10 Easy Ways To Improve Your Cooking

I woke up yesterday around 6am, and all I could think about was food.

Of course it was Thanksgiving, and there was so much to do. In spite of the strike, my friend David did manage to arrive just in time for dinner, a little sleep, and a early-morning trip to the outdoor market to load up on everything for a full day of cooking. And to explain to a lot of French people what Thanksgiving was all about.


We bought every kind of root vegetable we could find. And l’autre David, who’s also a cook, insisted on roasting each one individually then combining them. I’m not sure that was necessary, but they were sure good since later on I happily ate my words. Our chestnut stuffing was another hit; French people don’t eat big mounds of stuffing but hardly a bit was leftover. But what’s not to like about buttery cubes of levain with roasted chestnuts, leeks, pruneaux d’Agen, and lots and lots of fresh sage and thyme?

It got me thinking about what makes a good cook since Thanksgiving food is some of the simplest fare there is.

Take mashed potatoes. There’s very few ingredients. But if you have good russet potatoes, terrific butter, fromage blanc, sea salt, and freshly-cracked white pepper, you really can’t go wrong. Indeed, one of the non-secrets of good cooking is to buy good ingredients and do as little to them as possible. You don’t need me to tell you a nice ripe peach tastes much better than a hard, out-of-season one. Or freshly-made mashed potatoes tastes better than those goofy flakes from the box.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately since Michael Ruhlman, whose just released a new book book Elements of Cooking, and who began a new blog as well—Elements of Cooking, got me thinking. In his words, he writes in his new blog…

“(it’s)…not a recipe blog–I’m interested in what doesn’t change, what can’t change, what is permanent, what is fundamental to the act of cooking. I am interested in not needing recipes.”


His superb treatise on why you should make your own stock is a must read, especially if you have holiday bird bones leftover. (I felt uncomfortable dragging a big, greasy turkey carcass across Paris on the way home last night. But this morning, I deeply-regretted it after reading his stock-making tips.)

One you understand how things work, many dishes are variable.
While baking does require recipes and exactitude (my personal cross to bear…) in many instances, we shouldn’t be slaves to recipes. If a recipe for a salad dressing calls for 1 teaspoon of salt and you don’t think it’s salty enough, do you just stick with the recipe or do you add more salt to taste?

Of course, you can’t simply add another cup of flour to a cake recipe, but you can learn more about your ingredients; how they work and what they do. Armed with that knowledge, you’ll won’t be so stressed about substituting ingredients, calculating baking times for your particular oven, and you’ll be able to use recipes as a jumping-off point instead of hard-and-fast rules.

And take it from one who knows all too well, you don’t need an arsenal of fancy equipment either.


Since moving to France, even though I spent a lot of time cooking professionally, I learned a whole new vocabulary about cooking here. Because of the nature of shopping in Paris, where you spent time talking with shop owners and food vendors, you can learn a lot more about cooking than you can imagine if you’re willing to take the time. And because my kitchen is…shall we say—modest, at best…I’ve learned to work around any obstacles. And in fact, I can now multitask making chocolates while drying my socks. How’s that for good ‘ol American ingenuity?

Here’s 10 easy things you can do to improve your cooking. I’ve touched upon a few before and some apply to baking, some to savory cooking. They’re ways that I’ve personally improved my cooking and stocked my pantry, and all of these things are within the reach of everyone. They’re all pretty simply and actually kind of fun to implement, and I hope they’ll making cooking and baking far more enjoyable and rewarding for you, as they have for me.


1. Use Fresh Herbs

You don’t need me to tell you that a humble baked potato is ever-so- much better with some freshly-chopped chives sprinkled over it. (And bacon and sour cream and butter too, mais oui!.) But people forget how delicious just-chopped thyme smells, or the scent of a chiffonade of fresh, leafy basil strewn over a platter of tomatoes and oily-black olives turns it into something fragrant and marvelous.

In France, fresh herbs are relatively cheap. But no matter where you live, a big bunch of flat-leaf parsley or sprigs of thyme are a great investment since a little fistful will bring food alive. I grew my own on the roof, until I noticed one day a family of pigeons was using the pot to take their afternoon nap in, so I stopped. Fortunately they don’t seem to be as fond of chocolate as I am.

Winter Sun

The bunch of chives I bought for 1€ for the Salmon Rillettes the other day enlivened five other dinners and salads; such a deal! Experiment with new and unfamiliar herbs, like pungent tarragon or tender, anise-like chervil leaves, which really is one of the great, underutilized, herbs.

UPDATE: In the comments, someone inquired about extending the life of fresh herbs. A new device just came out, which the San Francisco Chronicle testers used…and the results?

“Well, we were blown away. After nearly three weeks in the Herb Savor, our sage and parsley looked fresh as a daisy, while the same stuff—one bundled in the wet towel and the other stored in a glass of water—was wilted, dry and brown.”

I’m going to get one to use myself and see how it works.


2. Upgrade Your Oil

Please people, for all that is good in the world, it’s okay to spend a little extra money on nice olive oil on yourself, for something that you’re going to parsimoniously drizzle over your food. For cooking and frying, it’s fine to use a less-expensive olive oil. But it wasn’t until I moved above a huilierie, an olive oil store, that I started buying better oils made from various kinds of olives and blends. Quelle difference, my friends.

