Bethenny Frankel, author of “Naturally Thin” and star of “The Real Housewives of New York City,” is back with more cooking and nutrition tips. In her latest book, Frankel offers easy recipes and essential kitchen rules that will put an end to anxiety about cooking and teach you how to make food you love that fits your lifestyle. Here is an excerpt from chapter three of “The Skinnygirl Dish: Easy Recipes for Your Naturally Thin Life.”
Chapter three: The Skinnygirl chef’s essential kitchen rules
You don’t wear white after Labor Day (or you do, but on purpose). You don’t wear colors that don’t look good on you or clothes that don’t fit. You don’t mix too many accessories into one outfit, but you do develop a unique style that works for you. Rules for dressing are a lot like rules for cooking. Know what they are before you decide to break them, but ultimately, develop your own style.
You already know I don’t believe in diets, but I do believe in eating guidelines. I don’t believe in hard-and-fast fashion rules, either, but I do believe in having some boundaries and knowing what you will and won’t wear, and how you will and won’t wear it. In the same way, I don’t believe in recipes, but I do believe in a few essential kitchen rules. In this chapter, I’ll share them with you because these are the rules that will take the pressure off. I want you to quit feeling stressed out and overwhelmed because you have to find something to make for dinner. Knowing the rules that work for you are what make cooking easy.
In “Naturally Thin,” I told you that I wasn’t going to tell you what to eat. Instead, I showed you how to eat — how to eliminate your food noise and listen to your food voice, how to make good investments by balancing your diet like a bank account, and how to eat any food you really want without overdoing it or feeling guilty. I gave you ten rules to free you from dieting anxiety. In this chapter, I’ll give you the Skinnygirl chef’s ten essential kitchen rules that will free you from your cooking anxiety.
Rule 1: Don’t be a hero
Cooking can be difficult or easy. I opt for easy, unless easy seriously compromises the result. If cooking is stressful, maybe you are trying to be a hero. Most of the time, the easier option is just fine, and getting permission to take the easy road can feel like a huge weight being lifted off your shoulders.
Sometimes you just don’t feel like washing your hair. So don’t. Wear a ponytail or a headband. Sometimes a shortcut is well worth the time and effort it will save you. It’s the same with cooking. When you just want to get a good meal on the table fast, go easy on yourself. It’s such a relief. You aren’t running a gourmet restaurant, so don’t be afraid to cut corners.
If you pressure yourself to do everything perfectly when you are cooking and then don’t ever want to cook because of the pressure, adopting this attitude can change your life! I’m a perfectionist, too, but something’s gotta give. I like to look really nice for a red carpet event or if I’m being photographed, I’ll go all out. Otherwise, I’m just trying not to look like a slob. I just want to look nice. This is how I see everyday cooking. You can go all out for the big event if you really want to, but most meals just need to be good. They don’t need to be the best meal you ever had in your life.
I will always let you know when an extra step is really worth the trouble, but believe me, I am a chef and I take the easiest road. I don’t make my own stock; I don’t always roll out a handmade piecrust.
Buying pre-made doesn’t mean settling for low quality. The food you buy should be good and worth your money. For example, I almost always buy pre-made pesto, but I buy the fresh refrigerated bright green kind. I wouldn’t touch the brown, shelf-stable kind in a jar. The same goes for tapenade, hummus, and tomato sauce — when I don’t have time to make my own (even though these are all really easy to make), I find good fresh versions at the store or deli and doctor them with fresh herbs.
I think vegetable and chicken broth in a box tastes just fine, but think beyond the box. If your favorite Chinese restaurant or Jewish deli makes an amazing chicken or vegetable stock, ask if you can buy some. Most gourmet markets also have chef-prepared stock you can buy. Take it home, put it in the freezer, and then quit complaining. Now you have great stock that someone else made for you. If your favorite Italian restaurant has a great tomato sauce or pizza dough, ask if you can buy some of that. That being said, if you have lobster shells or a chicken carcass and a free Sunday and you want to try your hand at making homemade stock, go for it.
I don’t own a restaurant. I have a lot of things to do every day besides cook, and you do, too. If you find good brands or versions of basic ingredients that taste good, you won’t ever have to think about how you might try to make them at home unless you decide you want to try to make them at home.
