post-It notes to each produce item with its price. Then, if you throw something away, collect its Post-It note and keep a running tally of the money you're throwing away.
"No one will throw a $5 bill in the trash," she says, "but people often shop for their aspirational life, not their real one, which leads to waste."
Then put a picture that you like to look at on the back wall of your fridge. "Your fridge should never be so full that you can't see that picture."
3 Learn to make a vinaigrette
Commercial vinaigrettes contain loads of additives and can cost $22 to $47 a gallon, she says, "and they are so cheap to make. Once you understand how to make one — it's a basic 3-to-1 oil-to-vinegar ratio — you understand how to make a marinade."
Eating up a big percentage of condiment space on most refrigerator doors, salad dressings are routinely thrown away half empty. Flinn suggests taking that almost-empty Dijon mustard jar, adding lemon juice, olive oil, salt and pepper, and shake it up. Voila. The end of a jar of jam? "It's the basis of your fancy-schmancy raspberry vinaigrette."
4 Taste your food
Flinn suggests having your friends over for a tasting party. Shredded cheeses, canned beans, olive oils, salts — your finished food is only as good as its building blocks.
"My mother was making chili. Faced with a wall of beans, she bought four cans and tasted each at home. She was shocked. One was so salty she spit it out; one had a weird texture; one had a funny metallic taste. She finally figured out why sometimes her chili turned out great, and sometimes not."
At many of Flinn's book events, she brings ingredients for tasting, giving a hands-on lesson in how the flavor of the ingredients changes the outcome in the kitchen.
5 Don't be afraid to make mistakes
Not all recipes are created equally, Flinn says. She suggests sites like epicurious.com or food52.com where recipes have undergone rigorous testing (and home cooks leave comments). And she recommends cookbook authors like Ina Garten (the Barefoot Contessa) and books like Julia Child's The Way to Cook for expert guidance and fail-safe recipes.
And when things don't work out?
"There are a few tricks you can learn when things are too bland. I suggest always having lemon, chili flakes, a basil plant and good salt (not iodized) on hand to doctor."
"What's happened," Flinn says about the rise of boxed and frozen convenience foods, "is people have learned to settle for pretty bad food. It's really not hard to elevate what you eat on a daily basis."
Laura Reiley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2293. Follow her on Twitter: @lreiley.