Don’t be concerned with fancy labels or super high-prices. Good oil isn’t necessarily expensive; the two bottles I’m using right now, one cost 5€ and the other 12€ each is going to last me a couple of months. Tasting is really important, not necessarily the label or origin. As they say, “Buy your oil where the Italians get theirs—in Spain“, which alludes to the widely-held belief that much of the olive oil that’s marketed as Italian is actually shipped over from Spain, whose oil is often less-expensive and sometimes better.

Nut oils are great, if they’re of good-quality. A spoonful along with a sprinkle of coarse salt will dress an entire salad. What could be easier, or more economical?

If there isn’t a shop near you locally, a good source for good oils that ships is Zingerman’s.
Their site is a wealth of information too.


3. Use shallots. Lots and lots of shallots.

In France, almost everyone uses shallots. But in America, you have to kneel down under the shelves at the produce aisle and fish out those little bags covered with red plastic netting to grab one.

Oh, the humiliation!

I never understood the sheer brilliance of shallots until now. They’re like oxygen to a cook; you can’t live without them once you’ve had your first taste. Finely-chopped and raw, they find their way into every vinaigrette I make. I also sauté zucchini or another favorite vegetable with them. Shallots are a must have and once you use them, you’ll find them irreplaceable in your kitchen.


4. Keep a good amount of decent bittersweet or semisweet chocolate on hand.

Not only is this good for snacking (guilty!), but like that Little Black Dress, some good chocolate can be chopped up and made into a instant chocolate sauce mixed with milk or water and used to drizzle over any dessert. Or a quick batch of mousse au chocolat.

Chocolate Mousse

And that great stand-by, a batch of brownies, can be whipped up with ingredients you already should have on hand; flour, sugar, butter and eggs if you have chocolate. And there’s my simple, four-ingredient Chocolate Orbit Cake, too. Good dark chocolate lasts for years if stored correctly, and buying it in bulk is more economical if that’s a concern.

5. Salt

One of those kind and gentle folks at one of those not so kind and gentle online food sites criticized me for saying that fleur de sel is the “greatest salt on earth”. I’m not sure why, but I hope that person is condemned to a lifetime of eating bitter, acrid table salt with anti-caking agents.

Fleur de Sel

While I love fleur de sel de Guérande, it’s pricey if you don’t live in France. But anyone can buy good salt no matter where they live or what their budget. A huge box of kosher salt is…what, a couple of bucks? And how long is that going to last? Seriously, if you’re eating that much salt, you shouldn’t be. Go get yourself a box—it’ll last you years.

6. Try Lentilles de Puy

This is my stand-by dish that I make whenever I don’t know what to make that’s quick and versatile. But unlike those mud-brown lentils that get made into a murky winter soup, lentilles de Puy cook up crunchy and nutty, and don’t fall apart unless you really cook the heck out of them.

Lentilles de Puy are grown in a region with rich, volcanic soil, which gives them a pleasant, mineral-y taste because they’re dried on the plant. They cook in less than 30-minutes, and can be tossed in a simple dressing of oil and vinegar with some salt and pepper, or cooled them mixed with tomatoes and crumbled feta cheese. I’ve written about them before, but am adding them here since to me, they’re a ‘must-have-on-hand’ in any kitchen.

They’ve become readily available in the US and elsewhere, but look for ‘de Puy’ on the label for the best-quality green lentils, which really do taste better.

7. Re-think Your Vinegar

Since you’re upgrading your oil, why not your vinegar at the same time? In France, sherry vinegar’s quite popular, which is what I reach for 98% of the time since it’s milder and less-tangy than red wine vinegar. I don’t use what’s labeled balsamic vinegar anymore since my visit to Modena, where the real stuff is made, and I’m horribly spoiled. You’d be too if you had one sip of the real stuff. It’s terrible, since I’m now ruined for life.

A small splash of vinegar is usually all that’s used, so why not use good stuff? And if you really want to use that other balsamic vinegar, it’s fine. I won’t tell.

8. Try Whole Wheat Pasta

I am crazy for whole-wheat pasta. Erase any memories you have of grainy, leaden tubes of starch and taste some of the new varieties out there. I don’t know if it’s available in the US, but Barilla is now making their own. And I’m a big, big fan of Latini farro pasta, which is made of faro, and I bring some back when I go to Italy. But it’s admittedly pricey and you can do fine in your local natural-foods store, as I do.

My very favorite quick and easy dinner is whole wheat pasta, sun-dried tomatoes, red chili flakes, chopped sausage, some greens tossed in all topped with crumbled feta. And a little drizzle of olive oil, of course.

9. Wine

“Hey, it’s two-buck Chuck! Ha-ha-ha…!”

I haven’t been able to figure out why people are willing to pay more for a latte than on wine? It was no accident that I moved to a country where daily drinking-wine is pretty inexpensive. But there’s plenty of decent wines around that come in at less than $10 a bottle which are very drinkable. That $2 stuff is really awful, and I’m not sure I understand why people bragging about how little they’re willing to spend on themselves.