Do you remember the concept of the differential that I talked about in Naturally Thin? In that book, I used the term to distinguish between two food choices and how to decide which one to eat. Just in case you need a refresher, think about veggie or turkey chili versus chili con carne with beef. If you like the veggie or turkey chili just about as much as the beef chili, then the differential is nothing. In that case, choose the better investment — the veggie or turkey chili. Now, compare a New York strip steak to a plain chicken breast. If you love the steak way more than the chicken (like I do), then the differential is huge. In that case, choose the steak, but enjoy just enough to get the experience, knowing it’s a pretty high-fat food choice and not a great investment.
The point is that when the differential is small, choose the better investment. When the differential is big, don’t deny yourself what you really want.
In this book, the differential comes into play in a slightly different way. If you think (like I do) that chicken broth in a box tastes perfectly fine, then why would you spend hours nursing along a homemade stock with a thousand ingredients you don’t even have in your kitchen, especially if it’s just one part of something else? If you are making homemade chicken soup, then sure, go for that stock. Otherwise, do you want to mess up your kitchen that much? Do you want to spend all that money? Do you really have time to hunt down all the fresh herbs for a bouquet garni? Do you even know what a bouquet garni is? Who cares? (But in case you just have to know, it’s a combination of herbs bundled together in cheesecloth and dropped into stock or some other typically French dish while it cooks. You fish it out before serving.) In general, these are some guidelines for where it really does pay to take the easy way out:
- Use nonstick cookware instead of stainless steel. Maybe you’ve heard that all the really great chefs use stainless steel. Don’t be a hero. If you don’t want to cook with stainless steel, just buy a good set of nonstick cookware. You’ll be able to clean it in seconds. I don’t use stainless steel as often because you have to use a lot of oil. It’s great to have experience with a stainless steel pan, so go ahead and use one when and if you want to. I’m just saying that I usually rely on my nonstick cookware for daily cooking chores. If you could care less about stainless steel, that’s fine, too. Nonstick cookware is all the cookware a Skinnygirl really needs.
- Use a good boxed broth instead of homemade stock. I already talked about this, but I’d like to add that I never make homemade stock. Never. Every chef I know will have less respect for me, but I don’t care. If you do make a beautiful Bobby Flay–style stock, your soup will taste a little bit better, but in my opinion, that doesn’t outweigh how annoying it is to make a stock and how much it will mess up your kitchen. A good French-style stock has a lot of steps, and when I see fifty steps in any recipe, I get anxious. I promise you that no recipe in this book will have multiple steps or sections or parts. It’s more important for me to be minimalist and keep it simple. By the way, for maximum flavor in any savory recipe, substitute broth for water.
- Use good jarred or canned tomato sauce if you must. The truth is that it takes five minutes to make homemade tomato sauce. It’s easy. However, if you don’t want to make it, then don’t. Good tomato sauce in a jar is just fine. Tomato paste in a can or a tube is fine, too. Canned fire-roasted tomatoes — especially when tomatoes aren’t in season and the so-called fresh tomatoes in the supermarket taste like nothing — are perfectly acceptable and even delicious. I’m not talking about cheap sugary spaghetti sauce. Buy good imported or fire-roasted tomatoes, particularly organic ones. Even when tomatoes are in season, if you don’t feel like chopping them, use good canned tomatoes instead. The only time that fresh tomatoes really matter is when you are going to eat them raw, like in a salad or chopped with fresh herbs on bruschetta.
- Buy hummus, tapenade, pesto, and salsa ... unless you really want to make them. Hummus, tapenade, pesto, and salsa aren’t really all that hard to make from scratch. If you want to try making them, go ahead. But if you don’t want to drag out your food processor or your blender or you don’t feel like chopping a bunch of vegetables, you can buy really tasty versions of these items in the store. Maybe you’ve read that you can make your own pesto and freeze it in ice cube trays so that it is convenient. I have never met anybody who actually does that. It’s easier to buy a fresh refrigerated version if you can find one you like. Whenever I buy anything pre-made, I always doctor the product with fresh ingredients and it becomes my own.
