Anyone can cook -- just ask the fictional chef Auguste Gusteau of the 2007 Pixar movie "Ratatouille." In real life, Utah chef Todd Leonard would say the same thing.
Leonard is a chef instructor and assistant professor at Utah Valley University's Culinary Arts Insti tute. He also teaches public cooking classes for both beginning and advanced gourmands and is the executive chef over product development at the Utah-based company Shelf Reliance.
"Most of cooking is common sense," Leonard says. "What are you doing to the product? Are you just massacring it, or are you giving it its ultimate opportunity?"
Although he's a stickler about form and preparation in class, he's also quick to convey the sense of joy and accomplishment that making a great meal can bring. Even if the term "demi-glace" makes you feel a bit panicky, at some point you just have to find a simple recipe and, literally, get cooking. (And as you gain skill and confidence, you can ditch the recipes and start creating dishes based on your own culinary preferences.)
Leonard talked to Daily Herald features editor Elyssa Andrus for her new book, "Happy Homemaking: An LDS Girl's Guide" (Cedar Fort, $16.99), with Natalie Hollingshead. Here are some of his tips in the book for being a culinary rock star -- or at least getting started in the kitchen.
1 Cook what you know: It's important to be true to your heritage and the foods you grew up with, says Leonard. You've probably tasted great fried chicken, or a great pasta dish, or maybe your mom makes a killer lasagna. Because you already have exposure to these foods, you know what they should look and taste like. So start simple and save the exotic dishes for later.
"Master the things you know, and do those things well, and then expand your horizons," says Leonard.
2 Prepare by putting things in their place: One of the great secrets to enjoying cooking is the concept of mise en place. In French, it means setting in place. In English, we use it to mean having every thing in place, ready to be cooked before you actually begin cooking. Before you start throwing things in a pan, you need all of your ingredients prepped and ready.
If you are making stir-fry, the vegetables and meat need to be chopped, and the sauce needs to be measured and prepared. That way, you aren't trying to take care of some ingredients when others are burning on the stove. "If you have everything ready, you can go stand at the stove and actually cook and have some fun," says Leonard.
3 Use the best ingredients you can find and afford: Find foods in season and when possible, from local growers or farmers' markets, says Leonard. Use beef graded USDA Prime. The better the initial ingredients, the better the finished product.
4 Watch how things are measured: For example, one cup of brown sugar is different than one cup of packed brown sugar. A scant measure ment, for example a scant teaspoon, means "not quite whole." A heap ing measurement, such as a heaping teaspoon, means overflowing. Remember that liquids and dry foods are measured differently as well.
5 Embrace (a little) fat: A bit of high-quality butter or olive oil will make all the difference in a dish. Forget the margarine, already!
6 Go for cleaner flavor: It may take some extra time, but you'll be glad you skimmed extra grease off of soups, stews and sauces. Also, you can stock up on flavor by substituting a stock (a liquid made by simmering bones or vegetables to extract their flavor) for water in everything from sauces to pasta. It's nice to make your own stock, but you can also buy it in the soup aisle of the grocery store. Look for low-sodium versions.
7 Don't overcook: Check an item for doneness long before the set recipe time. You can always cook something longer, but once it's burned, you're toast (so to speak). You may also want to check your oven's temperature with an oven thermometer to see how its temperature compares to the set gauges.
If you read:
Happy Homemaking: An LDS Girl's Guide
Authors: Natalie Hollingshead and Daily Herald features editor Elyssa Andrus
Length: 240 pages
Publisher: Cedar Fort (Springville, Utah)
Publication Date: August 14, 2012