Look around at good retailers like Best Cellars or searching a few wine blogs, where you can discover wines under $20 or even $10. You don’t need to drink expensive wine to enjoy wine. I don’t buy fancy wines, and you don’t have to go into debt to enjoy wine either.


Another option is to buy by the case if a discount is offered. And price isn’t always an indication of quality; drink what tastes good to you.

10. Get thee some decent cookware.

Yes, good cookware is more expensive than the flimsy stuff. But who liked charred cookies or spending hours scrubbing burnt spots off saucepans?

One does not need a complete batterie de cuisine to cook; a medium-sized saucepan, a large non-stick skillet, a spatula or wooden spoon and a good, solid baking sheet are sufficient for most tasks. Many of the top brands now offer lesser-priced models if you’re really tight, but I’ve had the same All-Clad pans for over twenty years and I still use them every day. And it has a lifetime warranty which means no matter what, they’ll replace it forever. I’ve even spectacularly dropped mine and it fared beautifully, far better than the chocolate in it.

In a solid saucepan, with thick sides, things are less-likely to burn, handles won’t get hot, and things will cook evenly. Similarly, if you’ve ever baked cookies on one of those tissue-thin baking sheets, you know how frustrating it is to pull out a batch of cookies that are blackened on the bottom and raw on top.

  • All-Clad Starter Set: An investment, but well worth it. Starter sets are very reasonable ways to own All-Clad.

  • Heatproof Spatula: I use these for everything in the kitchen. The best tool. Ever.

  • Kaiser Baking Sheet: Non-warping insulated baking sheet

  • KitchenAid 5-qt Mixer: Not essential for everyone, but a great deal—now on sale for just $149.

  • Calphalon Baking Sheet: Another insulated baking sheet that I use.

  • Magic Line 9″ Cake Pan: These inexpensive cake pans are what professionals use. I love them.

  • T-Fal Non-Stick Skillet: In France, T-Fal is de rigeur in the kitchen. I reach for mine daily, and their low price makes them easy-to-own.

    Last time I was in the US, my pal Wendy dragged me to Marshall’s—okay…she didn’t have to drag me—nd I was stunned to find so much high-quality cookware so reasonably prices. Oxo tools, KitchenAid pans, and Le Creuset casseroles were on offer. It wasn’t like a cookware store where they have absolutely everything, but I did a little bit of damage. (Although the clothes were a bust..who wears all those pants that have a 52″ waist and 28″ inseam?)

    Or scan garage sales. I’ve sold lots of great pastry-making tools at mine when I moved abroad, thinking I’d never use them again. (Ha! Which, of course, I had to buy all over again.)

    Happy cooking!

    Elements of Cooking by Michael Ruhlman


    • Steve
      November 23, 2007 12:50pm

      Excellent! I will try whole wheat pasta (it’ll be the first time). I can confirm that great wine is available from France for well under $20–it used to be $10-12 but something happened to the dollar. The key to finding them is to read good blogs, not widely distributed journals and glossy magazines.

      And what’s this about a little black dress being chopped up and made into chocolate sauce! ;-)

    • November 23, 2007 1:28pm

      Never been in USA, but reading your advices I have feeling that life in America is so different from life in Europe.

    • November 23, 2007 2:16pm

      Pasta with épeautre flour is also really tasty (I don’t know the english for épeautre, It’s a cereal similar to wheat but more ancient ). After these, wheat pasta seem to have a sweetened dull taste.

      I’m used to use fresh herbs every time since i know that they can be frozen in a sealed box (Tupperware kind), after being chopped.

      I just sprinkle the herbs right from the freezer on the dish, still frozen. The taste develops immediately just as if it was fresh herb, even if its been frozen for weeks. that’s really useful, and now i don’t mind buying a huge amount of one herb in the market to use only a tea spoon at once :)

    • Joan
      November 23, 2007 2:59pm

      Epeautre is farro is spelt – three words in three languages for one cereal!

      Loved your advice, David – I think I actually already do all these things with the exception of the chocolate, not being très chocolat myself (sorry…)

      But you are so right in saying that it’s the ingredients that count: today I read somewhere that even Ferrian Adria seems to be stepping back from his molecular stuff to say that simple food is the best…. ahhh mashed potatoes with a hint of garlic from adding the cloves roasted, a glug of evoo and a pinch of salt…. heaven!

    • Judith in Yummmbria
      November 23, 2007 3:10pm

      I’m a proponent of almost all of it, but I do not like whole wheat pasta. Period. I’ve had plenty of chances. Just don’t like it.

      I have a couple of recipes in which dried herb is essential, but otherwise it’s too the garden or the pot for me.

      I also really prefer mashed potatoes as simple as can be. The other kinds are OK, but the simple formula is so good, why mess it up and not taste the potato?

    • Estelle
      November 23, 2007 4:25pm

      David, thank you so much for this extraordinary post. You have brought me up to speed to be sure. I need to think Shallots, don’t know why I haven’t used them but as of today, that is changed.
      And the vinigar,so glad you brought this up. I’ve been using the other stuff you mentioned and I know I must buy some Sherry Vinegar post haste.
      I read the article about making your own stock. It’s so easy, don’t know why I don’t do it but Michael’s superb treatise on the subject has seeped into my brain.
      I think I’m covered with the rest.