- You don’t have to bake bread. Unless you love to bake bread, why go through the hassle? I certainly don’t have time to bake bread and I don’t want a giant bread machine taking up valuable real estate in my kitchen. Baking bread can be time-consuming and strenuous, and you have to deal with that whole yeast thing — is it alive, is it dead? Forget about it. You can get good freshly baked bread all over the place. Find a baker you trust at a grocery store or a bakery and buy your bread there. Put a loaf in the oven for a few minutes to make the crust crispy and spend your time making fancy butter instead. Add some pesto or tapenade to butter and everyone will be impressed. The same goes for dinner rolls, and pasta. Do you really want to make those from scratch? Me neither.
Rule 2: Use what you have
I’ll talk about how to implement this rule in Chapter 4 and throughout this book, but the basic point is that if your kitchen is well stocked, you can always find something to eat and you can also find substitutes for any ingredient you are missing. Recently, I wanted to make jerk chicken, and one of the key ingredients in this dish is Scotch bonnet peppers. However, my assistant forgot to buy the Scotch bonnet peppers. I guessed that a tablespoon of crushed red peppers would be about right for a substitute, and it worked. I took a risk, and it paid off. Again, it’s like fashion: You don’t buy a whole outfit every time you go out. You use what you have, but you figure out how to put it together in a fresh way.
I never follow recipes to the letter, and I’m certainly not going to go out and buy every single ingredient in a recipe when I have things at home that are close enough. For example, you can replace leeks with onions or scallions, dried herbs with fresh, basil with oregano, broccoli with zucchini, chicken with fish. (Recently, I read about a scallion recall. Use chives instead.) Every change you make will change the result a bit, but that doesn’t mean the dish won’t still be good. It will just be different and sometimes it will be a happy accident. Taking chances can be liberating. Besides, give ten chefs the same recipe and they’ll come out with ten different dishes. Chefs hate to be pinned down to the confines of a recipe (I know I do), so why shouldn’t you be similarly creative ... and thrifty ... by using up the food you already paid for instead of buying more? Use what you have and you’ll be forced to be more creative with your cooking. You might also get some lessons about what works and what doesn’t. (See Chapter 5 for some hilarious stories about recipes I made that didn’t work out the way I planned.)
Rule 3: Something’s got to give
Whenever I renovate a recipe, my main goal is to make comfort food a better investment without sacrificing taste. Sometimes it works and sometimes my attempts are dismal failures, but I keep trying different approaches. What I’ve realized after years of overhauling recipes is that when you are improving a recipe and you want it to taste good, something’s got to give.
It’s all about the differential. You cut fat and calories where it won’t affect the outcome too much and then you let some things stay. Desserts are supposed to contain some sugar or other sweetener. Scrambled eggs and omelets may taste better with a little bit of cheese. Vegetables sautéed or roasted in oil taste richer. Bread is delicious with a little bit of butter or olive oil. Meals with no fat or sugar are dull and unsatisfying, so let yourself live a little. You don’t have to go overboard.
I learned this lesson the hard way when I was first developing some of my BethennyBakes products and I tried making them completely fat-free. Trust me, you don’t get extra points for fat-free. No one cares. The taste isn’t as good. If you are going to eat, it should taste fantastic. A fat-free muffin, cookie, or cupcake does not taste fantastic, so why bother? Sorry, no extra credit for fat-free.
When I used to have a lot of food noise, I was terrified of fat, but now I’ve learned that if you cut out every single thing you think might have too many calories or too much fat, nobody (including you) is going to like the taste. Taste should be your first priority. Then work on making it better for you. If something doesn’t give in your recipes, then you’ll end up overeating because you feel too deprived.
Rule 4: Embrace the “It Ain’t Worth It” moment
Sometimes when I’m developing a recipe, I’m trying to do all the right things, but at some point when something isn’t working or I can’t find the right ingredient, it just gets too hard. That’s when I embrace the “It Ain’t Worth It” moment.
If you tear your stocking on the run, you might have to go out and buy a new pair because you don’t have time to go home and figure out an alternative. If your shoes really hurt and you’ve got to walk, you may have to just go with the comfortable ones. No time to get to the salon or your flatiron session isn’t working out? Sometimes it’s just easier to wear a hat or a ponytail or go with the curly look.
