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Top food mag editor admits she can't cook; gathers easy chefs' tips that will help you too

When Food & Wine editor-in-chief Dana Cowin told friends she was working on a new cookbook based on her biggest, most embarrassing mistakes in the kitchen, they were flabbergasted. “One camp said, ‘No one is ever going to believe the stupid mistakes you’ve made,’” Cowin told TODAY.com. “The other camp said, ‘It’s going to undermine your credibility — how could the editor of Food
Chicken stir-fry with celery and peanuts
John Kernick
Today

When Food & Wine editor-in-chief Dana Cowin told friends she was working on a new cookbook based on her biggest, most embarrassing mistakes in the kitchen, they were flabbergasted.

“One camp said, ‘No one is ever going to believe the stupid mistakes you’ve made,’” Cowin told TODAY.com. “The other camp said, ‘It’s going to undermine your credibility — how could the editor of Food & Wine not cook?’ ”

But, Cowin points out, the reason she knows she’s not the world’s greatest cook is because she tastes phenomenal food all day long as part of her job as an editor. “If I worked in the test kitchen and couldn’t cook, that would be very different—that would be a disaster,” she says. (Food magazine staffs tend to be split into two groups: those who write and edit the articles, and those who develop the recipes.)

So in her new cookbook, "Mastering My Mistakes in the Kitchen" (Ecco, $35), out today, Cowin embarks on a journey to improve her cooking — and to give readers easy, smart tricks that will help them, too. Her strategy? She asked 65 top chefs to help her perfect 100 favorite dishes, from fried chicken to roasted salmon to chocolate crêpes. She admits that, before contacting the chefs to help her with her cooking, she had never really discussed her “dark secret” before: “It’s not like you meet chefs and say ‘Oh my gosh, I can’t cook.' It just didn’t come up in conversation,” she says. But the star chefs — people like Mario Batali, Jean-Georges Vongerichten and David Chang — offered their help enthusiastically. “The notion that honesty is the guide to success has a lot of resonance to me,” she says.

The resulting cookbook is densely packed with advice that will turn anyone into a better cook. For starters, here are 5 easy tips Cowin learned the hard way:

  • If you're cooking any type of meat (beef, chicken, lamb, duck), make sure to bring it to room temperature first, to avoid unevenly cooked, half-rare and half-leathery meat.
  • The same goes for baking: Bring your baking ingredients to room temperature before you begin, as Cowin learns from pastry chef Hedy Goldsmith of Michael’s Genuine Food & Drink in Miami. “Cold ingredients are a fail waiting to happen,” says Goldsmith. 
  • Want to know how to test if a chicken is cooked through, without stabbing at it with a fork? "Use your fingers; it should feel firm to the touch," says Top Chef winner Kristin Kish. Or insert a cake tester into the thigh; the chicken is done if the tester comes out hot.
  • How to keep fried chicken (which Cowin calls “my favorite food, hands down”) from getting soggy? “Never cover fried chicken with foil after cooking it,” warns Marcus Samuelsson of Red Rooster in New York City.
  • When you're roasting vegetables, cut them up into different sizes depending on their cooking times. "For example, a thinly sliced onion will roast much faster than a large wedge of sweet potato," notes chef April Bloomfield of the Spotted Pig in New York City. "So if you're doing them together, cut the sweet potato into smaller pieces, and the onion into slightly larger ones."

In one memorable moment in the book, chef Andrew Zimmern teaches Cowin how to flip food in a pan by practicing with peanuts. (Thrust the pan quickly forward, then pull it back, Cowin explains — it’s not really a flipping motion.) She says she has a 1:1 success ratio with the technique now: “It’s not everyday that I’m so bold as to go shake my chicken — I still have some concern it will end up by my feet on the floor.” But she adds that the accompanying recipe, Zimmern's chicken stir-fry with celery and peanuts (see below), is a home-run.

One standout flub in Cowin’s mind is the time she blanched a huge pot of green beans for a dinner party, put them in cold water to stop the cooking, and then set them aside for an hour — leaving her with a huge bowl of soggy beans, which absorbed a ton of water. Now, Cowin briefly shocks the beans in cold water and then wraps them in paper towels and a re-sealable bag for up to two days before a party.

So, have her husband and kids, 14 and 11, noticed an improvement? “My family makes fun of me all the time for my cooking, particularly my daughter, who is an intuitive cook, perhaps because of watching so much Top Chef and other food shows on TV,” Cowin says. “My daughter is my taster and a judge — she’s very critical. She’d say that I continue to have dishes that are delicious and that I also have room for improvement.”

Today

Chicken stir-fry with celery and peanuts

Total time: 30 minutes

Serves 4

  • 1 1⁄2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken thighs, cut into 1-inch pieces
  • 1 tablespoon sambal oelek (Asian chile sauce)
  • 1 tablespoon cornstarch
  • 1 tablespoon rice wine or sake (or rice vinegar)
  • 1⁄4 cup soy sauce, divided
  • 1⁄4 cup vegetable or peanut oil
  • One 2-inch piece of ginger, peeled and cut into thin matchsticks
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 2 scallions, thinly sliced, white and green parts kept separate
  • 2 small celery stalks, thinly sliced, plus 1⁄2 cup roughly chopped celery leaves
  • 2 large shallots, halved lengthwise and thinly sliced
  • 2 teaspoons sugar
  • 1⁄4 cup unsalted dry-roasted peanuts
  • 1⁄2 pound snow peas, ends trimmed
  • 1⁄4 cup drained and sliced water chestnuts
  • Kosher salt
  • 1 hot red chile, thinly sliced (optional)

Put the chicken in a large bowl. Add the sambal oelek, cornstarch, rice wine and 2 tablespoons of the soy sauce and toss to coat. Set aside.

Set a large, heavy skillet over very high heat and add 2 tablespoons of the oil. When the oil ripples, add the ginger, garlic and scallion greens and cook over high heat, stirring, until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add the celery, celery leaves, shallots, sugar and peanuts and cook, stirring, until the vegetables are crisp-tender, about 2 minutes. Transfer the mixture to a plate and set aside.

Add the remaining 2 tablespoons of oil to the skillet and let it get quite hot over medium-high heat. Add the chicken in a single layer and let it sit for a moment before stirring, then cook, stirring, until well browned and nearly cooked through, about 5 minutes. Add the snow peas and water chestnuts and cook, stirring, until the snow peas are bright green and crisp-tender, about 3 minutes.

Add the reserved ginger and celery mixture, along with the final 2 tablespoons of soy sauce and a couple tablespoons of water, and scrape up the flavorful bits stuck to the bottom of the pan with a wooden spoon. Then stir everything together and season to taste with salt.

Transfer the chicken to a platter and scatter the scallion whites and chile, if using, on top. Serve immediately.

Reprinted with permission from "Mastering My Mistakes in the Kitchen" by Dana Cowin. Copyright 2014 Dana Cowin. Excerpted by permission of Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.