#Monday, April 02, 2012

A few days ago, a friend of mine (who swears she’s allergic to her kitchen) called me in a panic.  Her in-laws were coming to dinner and she had promised to impress with a gourmet meal.  The trouble was, the only “gourmet meal” my friend knows how to cook is instant brown rice and ground turkey (hey, she’s a health nut!).  Needless to say, her lack of culinary skills had her sweating.  And that’s why she called me.

As Head Chef for Venice Nutrition, and a Certified Nutrition Coach for many years, my goal has always been to teach our members how to create food that helps to stabilize blood sugar, tastes absolutely delicious, and most of all…….is simple enough that anyone can make!  I have had so many wonderful clients over the years that stick to the same boring food over and over (hello, baked chicken!) because they claim they “just can’t cook”.  What I have come to find is anyone can cook a great meal….the key is learning the basics and stepping outside of your culinary comfort zone to try something new.

So , how did I get started?  Yes, I did go to culinary school but I’m truly convinced that though I learned some wonderful skills there, I have learned just as much on my own!  The confidence I possess today as a cook is not from my formal education, but from the experiments and culinary endeavors (and disasters!) that took place in my very own kitchen.  Below are some tips that have helped me to become a confident cook and create meals that I’m proud of. 

Start by practicing with a basic recipe that can help to teach you proper seasoning, different cooking techniques and flavor profiles.   A great example would be to find a recipe for a soup or chili that appeals to you.  Soup and chili are very easy to make, and you can experiment without worrying about drying the dish out or overcooking it.  You can slowly add seasoning and “taste-test” it as you go to make sure it’s to your liking.  You’ll also gain a great understanding about different flavor combinations of herbs and spices that work well together.  The other bonus about soups and chilis is they are usually on the lighter side and if they are not, they can be with a little tweaking (swap ground beef for lean ground beef, lower the oil to saute the vegetables, etc.)

Once you have successfully made one chili or soup, it will help to give you the confidence to make some adjustments.  Perhaps in place of a roasted butternut squash soup, you decide to use sweet potatoes instead.  Maybe you add a little diced apple to the pot to add a subtle sweet note.  Or maybe you toss in a few pinches of cayenne pepper to add some heat.   Maybe in the next chili you create, you skip the ground beef and black beans and try ground chicken and white beans instead.   Noticing a pattern yet?  By successfully managing a basic soup or chili recipe, you’ll have the confidence to switch it up and make it your own, or try a new soup or chili recipe altogether. 

Other simple, basic recipes that I would recommend you try to master?  Roast chicken stuffed with lemon, garlic cloves, onion and fresh herbs like thyme is sure to impress and will feed an entire family.  Salads are simply chop, toss and serve and the options are endless.  Vegetables drizzled with olive oil and seasoned with garlic, salt and pepper and roasted or grilled go with everything.  A baked or grilled fish like salmon with lemon, fresh herbs (dill, parsley, etc.) and olive oil is a great starter recipe for all seafood.   Find a recipe for that particular dish and then use those culinary techniques to explore and master new recipes.

If you are a Venice Nutrition member, I invite you to check out our database or recipes in the Recipe Tab.  I promise that even the most intricate looking recipe has been broken down into easy, basic steps and the end result will be simple but delicious.  I'm not into fussy food and when I design recipes for our members and clients, I like to keep it simple.

I like to find culinary inspiration in many sources.   After all, we can all learn something from somebody. When I go to a restaurant and enjoy a creative or delicious dish that stands out, I’ll try to remember what was in it and re-create it at home.  For example, I once had a butter lettuce, pistachio, cheddar and sliced apple salad with vinaigrette at an upscale restaurant in Boston.  I was able to re-create this dish at home and give it a healthy spin by reducing the amount of cheese in the recipe and preparing a low-fat vinaigrette.  I served it with grilled fish on the side and enjoyed my simple but restaurant-worthy meal without the big check and tip! 

I’m also a huge fan of the Food Network.  If you’ve never watched this channel before and have any interest in cooking, I highly recommend that you tune in.  It’s fun and designed to teach home cooks how to well…..become cooks!   The Food Network has truly changed the way people view the culinary world, myself included.  Because there are so many types of culinary professionals teaching their point of view and techniques they’ve developed and perfected over the years, these shows appeal to so many home cooks.  It’s an unintimidating and inspirational way to learn to love to cook.  I have learned so much and helped to perfect my own culinary skills and point of view from watching the Food Network.  When I see a recipe I love, I’ll brainstorm on ways to lighten it up and many times figure out how to simplify it as well.  I’ll then test the dish in my kitchen at home and put a creative spin on the recipe to make it my own.

Other ways to find inspiration?  When you are done reading this blog, stand up and head to your kitchen.  Open up your kitchen cabinet.  I can guarantee you have a few cookbooks on hand that have collected dust over the years.  Peruse the pages and keep an open mind.  What recipe catches your eye?  What picture makes your mouth water?  That’s the recipe you should create next!  Book mark that page, copy down the ingredients to your grocery shopping list and get cooking! 

Do you have a friend or family member who always manages to wow his or her dinner guests?  You know who I’m talking about.   The friend who makes the stickiest, fall –off- the bone BBQ chicken on the grill or the aunt whose famous pasta and meatballs are to die for.   Ask them to teach you one or two of their favorite recipes in your kitchen. Offer to purchase all of the ingredients and invite them to stay for dinner.  People that love to cook also love to show off their culinary skills and would more than likely be happy to help.  Observe, take notes and ask a lot of questions.  Pretty soon it will be your dish everyone is raving about.

Cooking is a skill that can be learned, perfected and mastered.  The key is putting yourself out there and trying something new.  The old saying, “practice makes perfect” may be a cliché but it’s true, especially when it comes to being confident in the kitchen.  Try something new and before you know it, you will be a confident cook who is not afraid to wow your own dinner guests.  Eat well!  And don't forget to be may just surprise yourself!

My best,

Valerie Cogswell
Head Chef and Lead Nutrition Coach
Venice Nutrition
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How Stress Makes You Fat1. Stressor Hypothalamus: responds to stsers by secreting corticotrophin-releasing hormone (CRH), which travels through the capillaries to the pituitary gland Pituitary gland: reacts to the CRH by releasing adrenocorticotrophic hormone (ACTH) Adrenal glands: respond to the ACTH by flooding the bloodstream with two stsers hormones, epinephrine (commonly called adrenaline) and cortisol2. Adrenaline Adrenaline switches on the body's primordial fight-or-flight response.- Heart rate and pulse quicken to send extra blood to the muscles and organs.- Bronchial tubes dilate to accept extra oxygen to feed the brain and keep us alert.- Blood vessels constrict to stem bleeding in case of an injury.3. Cortisol Cortisol and adrenaline release fat and sugar (glucose) into the bloodstream for use as energy to deal with the stsersor in an emergency. That works perfectly during short-term stsers.4. Cortisol cortisol can also signal your cells to store as much fat as possible and inhibit the body from releasing fat to burn as energy. This occurs when cortisol levels remain high due to long term mental stsersors. Chronically elevated cortisol disrupts the body's metabolic control system: Muscle breaks down, blood sugar rises, appetite increases, and you get fat! What's worse, the fat tends to accumulate in the abdominal region and on the artery walls because visceral fat, which resides behind the abdominal muscles, has more cortisol receptors than does fat located just under the skin.
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