When I was testing the lighter chicken pot pie for this cookbook, I wanted to use an organic whole-wheat piecrust, but I couldn’t find any pre-made whole-wheat piecrusts that would work for a double-crust pie. I could only find the easy folded refrigerated crust. I was not going to make a crust from scratch (see Rule 1), but the pre-made crust contained white flour and some lard. I thought about using the lard crust over the top of the frozen whole-wheat crust and then I realized: Who is going to bother to do that? So the easy crust has some lard in it. That makes it flakier, and as you know from Rule 3, something’s got to give. The filling of the pie is low-fat, so the crust was what had to give in this situation. The amount of crust you will eat in one serving of my lighter chicken pot pie is maybe 120 calories. Better yet, just eat half the crust. The crust you will eat is not a big deal, so don’t worry about it. Look for whole wheat, and if you can’t find it, move on. It’s just not worth the stress.
Rule 5: Taste as you go
Good cooks always taste their food as they cook it. Amateur cooks just mix it all up and cross their fingers that it will taste okay when it’s all done. Just as you look in the mirror before you go out for a special occasion, you should never serve food without tasting it first. I’m not talking about tasting a whole meal’s worth of calories before the food gets to the table. I’m talking about taking tiny bites and sips along the way.
Tasting is an important way to learn what a recipe needs and to discover how flavors change as they cook longer. As you taste, keep gauging whether something needs a little more salt or pepper or lemon juice or spice. Add just a little at a time because you can always add more, but you can’t always make something less salty or less spicy (although see Chapter 5 for some tips on fixing seasoning mistakes).
Rule 6: Mise en place — the French cooking term you should know
I’m not one of those chefs who likes to throw French words around. I don’t think many of them are very useful to people cooking dinner at home. This term, however, is an exception. Mise en place, pronounced meez-ahn-plahs (barely pronounce the n), means “put in place.”
This is like laying out your clothes the night before so that you have everything you need to get ready in the morning. In cooking, it means that you get all your tools and all your ingredients ready before you turn on a burner or grease a single pan. This is why cooking looks so easy on cooking shows. Everything is prepared, measured, and set out beforehand. You can do this at home. Chop and measure all the vegetables. Be sure the meat is defrosted. Pre-measure the flour, sugar, baking powder, and cinnamon. Put all the ingredients out. I like to put everything in small ramekins or small glass bowls. Will you need a sifter? A citrus juicer? A whisk? Pull them out before you start.
Mise en place requires reading the whole recipe before you start. This is so important! I cannot tell you how many times I have completely screwed up a recipe by not reading the whole thing first. If you are just beginning to get comfortable in the kitchen (or even if you are already experienced but want to follow a recipe), reading the recipe first, then assembling your ingredients and tools, will make cooking a hundred times easier. There won’t be any surprises. Read the whole recipe so that you can conceptualize it and be thinking about it before you start cooking. Cooking will become practically effortless when you get in the habit of mise en place.
However, in the spirit of full disclosure, I will admit to you that as much as I think it’s a good idea, I don’t always do mise en place. It really does help and I’m always glad when I do it. In a perfect world, I would always do this, but my world isn’t perfect and neither is yours. I’m especially likely to do this if someone is helping me, but sometimes I don’t and sometimes I mess up. That’s life. Just do your best.
Rule 7: Memorize a few basics
I’ll get into some more detailed chef techniques in Chapter 6 that will give you superior results and make cooking easier. First, though, it will be very helpful to memorize a few key basics that you will need to know again and again.
If you memorize these, you won’t have to keep running to your computer to Google the answers, like how many tablespoons in a cup or whether you can bake those muffins without using eggs. You might already know some of these basics. If you commit all of them to memory right now (or do one a day until you know them all), you’ll be forever glad you did. This information is particularly helpful when you want to double a recipe or cut it in half, or when you are out of something and you want to feel more confident that something else will work in its place:
- 3 teaspoons = 1 tablespoon
- 4 tablespoons = 1/4 cup
- 16 tablespoons = 1 cup
- 2 tablespoons = 1 fluid ounce
- 8 fluid ounces = 1 cup
- 2 cups = 16 ounces = 1 pint
- 2 pints = 4 cups = 1 quart
- 4 quarts = 16 cups = 1 gallon
- 1 tablespoon chopped fresh herbs = 1 teaspoon crumbled dried herbs
- Measure carefully when baking. Don’t worry so much about it for other kinds of cooking.
- Whenever a recipe refers to an egg, in any cookbook anywhere, it means a large egg. But I’ve never really noticed egg size and this has never once ruined any of my recipes.
