Food

Dear sous chef: An open letter to everyone who doesn't cook

Here are the ways you can actually help me out in the kitchen.

Here are the ways you can actually help me out in the kitchen

(Credit: iStock/Getty Images)

Dear sous chef, it doesn't matter that you think you can't cook, or you're just learning to cook, or your long commute means I make the meals. There are lots of ways you can help in the kitchen too. Shaving parsley, toasting nuts, seeding pomegranates, and de-stemming the kale are all important food prep tasks that I'll happily hand off. Your assistance will speed things up in the kitchen, lighten the load for me, and produce arguably more delicious fare. Do you need more incentive than that?

Cultivating your kitchen intuition comes with a lot of perks. Impeccable sous chef skills make you a more helpful guest — more dinner party invites! Your "I know what chef needs" attitude reflects self-motivation, a highly desirable personal trait we could all benefit from honing. And your help with details like chopping herbs means we'll be eating fresher-tasting, more vibrant meals; a win-win all around. And if you're uncertain about your food skills, there's always cleaning tasks you can assume to help keep the kitchen running like a well-oiled machine.

Here's a long list of tasks I think you'd be good at. Don't be overwhelmed: pick a few that look fun to you and really own them. They always need doing and more importantly, your offer to do them is always appreciated. Whether I'm throwing a party or just cranking out meals for the fam, consider the rewards you'll reap from a happy cook. Go team!

Gather the ingredients. Read over the recipe and assemble everything that's needed. This helps us take inventory in case we (you!) need to run to the store. Once everything is out on the counter, begin washing, chopping and grating, keeping everything separate in individual bowls. If we're making more than one recipe, lay the mis-en-place for each dish on individual baking sheets so we can keep track.

Grind the spices. If you think it's fun to bang two rocks together, you're going to love this task. Dump whole spices into a pestle and mortar and first pound, then muddle them down to something I can work with. A damp cloth under the mortar prevents it from sliding, and a hand or towel over the top contains flyaways. If you want to go the extra mile, don't stop at just the mixture of spices needed now, but work ahead by mixing up custom spice mixtures for recipes I commonly reach for. Label them STEAK RUB, or TANDOORI CHICKEN MIX, or whatever you've mixed, and I'll love you all the more for it.

Prep the vegetables and fruit for salads (and snacking) all week. Feel free to do this at your leisure, although taking the grocery bags from my hands and getting started now never hurts. If the cauliflower is washed and in florets and the watermelon ready to set out for dessert, it sure speeds things up. I'll get to the how-to of prepping specific items further down this list, but I just want you to understand the importance of this duty in its entirety. Most prepped produce will keep under a damp paper towel, sealed in an air-tight container for at least a few days, just be sure to label or use a clear container so I know what I'm working with.

Set the table. This may seem like an obvious suggestion, but I mean, REALLY set it. Figure out how many serving utensils we'll need and inspect the glass and cutlery for fingerprints or much worse. A cloth dampened with white vinegar will buff most things away.

Chill the drinks. Rather than ask "what can I do to help?", "have you chilled the drinks?" should be your first party-prep question. To get them cold quick, submerge the bottles into an ice bath. A wine chiller works for one bottle, or a large mixing bowl for many.

Empty the scrap bowl. Somewhere amidst the half-prepped produce you'll most likely find a vessel catching scraps. It fills up quick when I'm in full-cook mode, so please empty it into the compost if you see it. And if I've forgotten to set one out, go ahead and do that for me so carrot tops don't clog the sink. While you're at it, if you see that the compost bin or trash is full, you know what to do.

Salvage the odd bits. If I'm thinking like a chef, I'll want to stretch my ingredients as far as possible. This means saving broccoli stems, fennel fronds and bacon fat. These small acts lower food costs and get us some pretty tasty dishes too. Here are some ideas so you can see where I'm coming from. Unfortunately, time restrictions often have me tossing out these perfectly edible parts. You're welcoming to intervene and prepare them for a second life. Peel and trim stems for frying or wash and pluck fennel fronds and I'll toss them into salads.

Babysit the stove. Stir the risotto, flip the tortillas, or nudge the sweating onions so they don't brown. The more eyes the better when I'm bustling around, and it's reassuring to have someone I can count on.

Shuck the corn. It's a meditative job once you get into it. I always mean to tackle it outside with a drink in hand. Grab a large baking sheet or bowl to catch the husks and peel back the layers, making sure to rid the cobs of any clinging strings.