      We all do deserve the very best and these suggestions are sooo easy to impliment.

      Thanks for everything.

    • November 23, 2007 4:52pm

      Thank you, David! I feel vindicated at last. I’ve been following similar guidelines for years. I bought some lentilles de Puy in Paris and I guess I’d better use them soon. As for shallots, I’ve been buying them for years, and I suspect I am one of the few people in my neck of the woods who does buy them. In fact, I went to every grocery store in town and bought up all I could find.

      I’d like to add one more: If you eat meat, buy the best you can find. I made Chateaubriand for TG and was forced to settle for a cheaper cut of meat than in years past. Never again! It was my first Chateaubriand disaster. My father is rolling over in his grave.

      Thanks for another informative post,


    • November 23, 2007 6:04pm

      How is it that, amidst all the luscious chocolate and decadent desserts and hints and tips about cooking in general, I get the biggest thrill by you urging everyone to use shallots more? Seriously – I’ve always loved your blog for the humor, beautiful photography, and wonderfully informative writing. But shallots? Now you have my heart!

      One day at the market, a semi-creepy man was following me around the produce area, trying to talk to me. He followed me to the check-out counter and finally engaged me in conversation by asking about the shallots – semi-creepy or no, I couldn’t resist the urge to discuss shallots. I urged him, as I do with everyone, to always have some in the kitchen, for shallots make almost everything better. He got so excited by my shallot talk that he went off to get some of his own. Double win: He left me alone AND I made another shallot convert.

    • Diane
      November 23, 2007 6:47pm

      I do almost alll of these – except the whole wheat pasta, which I admit to being a bit scared of, but will try again on your recs. But the must have two above all else – shallots and fresh herbs. I always have shallots around, as I cook a lot of asian food, and it is impossible to make Thai food without them, and they are lovely just lovely to use in western dishes. And herbs – well, I live in CA, so pigeon poop or no, I cut herbs from my bushes whenever I need them. I only buy parsley and cilantro.

    • Katie K
      November 23, 2007 8:47pm

      Not keen on the nonstick pans. I prefer seasoned cast iron. It’s really not that hard to do and you don’t have to worry about chemical leaching into your foods when you cook at high temperatures. Also they’re very inexpensive and last forever.

    • November 23, 2007 10:57pm

      I am also not so keen on non-stick pans and I also use cast iron. I don’t find they always work in the same way and I keep hoping for another alternative.

      As for the other tips..heeding your advice will definitely perk up anyone’s cooking!

    • November 24, 2007 4:28am

      HI Katie & Izzy’s Mama: I do miss my cast iron skillet. But with the reduced luggage restrictions, one nice frying pan is about half of my luggage allowance.

      There is some talk about the safety of non-stick pans. But most experts I’ve heard said the main danger is when the finish starts flaking off or using too-high heat.

      So it’s best, in my opinion (although probably not the most ecological solution), to buy cheap ones like the T-Fal ones, and replace them when the finish starts to wear off.

      Here’s a pretty interesting article from National Geographic that explores the safety of non-stick cookware.

      Leah: I actually planned to write a post just about shallots! Ever since I started using them all the time, my cooking changed. They’re just more a part of cooking in France than they are back in the US. I rarely cook with yellow onions any more.

      Although curiously, red onions are more elusive in France then in America. And green onions, aka scallions, are difficult to find too.

    • tom
      November 24, 2007 8:19am

      Are you finding that your friends in France appreciate the delightful fluffy mashed potatoes a l’americaine? I couldn’t stand the puree de pommes in France when I lived there…in restaurants, in private homes, no matter…always, always thin and gruel-like, with the consistency of baby food, and just as palatable, I might add. But, people seemed to like it that way!

    • November 24, 2007 11:00am

      Amen on the shallots, DL. I didn’t know how spoiled I was here in Gascony until I went looking for shallots in the USA and barely found a bulb or two- old and withered at that. Maybe someone will start a new business to supply the Food Lovers of America. HINT! Now is the time to plant my own shallot starts in the potager; next time you come down, I’ll give you a braid of ‘Cuisse de Poulet’ variety or the tiny and potent ‘echalotte grise’. PS, I converted to that Barilla wholewheat pasta, too, and am hooked!

    • Ed
      November 24, 2007 11:33am

      Hi, David: I wish you had written this sooner, as I just returned from Paris on Tuesday and would have picked up some fleur de sel de Guérande and Lentilles de Puy to bring back. This was my first trip tp Paris and, aside from the transportation issues, had a wonderful time.

      I read your Paris Tips before I went and they were very helpful. Love the blog. Regards, Ed Brown, Hoboken, NJ


    • Kao
      November 24, 2007 11:35am

      Hi David, I have been your blog fan for a while, but hadn’t gotten any of your books since I am vegan macrobiotic. But your recipes in blog are so inspiring and I finally made my mind to have one. Just got your book “The Perfect Scoop” today via Amazon japan…and I really love it!

      Even for enthusiastic vegan macrobiotic, your recipes are really inspiring and useful, as the combinations of ingredients are so unique, and brilliant:) I will try these recipes with replacing some ingredients such as sugars (to maple syrups or rice syrups or agave, or concentrated apple juice, etc), egg (to …have no idea yet), milk (to soy milk or rice and soy milk).