Video: Kentucky Derby drinks
For vegetarians and vegans
- You can almost always use extra-firm tofu instead of any meat, poultry, or fish, in an equivalent weight. You can almost always prepare it exactly the same way — marinated, seasoned, grilled, fried, baked, sautéed, and so on. It will soak up the flavors of the other ingredients better and have a meatier texture if it is well drained before marinating or cooking. Open and drain the water, then blot the tofu with paper towels. For even better drainage, wrap it in more paper towels and weigh it down with a cutting board for about ten minutes.
- If you want to leave eggs out of your baking, you can buy egg replacement powder (made by Ener-G; this is a popular ingredient in vegan cooking) or substitute about a cup of mashed banana, plain yogurt, or applesauce per egg. Experiment to see what works in any given recipe. This doesn’t always work, so experiment with care.
- 1 cup milk can be any milk: cow, soy, rice, almond, and so forth.
- 1 cup yogurt can be low-fat Fage brand or other Greek yogurt, or soy yogurt.
- You can always substitute soy or rice cheese for regular cheese. Follow Your Heart Vegan Gourmet is a good brand that doesn’t contain any casein, a milk product in many of the so-called nondairy cheeses. It comes in a variety of flavors. Nondairy cheese is very processed, but I still use it because I don’t like to eat a lot of dairy. Find what you like and what you are willing to try.
Rule 8: Presentation is everything
It doesn’t matter how expensive your shoes are or what designer made your dress if you wear it wrinkled or dirty or you look sloppy or mismatched. Food can taste good, but if it doesn’t look good and it isn’t presented nicely, people (including you, the cook) won’t necessarily enjoy it. You eat with your eyes first, so how food looks really does matter. This is where it’s worth taking extra time to make your food really special. Think about the food you would get at a spa or at a nice restaurant. These places know how to make food look delicious by using a lot of contrasting natural colors and textures, like fresh lemon zest over fish and fresh parsley over salsa. Take the time to do this. Making meals into events makes food feel and taste more special. You’ll be more likely to savor it and eat less because it will be more satisfying.
Presentation means two things: (1) Arrange food nicely. Garnish your dishes with bright, fresh raw vegetables, fruit, or herb sprigs. Contrast colors in your salads and between main and side dishes. Remember that naturally colorful foods are better for you. (2) Especially when entertaining, serve food creatively. Use platters, stack plates on bowls, drape fabric around a buffet, put fresh flowers on the table, light candles, and buy inexpensive themed serving pieces, especially for entertaining (see Chapter 14 for some party-specific serving ideas). Even if you’re dining alone, use your nice dishes, light a candle, and design your plate artfully. Make your meal into an event. Enjoy your food, appreciating not only how it tastes but also how it looks. You’ll get a lot more out of the experience, you’ll eat more slowly, and you’ll probably digest your food better.
Rule 9: Utilize the leftovers
Remember those plastic containers I suggested you include as part of your kitchen inventory in Chapter 2? This is where you use them. Label the containers and put leftovers into meal-size portions. Every time you put one of these clearly labeled meals in the freezer, that’s one more day in the future that you won’t have to cook.
This is also a better approach than storing multiple servings in large containers. Looking into a messy bag of leftovers isn’t very appealing, but individual portions nicely arranged in small containers make it easy for anybody in the family to enjoy one serving of that meal again at their convenience. These plastic containers are also great for storing leftovers you bring home from a restaurant or for saving food from a big meal. For example, after Thanksgiving, store turkey, butternut squash puree, and green bean casserole in separate serving-size containers. Take them out, warm them up, and you have a three-course meal. For more ideas on creative ways to use leftovers, see Chapter 4.
Rule 10: Minimize cleanup
Do you have a husband who says, “Honey, you did all that work to make dinner and I appreciate it so much. Go relax, my darling. Put your feet up. I’ll clean the kitchen, love of my life”? And then you woke up. Or, maybe you’re in the first six months of your relationship and you’re still having sex every day. Okay, I know that some husbands are very helpful and some are even neat freaks, but if your husband is more like the guy who will put away one dish before realizing the game is on, this rule is for you.
