What Makes a Cook Good?

Our motto at My Kosher Kitchen @ COR is to provide culinary education to help good cooks become great. Therefore it has occurred to me to ask what is the definition of a good cook?

So I reached out to some members of my Kitchen Cabinet*, an advisory board comprised of those of you who are passionate about cooking, and posed the question.

I was rewarded with a rich array of responses that offer food for thought in examining reasons for fighting the good fight.

One said “a good cook is an honest cook”. Another fleshed that thought out by saying “someone who respects and enhances the natural flavours of the food”, which, I think, frankly speaking, is a pretty good place to start. Maybe an honest cook is also someone who is honest with themselves about why they cook. (They keep on coming back hungry is sometimes as introspective a reason as I can give.)

“Healthful foods that taste great” was a weigh in, and also that “presentation is a big component, as is the effort it may take to put together a meal”. One response suggests that an objective test of a good cook is whether their “recipes are being copied and used in other people’s kitchens”. I find it interesting to think that with such a proliferation of cookbooks in print, people actually seem to be cooking less. Maybe the desire to transmit a recipe needs to be preceeded by someone, dear, making it for you. (It’s been said that, sadly, most people’s experience of Jewish life these days is compared to reading a menu, rather than the experience of dining.)

And the last word goes to Denise Levin who hints at the transformation of a good cook into great. She writes that it’s developing the mindset that elevates a lowly ingredient, like a potato, into a gift from Above that nourishes and delights that makes a cook great. It’s the appreciation of “this gift of love, that when a good cook uses it, can transform that potato into a gourmet dish”.

While we’re on the theme of potatoes, a great cook I know, wrote in and asked for the Potato Kugel
recipe I make for Shabbos, after sharing that it was the one and the same recipe from which our Chanuka latkes are made.

Next week, with your permission, I’d like to continue the discussion of what makes a good cook great.

Shabbat Shalom,

Nancy Weisbrod, Director of Culinary Education, Kashruth Council of Canada

*With thanks to Rabbi Yisroel Roll for this endearing term.

2 thoughts on “What Makes a Cook Good?

  1. Nancy
    If I may, I would say that a great cook has a sense or understanding of how different flavours, aromas and textures marry and combine to effect our taste buds and olfactory systems.

    Various fruits, vegetables, meats, fish, herbs and spices all bring different elements and textures which when properly pared produce unique flavours.

    When creating a meal, a great cook understands that the bitterness of the arugula salad for example is nicely offset by the sweetness of roasted baby beats dressed in a balsamic glaze – and that this type of salad would work well served along side grilled sea bream.

    Here is another example. Have you ever made a dish with artichoke hearts? Artichokes have a very distinct flavor. If you combine it with meat, mushrooms potatoes and lemon piths you have a wonderful tagine which fills the house with aromas from the Mediterranean. The key is the lemon. The flavour and acidity of the lemon works with all the the other main ingredients – the meat, the mushrooms and potatoes. Now why the piths- the part of the lemon that is usually discarded? Why not use lemon juice or lemon zest? Well the piths when finely chopped and simmered will give you a very fresh lemon flavour. If you use the juice or the zest of the lemon the dish will become bitter and sour in the cooking process. Understanding the science behind creating the flavours is key.

    A great cook should be able to ‘taste’ a recipe simply by reading it. The reverse is true too. A great cook should be able to taste a dish and be able to distinguish key herbs, spices, and ingredients that create the delightful and tantalizing flavours.

    Finally I believe a great cook is an anthropologist at heart. There is a natural affinity for searching and discovering if you will, what influences a particular cuisine. I read cook books as if they were biographical accounts. It is a history that incorporated into the soul of the culture. Wether it is Italian cooking, Indian cooking, Hungarian cooking, Sephardic cooking, or cooking from Turkey, or Greece I see a rich and diversified history.

    If we look at Jewish cooking from around the world we have a treasure trove of our people’s history, their travels and influences. We also leave our ‘footprint’ in the cultures we’ve left behind.

    About 2 years ago I was reading ‘Classic Italian Jewish Cooking’ by Edda Servi Machlin. Edda was born and raised in Pitigliano a medieval Tuscan village with a large and culturally prominent Jewish community from the 1100’s up until the the Second World War, where the community was sadly rounded up and sent to concentration camps. Remarkably she and her immediate family survived. Machlin states that “some form of Italian Jewish cuisine has existed for more than 2000 years”. In addition it was the Jews that introduced fennel and eggplant to the Italians and that prior to 1860’s these foods were difficult to find in Florentine markets because they were considered ‘vile foods of the Jews’.

    Hard to believe isn’t it! These vegetables seem to be such a staple in the Italian diet. I smile every time I am at Lady York or Highland Farms and ‘Nona’ (the Italian Bubby) reaches over for a fragrant finocchio (fennel).

    • Thank you for your well written account of a great cook.
      I too enjoy reading cookbooks to learn more than just recipes. I just placed a hold on Edda Machlin’s cookbook at the library. Thank you for mentioning it. It’s quite something to think of a recipe as a link in the chain that can transcend history. If you have any other favourite books to recommend, I’d appreciate it.
      PS Thank you for the tip about the lemon pith. That is so interesting. I look forward to trying it!

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