Shred the meat. To do it like a pro, hold a fork in each hand and pull at the cooked meat in opposite directions.

Grate or crumble the cheese. To prep Parmesan for dishes like lasagna, grind it down into a powder by cutting it into smaller pieces and whizzing it up in the food processor fitted with a regular blade. Or go at it the old-fashioned way with a grater and a little patience.

Wash the lettuce. Simply cut the leaves off the stem at their base and gently immerse them in a bowl of cold water, changing the water a few times until it's free of dirt. Always lift the leaves out of the water before draining, otherwise you're just pouring the dirt back onto the leaves. Spin the leaves in a salad spinner to dry them, or lay them out on a dish towel. Store them between paper towel layers in an air-tight container in the fridge where they'll keep happily for the week.

Squeeze citrus juice. Fresh lemon, lime, or orange juice brightens up dressings, soups, and drinks. If the fruit feels hards, roll it first on the counter to help soften it, pressing down firmly with the heel of your hand.

Gussy up the meals. I'll do the dirty work of tasting, seasoning, reducing and flambéing, and you make everything pretty. Deal? Wipe splashes off rims as I plate the food and sprinkle chopped parsley on top for both taste and show. Even if it's just the two of us, these little details turn a home-cooked meal into a celebration -- something any cook's work deserves.

To wash and chop parsley so it doesn't clump together, shave off the parsley leaves by holding the stems upside down, and with a sharp knife angled away from you, use quick and assertive strokes to graze off the leaves alone. Chop them up super fine and bundle them in a piece of cheese cloth. Run the parcel under cold water, waiting until the runoff goes from green to clear. Now squeeze out the excess liquid as best you can, and scatter the parsley on a paper towel-lined plate to dry. This will keep refrigerated in an air-tight container for adding colour and fresh flavour to our meals all week.

Prepare the herbs. Besides parsley, many other herbs take meals to the next level. Unfortunately, I don't always have the time or energy to wash and cut them, so they're the first ingredient I'll drop when I'm in a rush. That's where you come in. Watch this video on properly cutting and storing herbs and work your magic when the opportunity presents.

Get the seeds out of the pomegranate. It's great exercise! Halve a pomegranate and hold a half upside down over a large bowl. Start whacking the skin with a wooden spoon, trying not to get your hand. Be firm and the seeds should release easily. Repeat with the other half and lift out any white pith that falls in.

Crisp up cucumbers for salad. It's a pro task I rarely  have time for but what a difference it makes. Thinly slice a cucumber and lay the slices in a sieve placed over a bowl. Toss them with 1 teaspoon of table salt per cucumber. Let stand for 30 minutes before gently squeezing to extract the salt and excess liquid. A similar technique works for cabbage, so become a crunchy-vegetable expert and help us have the best salads in town.

Toast nuts for salads and garnishes. Having a variety of toasted nuts in the cupboard is most efficient, but it requires time and a keen and attentive eye. Working with one kind of nut at a time so they're of uniform size, lay them on a single layer on an ungreased baking sheet. Bake in a preheated 350F degree oven, rotating them and shaking them around occasionally so they toast evenly. They're done when fragrant and deepened in colour, roughly 5-10 minutes depending on the nut.

Take charge of the breadcrumbs. Chances are I've collected a bag of stale bread in the freezer which I'll need whizzed up for the meatballs, or the meatloaf, or the pasta, or whatever. Just take them out, let them defrost slightly, and pulse them in the food processor until fine. If they're soggy, toast them in a 350F degree oven to crisp them up, about 10-15 minutes.

Cut parchment paper. I'll be forever grateful if you cut me a stack of parchment to fit my baking sheets. Free me of this task in the moment, or take initiative and work ahead to set me up.

Whip the cream for dessert. It's a great skill any sous chef should have up their sleeve but one that requires practice. Begin whipping with mechanical egg beaters, adding 1 ½ tablespoon of granulated sugar and 1 teaspoon of vanilla extract per cup of cream. Stop whipping when the cream comes to soft peaks and finish with a hand whisk so as not to over-whip. I may hover the first few times to make sure you get it right, but once I have confidence in you, the task and the beaters to lick are yours.

Now that you're aware of all these kitchen tasks I or any cook could use your help with, you're armed with ways to  become an effective team player. And since this is the year we're cooking more at home, your supportive attitude is timely. What should we make first?!

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