Seriously, how annoying is cleanup? It’s the worst part of cooking. Many people who say they hate to cook really mean they hate to clean up afterward. Cooking is easy. Cleaning up is hard. Since you can’t take all your dishes, pots, and pans to the dry cleaner, why should you have to suffer alone? There are great ways to make cleanup easier if you are cooking for yourself, but if anybody else is benefiting from your new culinary skills, they need to understand that there is a price.
I hate cleanup. It gives me anxiety. Whenever my weekly housekeeper comes and cleans my kitchen, I vow to never cook again and never to mess up my perfect kitchen. I treat my kitchen like it’s a brand-new car and can’t be touched by human hands. Then reality sets in. If you are going to cook, somebody has to clean, and cleaning isn’t so bad if you share the burden. Tell your husband you’ll give him a little extra love in the bedroom for some help in the kitchen. Assign specific chores to people so that nobody gets away without helping: “You clear the table, you clean the salad dishes, you rinse, and I’ll load the dishwasher.” Tell your girlfriends, your kids, and your relatives that if they do even 25 percent of the cleanup, you will cook for them anytime, anywhere. Every little bit helps, and once somebody starts pitching in to help, they will usually do at least half the work.
Don’t be afraid to resort to bribery to get people to help you. Make the favorite foods of each member of your family, then designate cleanup helpers. They’ll be so satisfied that they shouldn’t mind at all. Bribery is perfectly acceptable if used for good, not evil — and cleaning your kitchen is always good.
But even half the work can be daunting, so I’m giving you a helping hand already. None of the recipes in this book will involve heavy cleanup. Part of the Skinnygirl philosophy of cooking is to keep it light and easy so that cleanup will always be minimal. The goal is to get you back into the kitchen, not to panic you so that you never want to go in there again. Here are some more things to try:
- Think about the whole meal as you cook. If a meal has a roasted meat and a sautéed vegetable, sauté the vegetable in an ovenproof pan, set the vegetable aside, and roast the meat in that same pan. You’ve already got the flavors of roasted vegetables, which will complement the meat.
- If you are tossing a salad in a simple vinaigrette, whisk the vinaigrette in the bottom of the salad bowl before you put in the vegetables. Then add your greens and toss everything together. One bowl, minimal mess.
- If you need to mix turkey burgers, look at the turkey meat container. Is it one of those fairly deep plastic trays? Can you mix the turkey meat right in there without messing up a bowl? Then you can just throw that container away or recycle it. You would be throwing it away, anyway.
- Instead of messing up your counters or cutting boards, use butcher paper to hold seasoned meat or sliced vegetables before you put them on the grill.
- I put butcher paper, foil, or parchment paper on cutting boards, baking sheets, roasting pans, and serving platters to minimize cleanup. It took me ten years to figure out that doing this simple thing could save me so much effort!
- Use jars or bottles of oil or vinegar that are almost empty to mix, serve, and store dressing.
- When pulling out big pieces of equipment like a food processor, do as many things as you can with it so that you only have to clean it once. Start with simpler ingredients and later do the ones with more fragrant flavors. Chop broccoli and then rinse, then grate Parmesan and rinse, then do garlic and onions last so that their strong flavors don’t transfer to other foods. Honestly though, I almost never use my food processor, except when preparing large quantities of food for, say, Thanksgiving. I’d rather do most of those jobs with my chef’s knife and a cutting board or with my immersion blender.
- Presentation is important, but you still don’t need to mess up more plates and platters than necessary. Decide if you’re plating your family’s or guests’ food. If so, then go from pan to plate. The platter is just an unnecessary middle step. Put the cooking pan on a trivet and it can be its own serving platter. Unless this is a fancy dinner (most aren’t really), you don’t need separate salad plates, bread plates, and so on. Put everything on one plate (with the exception of the soup).
Actually, I’m so committed to this last concept that I’m considering pulling up a stool in front of the stove and eating right out of the pan. (Because of Naturally Thin, you already know you should never eat standing up.) I wonder how many stools I could fit in front of my stove ... this could be my next dinner party.
There you have it: Ten rules for the Skinnygirl chef. Learn them, live them, and love cooking.
Excerpted from “The Skinnygirl Dish: Easy Recipes for Your Naturally Thin Life” by Bethenny Frankel with Eve Adamson. Copyright (c) 2010, reprinted with permission from Fireside, a division of Simon & Schuster Inc.
© 2012 MSNBC Interactive