      BTW, I definitely agree with your suggestions for better cooking.

      But sometimes I miss white starchy pasta, as they are more softer, less flavory and lighter. Furthermore, it’s maybe because I am Japanese, I feel like eating soba noodle when I have whole wheat pasta. Are there any suggested recipes for whole wheat pasta, to enjoy their flavor and heaviness?


    • November 24, 2007 12:10pm

      We use a lot of coarse salt (for pasta) but I have to admit I haven’t upgraded our table salt yet. I have my little Fleur de Sel box but I don’t use it very often. Time to change!

    • Meryl
      November 24, 2007 12:18pm

      Hi David,

      I don’t know if you can find it near you, but Bionaturae from Italy makes great organic whole wheat pasta.

    • November 24, 2007 1:38pm

      Great post. I’m with you on all of the points but especially so the wholewheat pasta. It’s fabulous stuff.

    • November 24, 2007 5:14pm

      Very good advices, David. You know, it’s very curious how so many people are simply looking at the price tag when buying food. It seems like this is not the case when it comes to buying a new TV, a car or a new snow blower. It always makes my wonder how we came to not care more for the essence of life. After all, without fuel we wouldn’t get very far.

    • Jeanette
      November 24, 2007 5:17pm

      Hi, David! I just discovered your blog via Kate Hill’s blog. She is a friend, and we have been to her place a couple of times – always to eat wonderful food. About the shallots – I guess we are the fortunate ones here in California. I just returned from our wonderful Saturday San Luis Obispo Farmers’ Market with a strawberry basket-sized container full of beautiful shallots. All for $2.50. They are grown by a family that specializes in garlic, small onions, and shallots. We go to France every year and ALWAYS bring home Fleur de Sel. Thank you. I look forward to reading your blog regularly.

    • November 24, 2007 6:39pm

      I look forward to that post about shallots, David. I’ve been buying them for more than 20 years. I get them whenever I see them fresh, because as Kate Hill points out, they are often shriveled and old because no one else is buying them. Same thing with eggplant here in the hinterlands of Northern Wisconsin. Every once in a while, I might – might – find them at a farm market. It’s frustrating. Shopping in Paris is a treat.

    • Linda H
      November 24, 2007 7:34pm

      I was amazed to find that I follow all your recommendations with the exception of the lentils, which I haven’t tried.
      I found a Barilla pasta here in mid America call “Barilla Plus,” which contains “semolina grain and legume flour (lentils, chickpeas, spelt, barley, flax seed, oats,” and durum flour”!
      I grow my own shallots. They grow so easily that I think they could be grown in a pot on a sunny window sill. In the grocery store they are expensive, in the little red net bag you mentioned. A post about shallots would be great.
      Leftover mashed potatoes taste great as potato cakes, floured, seasoned, and sauteed until golden in butter. Top them with whatever cheese you like melted over the top. Decadent.

    • November 24, 2007 8:58pm

      David ~ You’d think this advice is common sense, but, alas, it is not. I have learned through my own purchases and inquisitivenss (okay, so I’m nosey) that good stores have samples to taste. I don’t buy unless I can try. I rely on the same Greek olive oil for daily cooking and have yet to find that perfect virgin olive oil for dipping and last minute drizzles (but I am having a lot of fun trying all sorts, though). Good cookware is the most essential to the overall result – food won’t stick, and it will cook evenly.
      Thanks for taking the time to remind us home cooks what should be second nature.

    • Tiffany
      November 24, 2007 10:25pm

      Excellent suggestions. I agree with all of them. I am anxious to try the Lentilles de Puy. This is a new one for me. Everyone needs good olive oil, kosher salt & lots of wine!

    • debinsf
      November 25, 2007 2:15am

      I’m with you and Leah on the shallots. I LOVE them. We are lucky to get lots of nice ones in our CSA box.

      And the wine/latte comparison is brilliant. Wine should be good, not just color.

      Working on the vinegar…


    • kat
      November 25, 2007 3:35am

      People must be learning about shallots because they were nearly sold out at Central Market the other day. My green beans just weren’t as good.

    • November 25, 2007 10:18am

      Zingerman’s is the best. I lived across the street back in the day and nearly went broke buying my bread there, but they have great, great products. Thank-god staples like bread, wine and cheese are more afforadable in France.
      If I could add something to your list it would be about good bread. I tried that crazy NYT online recipe last year and had lovely results.

    • Tags
      November 25, 2007 12:15pm

      Please don’t be fooled by “whole wheat.” Go for the certified “100% Whole Grain.”

      for more:


    • November 25, 2007 1:27pm

      Great post– thanks! I’ve recently started to use good salt, and it’s amazing how much of a difference it makes!

      Any suggestions on how to use up fresh herbs? I live alone, and I’m always buying fresh herbs and having half the bunch turn into brown slush before I can finish. This isn’s usually a problem with basil or parsley, but with some of the less common herbs…

    • Micki
      November 25, 2007 1:46pm

      Hi David! What a great post. Along the line of good French products, in a few weeks I unfortunately have to return from my study abroad in Paris, and am trying to decide all the good things to bring back with me. I already bought some fleur de sel and truffle oil and was planning on getting some good oil and vinegar (and now lentils!) Any particular suggestions?

