By Alex Nestro
It’s no secret that COVID-19 has drastically changed our lives. We are staying in more and eating out less. While it can seem overwhelming to try and learn a new skill while dealing with all of these new stressors, cooking can be a fun and creative outlet to explore. Growing up with a big, Italian family, I spent most of my childhood assisting my grandma while making sunday sauce, helping her roll out meatballs, and stuffing artichokes. After I graduated college and moved away from my family, I found that cooking helped me feel connected to my family, despite the distance. If you don’t have much experience in the kitchen, it can feel overwhelming. This blog will outline some of my tips and tricks for getting comfortable in the kitchen, and includes one of my favorite go-to recipes.
Read the Recipe
This tip seems obvious, but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve begun making a recipe and realized halfway through that I was missing an ingredient, or that I should have switched the order of some of the steps. Familiarize yourself with the recipe before you even start cooking. Make sure you have the right ingredients, and get a feel for the timing. I often find that I need to adjust the order of the steps in a recipe. Cooking is all about timing, so get a good feel for the steps.
Do All of Your Prep Before You Start Cooking
Most recipes are organized in a sequential manner, and will have you chopping your vegetables while sauteing meat, or measuring out ingredients for a sauce while you’ve got other items cooking. If you’re new to the kitchen, it can be stressful to try and do all of this at once. Even as an experienced cook, I’ve burned vegetables while making a sauce because it can be tough to multi-task. I recommend doing all of your prep before you even start cooking. Chop all your vegetables, measure out spices/liquids that you may need, and preheat the oven if necessary. Doing this allows you to focus on the actual recipe and cooking once you start, and doesn’t have you bouncing around trying to quickly chop an onion while you’ve got something burning. If you’re inexperienced with knife skills, doing the prep before you start cooking can help you concentrate and practice safe knife skills as well. I definitely recommend finding some YouTube videos showcasing different knife skills.
Season and Taste as You Go
Seasoning is everything in cooking. Home cooked meals can seem bland in comparison to restaurant meals, and most of the time it comes down to seasoning. Restaurant chefs know how to build and develop flavor. In order to best develop flavor, it is important to season all aspects of a recipe. For example, if you’re making a one-pot pasta meal, you’ll want to season any vegetables as they cook, season any meat you’re using as it cooks, and season the sauce that you’re making for the pasta. It’s also important to taste all aspects of a dish as you’re cooking it, so you can know what may need to be adjusted or added. As you start to add more ingredients into a recipe, give it a quick taste every time. If you only taste a recipe towards the end, it may be too late to adjust the seasoning.
Keep it Simple
This seems obvious, but I find that this is one of the most important rules in cooking. Every time I try to make an elaborate, multi-step recipe that has me using half the tools in my kitchen, I find that I’m so exhausted and annoyed by the time I’m done cooking, and the food doesn’t end up blowing me away. If you’re brand new to cooking, don’t think that you need to make everything from scratch and try an elaborate recipe. Start small, and master some basic recipes. Cook food that you like and enjoy eating. I recommend finding a favorite chicken dish, pasta dish, and breakfast dish to start with. Don’t be afraid to incorporate store bought sauces until you get more comfortable. For example, if you want to learn how to make chicken parmesan, feel free to use a store bought marinara the first few times you make it. Once you feel like you’ve mastered making the chicken, then try experimenting with making your own marinara.
Cooking may seem like a chore some days. However, I find that when I really make an effort to have fun with it, I make the best recipes. Find a good podcast or playlist to listen to while you cook. Grab whoever you’re quarantined with and have them help you chop and prep, or have them be your taste tester. Don’t be afraid to mess up. At the end of the day, you still made a great meal. Below is one of my all time favorite recipes, and a great recipe to make if you’re a beginner cook. This recipe is so simple but so flavorful, I guarantee you’ll wow whoever you make this for! I’d love to see what everyone is cooking- if you try this recipe or any others, give us a shout out on social media!
Alex’s Chicken Piccata
Chicken Piccata is a staple meal in my household. I love making this for a fun date night in, or for company. Chicken is pan fried and then finishes cooking a rich lemony-butter sauce. Serve this with a side of rice, roasted vegetables, or some pasta aglio e olio (pasta that has been tossed in olive oil, garlic, parmesan, and red pepper flakes- a staple from my childhood!).
2 chicken breasts
3-4 cloves of garlic
Salt and Pepper
½ cup flour
2 tbsp olive oil (any cooking oil will work here)
2 tbsp butter
½ cup white wine (you can sub chicken broth)
1 tbsp capers (capers bring a nice brine to this dish, but you can omit if you can’t find them)
Trim the chicken breasts of any excess fat. Pound the chicken breasts so that they are thin. I find that the best method for this is to cover the breasts in plastic wrap, and pound with a meat mallet or rolling pin. For extra large breasts, butterfly them (this link has a great step by step if you need a visual) before pounding them out. You want the breasts to be very thin, as they will cook quickly. Season both sides of the chicken with salt and pepper.
Finely chop the garlic and parsley and set these aside. Juice the entire lemon and set aside.
Place the flour in a shallow dish or plate, and season it with some salt and pepper.
Heat the olive oil over medium heat in a large, heavy skillet. You don’t want it too hot or the chicken will burn. If you flick water in the oil, it should sizzle lightly.
Place each chicken breast in the flour, coating both sides.
Once the oil is ready, place the floured chicken breasts in the skillet. Do this in batches if necessary, adding more oil if needed. Adding too many breasts to the skillet will crowd it and cause uneven cooking.
Cook the chicken until golden brown, about 3-5 minutes per side. The chicken will finish cooking in the sauce later, so it doesn’t need to be completely cooked through.
Place the chicken on a plate and cover, set aside.
Turn the heat down to medium low, and add the butter and garlic into the skillet. Saute for a minute, careful not to let the garlic burn. Add the wine (or chicken broth) and lemon juice to the skillet, scraping any brown bits up from the bottom. This is called deglazing, and is a great way to build flavor
Add the capers and half of the parsley to the skillet, then add the chicken breasts back into the skillet.
Increase the heat to medium, and let the chicken simmer in the sauce for about 5 minutes. The sauce should reduce a little, and the flour from the chicken will help thicken up the sauce.
Sprinkle with remaining parsley, and serve immediately!