Learning to Be a Better Home Cook

All of my ingredients for panna cotta gathered on the counter.

All of my ingredients for panna cotta gathered on the counter.

A couple of years ago, inspired by a friend who cooks and talks about food like he’s a chef, as well as by the meals I’ve eaten at restaurants in Edmonton and during my travels, and from watching the more popular than ever Food Network, I decided that I want to better my own culinary skills. Cooking is a science and an art. A beautifully presented dish can bring joy to the eye, but you also need to know what can work together to create something pleasing to the palate.

I had every intention at the beginning of 2014 to learn a new recipe once a week (or perhaps every two or three) – actually take the time to make a delicious and balanced meal. But, now, more than 12 months later, that hadn’t really happened. However, after having enjoyed a year’s worth of amazing lunches and dinners at eateries across the city, I’m now feeling a little more motivated to go ahead with my initial idea. I want to be able to make myself, my family and my friends dishes that are as good as those at all the fine establishments I’ve had the opportunity to dine at.

Up until now I’ve been winging it and, don’t get me wrong, I’m not terrible in the kitchen. Everything I’ve ever cooked has been edible and even quite tasty, but I’d like to add variety by building on what I already know because I want what I put into my mouth to be healthy and nothing other than delectable.

But, where do I begin? My biggest dilemma is that I never have a fully stocked pantry of food or ingredients just lying around waiting to be molded into some spectacular meal. So, I have to be really proactive about planning ahead. I also think I have to slowly work my way towards dishes that require a little more technique.

My plan is to scour the cookbooks I’ve amassed and the Internet for what, I hope, will be a yearlong experiment. If I am able to keep up with it, I’ll do my best to chronicle the more successful attempts here on my blog.

And, should set recipes not work for me, I’ve told my parents that they can go the way of Chopped (or Chopped Canada) and bring me random baskets of various ingredients and I’ll take up the challenge of preparing them a meal that is fit for consumption. So, wish me luck!

In the meantime, I have dipped my toes in by learning how to make one of my favourite desserts. In no way does this recipe really help me add to my repertoire of main dishes, yet it is a handy one to have in my back pocket should I need to whip a little treat up with short notice.

Panna cotta is a traditional Italian “cooked cream” dessert. I typically order it at restaurants when I want something that is subtly sweet and feels relatively light. The ingredients and cooking method have changed over time, but, regardless, it’s a classic that is surprisingly simple to make. It can also be garnished a number of ways to bring in different flavours. Making this, you’ll feel like a proper dessert chef in no time!

Vanilla Panna Cotta*
6 servings
10 min. prep
6 hr. cooking time

7 g (1 pkg) unflavoured gelatin
1 1/2 cup milk (2% suggested)
1 cup half and half cream
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1 tbsp vanilla extract
Fruit or cinnamon to garnish

1) Grease six 1/2 cup ramekins and set aside.

2) Pour milk into a small saucepan. Sprinkle the entire package of gelatin into the milk. Let stand for 1 minute.

3) Heat the milk and gelatin mixture on medium, making sure to stir until the gelatin is completely dissolved.

4) Add the cream, sugar and vanilla extract to the pan. Keep on medium heat so it remains hot, but not boiling (be very careful about this!). Stir occasionally until smooth.

5) Pour the liquid into the six ramekins. Let cool, then cover and chill for at least 6 hours or overnight.

6) Once set, you can slide the panna cotta out of the ramekin and serve in a bowl or on a plate. You can also opt to serve it in the ramekin. Top with fruit, honey or a sprinkle of cinnamon.

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*Modified from Cook iPad app contributor Reizel Ayeras’s recipe.

Living a Positive Life

Folded papers with my positivity notes written on them.

Folded papers with my positivity notes written on them.

I’m not one to make resolutions when the new year rolls around. My track record when it comes to seeing them through isn’t great. So, I’m not calling this a resolution. It’s more a change of heart and mind, and this is something I opted to do in the last quarter of 2014.

Most of the previous year, I endeavoured, along with a couple of friends, to work through a book that was going to help us find love. Maybe it sounds a little silly, but it’s not like cupid had been knocking on my doorstep, so I figured I had nothing to lose. While not everything discussed in the book and during our club sessions felt entirely applicable to me, it was still an eye opening experience that helped to pave a little more of the path I should strive to follow.

All-in-all, the book wasn’t some immediate solution to solving my woes in the relationship department. However, it did give me more insight into the things that are important to me, and important to opening myself up to receiving what I need and want.

More than anything, I realized that I was beating myself up too much. I’ve always been one to compare myself to others. Yet, I understand that doing that serves no purpose. Over time I’ve begun to see that everything isn’t always what it seems. The people who have what look like picture perfect lives on the surface, may be suffering inside. Who knows, right?

The biggest takeaway for me as we reached the half way mark of the book was that I had to stop letting negativity into my life. I have always prided myself on being a very positive person. I hate to see sadness or disappointment, so I try to be a light. Sometimes it’s hard though. I’m well aware that things aren’t always sunshine and roses. Watching or reading news stories can get me down fast, thinking about where I am in my career and knowing I’m not even close to where I want to be bums me out, and other peoples’ consistently pessimistic views of the world push me to grow weary, but I finally decided that I had to counteract that.

As crazy as it may sound, I now believe that if you think and act optimistically – see the glass half full – you’ll feel a thousand times better. You can’t expect to think bad thoughts and not have them continue to affect you. Just saying you’re doing well when someone asks, even if you’re really not, works wonders. Honestly, it’s all a state of mind.

One of the best ways to do this is to remember all the things you’re grateful for. Do this every single day, not just once a year on Thanksgiving. Appreciate the little moments.

A joy jar that holds all of my wonderful memories until I shake them out come New Year's Eve 2015 and read them one by one...I think I need a bigger one!

A joy jar that holds all of my wonderful memories until I shake them out come New Year’s Eve 2015 and read them one by one…I think I need a bigger one!

That’s why I’ve started contributing to my joy jar. Every single time something that is nice, happy, funny, exciting or any other number of positively skewed adjectives happens, I’m going to write about it on a piece of paper, fold it up and place it into some sort of container. When New Year’s Eve 2015 finally arrives, I’m dumping each piece of paper out, and I’m going to go through them one by one to remind myself of just how fabulous my life has been and is. Big or small, I want my memories to be good ones.

Here are some rules that I think are essential to live by:

Be part of the solution. Pursue your interests, you never know where they may lead. Be a good friend. Listen to people, sometimes it’s all they require of you. Be your own person; avoid comparisons to others. Love fully and truthfully. Be giving and forgiving. Don’t hold things in, it never ends well. Be in the moment. Accept compliments. Be kind because kindness spreads. Smile.