    • hollerhither
      November 25, 2007 2:12pm

      Love shallots, they are magical. Also, I think these days $14.99 may be the new $9.99 for wine…but as soon as I cleared that mental hurdle re price, I’ve noticed we’ve been getting much better table wine.

      Anna — I had the same problem with herbs and I am not much of a gardener, not to mention no land & small apartment. I was an early adopter of the Aerogarden which hydroponically grows herbs, has a grow light with auto shutoff. It’s been great — you are a little limited to their mix and configuration, but the basic herb kit includes parsley, cilantro, 2 types basil, dill, and mint. It’s a little pricey, but I like only having to snip off what I need.

      David — made your eggnog ice cream last night to go along with our pumpkin pie. Yum! Excellent book, congrats on the Amazon top 10 selection.

    • November 25, 2007 2:49pm

      Anna: You can also keep them in a glass of water, like flowers, covered with a plastic bag in the refrigerator which seems to prolong their life. Shirley Corriher has a technique for preserving lettuce in her super-duper book Cookwise that, I think, involves putting them in a ziploc bag with a wet paper towel. I don’t have her book here in Paris, but perhaps someone else out there does and will be kind enough to post that info.

      Micki: I would head over to Huilerie LeBlanc (6, rue Jacob) and get a few bottles of their extraordinary nut oils— the hazelnut is my favorite. You can get good vinegar in the US, but when you’re at LeBlanc, head around the corner to da rosa for the arbequinia oil from Spain (this one). It’s the best!

    • Micki
      November 25, 2007 4:30pm

      Thanks for the suggestions David! I actually meant things outside of oils and vinegars though…

    • evgen
      November 25, 2007 6:36pm

      No, fleur de sel does not taste any different than regular salt.

      The amount of trace minerals in boutique salts is so low that you would have to be blessed/cursed with taste buds beyond the range of human possibility to notice a difference. The only thing that is different is the size of the crystal, which means that when you sprinkle a few pinches on a dish to finish it the salt does not dissolve instantly and you are left with a few crunchy bits of salt to be noticed when you take a bite. If you want this effect that just go with kosher salt and save yourself some money.

      I realized that the French Laundry had jumped the shark when my last meal there included a dish which was served with a variety of different salts (ooohhh… this one is from a million-year old salt bed… did the idiot passing this collection of NaCl realize that most generic salt comes from million-year old salt beds too? I doubt it…)


    • Maryann
      November 25, 2007 7:45pm

      You put a lot of work into this post. So much good information. Thank you.

    • November 26, 2007 4:22am

      Hi evgen: There’s been a couple of good articles analyzing why various salts taste different from others; the one that comes to mind is Jeffrey Steingarten’s in The Man Who Ate Everything. You’re right that much has to do with grain-size.

      I used to think “salt is salt” until I started using fleur de sel. It does taste different, at least to me, so I use it. There are a lot of “fancy” salts out there and I agree that I’m not sure they’re all that special either. Kosher salt is great for cooking although it would be interesting to taste them one after the other. (I haven’t seen kosher salt in France, though.)

      I know when people taste regular fine table salt after fleur de sel, they scrunch up their faces rather painfully.

      As always, I encourage people to taste various things and make their own decisions. These are just some of the things and tips that I’ve learned and wanted to pass along in hopes that others will experiment on their own and learn about ingredients…and add their own discoveries to the mix. Thanks for your comments!

    • An
      November 26, 2007 7:15am

      Thank you David – I love getting the basics right, then getting inspiration from recipes. I’ve only recently been starting to fall in love with cooking and baking again.

      Most of these principles are almost ingrained in me from my family and my Asian culture, where you always seek to use “the freshest ingredients”. Fresh ginger and shallots/spring onions are a must, and especially where they give us the spring onions for free with veggie purchase in local “wet” markets, why not?

      I haven’t bought many fresh herbs because of its fairly high cost, but I am exploring dried herbs such as rosemary and it has amazed me. Must try the vinegar equivalents too. I’m not a big fan of alcohol and only use the most minimal amount. I’ve yet to try whole wheat pasta but I will if I get my hands on it!

      Thanks again for the fantastic blog!

    • Eileen
      November 26, 2007 8:50am

      To Shaun-
      On olive oil- try Nicholas Alziari (France) and McEvoy (California).


    • Ed
      November 26, 2007 12:04pm

      I was just saying precisely the same thing about shallots to my wife–why is it that supermarkets hide them in little racks below the onions? In our market, they keep the cipollines right next to the shallots–another puzzling choice. Great post!


    • Michelle
      November 26, 2007 12:47pm

      I would add only one more thing to the list – chuck the old jars of ground spices, buy whole spices and grind them as you need them. A small coffee mill and/or small ceramic mortar and pestle work great.

      Have you tried enclosing your herb pots in cages to keep the birds out?

      To Eileen,
      Alziari is my husband’s favorite oil and McEvoy is mine. McEvoy’s Olio Nuovo is out now – got a half gallon! I love it drizzled on top of garlic toast topped with fresh cooked lacinato kale – sprinkled with fleur de sel and fresh ground pepper, of course.


