Five Tricks of a Good Cook

"A good cook is like a sorceress who dispenses happiness", Julia Child is said to have remarked.

And, it's true. Think of the great cooks you've known in your life: your mom, your grandma, your Uncle Lenny, and others. Hasn't their cooking created a lifetime of wonderful memories and great stories? And you can bet they all have their own tricks. Here we will look at five tricks of a good cook and show you what you can do to master them.

1. Builds Her Reputation on Two or Three Specialties

All good cooks will typically be known for one or two dishes that they excel in preparing. Think back to your Grandma. I bet you remember her for her great mashed potatoes, pumpkin pie, or the special way she could prepare a pot roast for a family Sunday dinner. Nobody made these dishes quite like she did, and certainly no one measured up to her and the way she prepared her signature dishes.

The trick is to develop at least two or three of these dishes that you love and can prepare from memory, with ease. And, don't mistake complexity or hours of preparation for memorable dishes. It can be as simple as your own version of grilled hamburgers or tomato soup. The point is you make that tomato soup or that grilled hamburger so distinct, so tasty, and so memorable that whenever people think of that dish, they think of you. You're the master for that dish.

2. Knows how to Manage and Mix Leftovers

Let's face it, leftovers have a life of their own, and they aren't going away. They live in everyone's refrigerator, and the smart cook learned a long time ago that she needs to master the art of managing, rejuvenating, and mixing leftovers to make their second act as memorable as their first.

The trick most good cooks have mastered with leftovers is to bring them back not as leftovers but in a new guise, as new creations. So, for instance, leftover mashed potatoes makes its entrance on night two as salmon and carrot mashed potato patties. Leftover Sunday ham shows up as scalloped potatoes and ham. Leftover steamed pumpkin magically appears as pumpkin and lentil soup.

See how it works? You need to stop treating leftovers as second class and view them as regular ingredients, in their own right, to be used in creating new dishes. In that way, they appear in subsequent meals in a different outfit, although they are really just ordinary leftovers.

3. Spices Things Up

Think of your cooking as a fine Broadway play. The base ingredients are the main actors, the stars. They attract the crowd and carry the day. However, without a cast of supporting actors, these superstars would fall flat.

Well, in our analogy with cooking, the supporting actors are the spices and herbs that add so much to a dish. Just as our Broadway director chooses carefully the kinds of supporting actors he will use to support and complement his main actors, so too does a great cook master her knowledge of herbs and spices.

She knows exactly which herb or spice to call on for that extra added punch that her dish calls for. She may rely on a short list of only four to six of these ingredients but she knows this group like family. She knows where each one fits, how much is called for and when it's added for maximum effect.

And how did she gain this knowledge? Likely, she learned part of it from a book or part of it from her mother or other cooking mentor; but mostly she learned by trial and error in her own kitchen. And you must do the same, through improvising, experimenting, taking culinary risks. It's the only way you develop your style.

4. Multitasks Well

Long before the term multitasking became popular in the computing world, smart cook mastered it. A good cook understands that a large part of a memorable meal is its presentation. Presentation covers many areas but one of the most important concerns bringing the coup de grace, the actual meal itself, to completion as a whole.

Amateurs will have their vegetables sitting getting cold on the table while they begin preparing a sauce, or they will have their bread, warm and smelling great, just out of the oven, yet they've not even started the lemon-garlic sauce that is its accompaniment.

The good cook works out in her mind exactly how to bring all the components together and how to schedule their preparation so everything comes together perfectly, exactly when needed.

Once again, this trick can't be learned from a book, or by listening to a teacher. It's back to experience; success is built on the foundation of time and practice.

5. Possesses the Right Tool

Please don't assume that the right tool will make you a great cook. It doesn't work like that. However, a great cook knows one of the tricks that lets her work so effortlessly and produce such great food is that she has the right tool for the job.

Of course, cooking is a bit like golf; there's always one more gadget or piece of equipment to buy. Don't fall for that trap, but many smart cooks will tell you there are three basic tools you need to not make you, but help you, be a good cook.

First is a good knife or two; second is a good cooking pan; and third is a good mixer. If you start with these three basic tools, you'll be prepared to take on almost any chore and begin developing your own tricks.