    • November 26, 2007 4:12pm

      If you have a little bit of space outdoors, with decent drainage, you can grow shallots really easily. They’re hard to find and sort of expensive in the store, but I grew nearly a bushel this summer in my vegetable garden. I plant them as a border in my raised beds — and I bet you could do them in flower beds as well — they’re just bulbs. I’ve even planted the ones from the store … and they’re pretty …

    • Lilia
      November 26, 2007 4:22pm

      Enjoyed this blog a lot but I do enjoy all your blogs and appreciate all the tips for cooking, eating, buying………
      Just came back from Paris and sorry to say that I missed Regis Dion (he wasn’t in that Sunday) but I did bring home some of his fleur de sel de Guerande aux algues; aux Espelette, and our poisson. Too bad I couldn’t buy them all! My kitchen would have been much happier! I started using sel gris de Guerande that my friend took from her kitchen some ten years ago and I’ve never regretted it! My cooking has improved 100 percent.

      Hubby and I ate at Les Papilles – enjoyed our 4 courses with a Saint Joseph Blanc. Also tried the most scrumptuous and crispy confit de Canard at Chez Dumonet. He also loved Yves Camdebord’s Le Comptoir.

      Hey, I visited the chocolatiers and bought your favorite chocolates letting them know that you sent us but didn’t get a chance to get the tablettes at La Maison du Chocolat. I got some Pierre Herme to take home plus the macarons that I transferred to a boite Becassine that I bought at La Vaisellerie. That day, I met Pierre Herme and shook his hands – a wonderful way to end this year’s Paris trip.
      Thank you again! Keep it coming………..

    • dnash
      November 26, 2007 7:29pm

      Love the post, however I’m gonna speak up for the 2-buck-Chuck wine. (Though around my area it’s 3-buck-Chuck.) I’ve had worse wine that cost twice as much or more. When you just want a basic glass of wine and aren’t being fussy about pairing it or anything, it’s just fine.

      And actually, a couple of years ago the “Charles Shaw” Shiraz was a finalist in a blind wine tasting competition. See: Here.


    • November 27, 2007 5:22am

      Very interesting… as always! Cheers from -Switzerland-.

    • November 27, 2007 7:10am

      These are not only good tips, but accessible and useful even for people who live outside of food heavens. I can follow all of these suggestions pretty easily in Glasgow, and if you can cook it there, you can cook it anywhere.

    • November 27, 2007 9:35am

      Great Blog but “who wears all those pants that have a 52″ waist and 28″ inseam?” Er, a great many Americans!

    • November 27, 2007 2:10pm

      Forget about the starter set of All-Clad. Instead, buy yourself a Southwest flight to Pittsburgh during the weekend of December 7-8. On those 2 days, All-Clad (based in nearby Canonsburg, PA) has their twice-a-year factory sale at the Washington County Fairgrounds. All All-Clad cookware is 40-70% off. I have a kitchen full of All-Clad for discount store prices.

    • November 27, 2007 4:57pm

      Mummmm shallots. I love shallots and have been attempting to grow them in my garden for 2 years, finally to find out that they are best planted in fall if you want them to be bigger than your thumb! I recently installed “grow lights” and dug up my herb garden and planted it in pots in the basement for year round herb independence. Now I just need to heat the room to make them grow more! Thanks for the link to the Farro pasta. I can’t eat wheat (celiac) but I am able to eat spelt, lucky for me! Now if I could just perfect making my own spelt ravioli as no one here (in Michigan) seems to make it…..

    • JMW
      November 28, 2007 12:52am

      Agreed on most — although personally I am a little tired of “shallotizing” food.

      The basic problem here is that people are afraid of garlic — just deathly afraid of it. Prep cooks beat the Hell out of it into pulp and let it sit out — thus destroying its delicate flavor (as Alice Waters says, garlic turns acrid after 15 minutes of exposure to air).

      I like Cosentino’s approach to garlic and to me it obviates the need for shallots. He slices it paper thin, presumably with a mandolin, into cross-sections. It’s beautiful and rustic and flavorful, and if done with the right timing, it treats the ingredients well.

      Also, an addition to your list —

      People should learn when to simmer and when to boil. And really, just to simmer. When it comes to water, home cooks seem to think there’s an “on” and “off” switch. It’s either at a rolling boil or not.

      Not everything is pasta or greens. Simmering slowly helps you avoid overcooking food. It requires some patience but … just drink a glass of two-buck chuck while you wait! :)

    • November 28, 2007 5:55am

      Jay: Love that All-Clad sale. If I had any more space, I’d be booking a flight and looking for a roommate.

      JMW: LOL! I love that new word—’shallotizing‘. Is it a verb or an adjective?

      Since garlic isn’t favored much by Parisians, I tend to use a lot less of it here than I did back in the states. That’s a great tip: slice it very thin instead of chopping it so it doesn’t burn. I learned that from my pal Judy, although I just use a sharp knife and slice it as uber-thin as I can.

      Which is good since if you drink too much of that 2-buck wine, you shouldn’t be around a mandoline in the first place. Or sharp knives either, I guess… :~)

    • November 28, 2007 10:08pm

      You know what has changed my life since starting work in a professional kitchen? A mandoline glove. They are made of kevlar, search for kevlar glove on amazon and you’ll find some. Instead of trying to use the crappy little guard that comes with the mandoline, you just wear the glove and you can go right down to the end. Of course no guarantees, you have to judge the safety for yourself! But I often cut 10 or 15 gallons of yam fries wearing one and haven’t had so much as a nick. I’m getting one for home.

    • November 29, 2007 6:02pm


      could you comment on whether you use or distinguish between shallots that we typically get and “grey shallots” or “true shallots”. I love shallots as evidenced by this picture shallots
      I grow both types and have found that the grey shallots are stronger and pack more flavor. just curious on your thoughts as our official Blogging American chef in France!

    • November 29, 2007 6:12pm

      can you comment on any experiences that you have with grey shallots versus “standard” shallots. Grey shallots are hard to get in US, but I grow them and like them.

    • richelle
      November 30, 2007 8:06am

      Great tips and would love to get an Artisan for Xmas, but for some reason the super-offers are not available for Europe! Minimum price over here ex shipping is 460 Euro’s!!!!
      Great deals through Amazon are a no-go because of the voltage difference… alas, just hope to win ‘el gordo’ (the spanish Xmas lottery)…


    • Trish
      November 30, 2007 7:57pm


      I have read so much about All-Clad pans. I need a new 12″ skillet. I ordered Emiril’s skillet with non-stick coating because non-stick is what I’ve used forever. The Emeril’s Skillet doesn’t have much “heft” so it’s going back. Now here’s what I’d like to know – I need a new 12″ skillet and I want a good one. I’m convinced I want All-Clad but help me decide between non-stick and regular. Your in-put is greatly appreciated. I read your blog everyday.


      Omaha, NE USA

    • December 5, 2007 9:34am

      You mean there are people who don’t cook with shallots? How tragic! Such a flavour and the depth they bring to sauces, dressings… well… to just about everything is a must. What a great list!

    • totoro
      December 5, 2007 4:11pm

      great post, thanks!

      I was curious about the Herb Savor, but the link you gave didn’t have a pic.

      And the whole “salt is NaCl is salt” thing is actually only true in terms of being diluted in water (as Steingarten noted). You can definitely taste the difference in some salts raw-and not just the crystal size. French Laundry serves salts that are smoked, for example, that are obviously different in flavor than regular table salts-so its not just gourmet bullshitting. (Except, as noted, when diluted in water, when trace elements are too minute to make a difference)

    • December 5, 2007 4:21pm

      Hi Totoro: The first link has a picture. As mentioned, I haven’t used it yet but the SF Chron endorsement was pretty enthusiastic.

      Yes, fancy salts shouldn’t be diluted and I for one, can certainly taste the difference in salt. I taste a lot of things and I know it’s not my imagination!

    • Melissa
      December 5, 2007 5:54pm

      David – Fantastic post. I loved your list of ‘decent’ cookware, but you left me wanting more – What basic knives do you recommend?

    • Rob
      December 5, 2007 6:13pm

      I’ve added shallots to my grocery list. Loved the comment about pigeons in the parsley. One year I had a toad move into my basil pot and it would not leave. Gave me baleful stares every time I watered or snipped some basil.

    • December 6, 2007 1:21am

      No, to the T-Fal. Non-stick of any kind, from the cheap to the expensive, will eventually degrade and leach into food. Some argue it is carcinogenic. I prefer not to take the chance and stick to good, old-fashioned, well-seasoned cast iron skillets and pans. Cheap, last forever, don’t give you cancer. I think that’s a win.

      Also, they’re cheap enough to buy anew wherever you live and donate to a charity shop when you leave. (Or to get from a charity shop in the first place.)

      I whole-heartedly agree with the rest. It’s annoying that shallots are so difficult to find in N. America.

    • December 6, 2007 2:43am

      Hi Kuri: Unfortunately unglazed cast-iron cookware isn’t available in France (except for Le Creuset & Staub, which is coated & really expensive.) If it is, I haven’t seen it.

      I did just order a cast iron skillet and am schlepping it back from the US next week. Two actually!

      Melissa: I did a post about knives here with some recommendations in the comments there.

      The OXO knives are very reasonable and super-sharp. I have a couple of them and reach for them a lot.

    • Melissa
      December 6, 2007 9:15am

      Thank you David, for your response on knives. Also, I wanted to add that I love cast iron as well.

      A great resource for VERY inexpensive, but well made cast iron is farm and ranch supply stores – I just moved to an agricultural area (Kansas) and found an entire set of cast iron for under $45. After living abroad for the past couple of years in Melbourne, Australia, where the price of everything is high, I almost passed out.

      Thank you for your wonderful site. I look forward to having more time to read more!

    • Dan
      April 5, 2009 1:45am

      All-Clad is amazing but at $700 USD for the started set it’s definitely an investment. Tramontina makes a fully clad set of pans that are available for $144 at Walmart. Cook’s Illustrated rated them lower than All-Clad only in the size category because the footprints are 5/8″ smaller than comparable All-Clad pans and they are not available in such a wide range of sizes.

      I’ve been using them side-by-side with All-Clad for months and they work beautifully.

    • December 2, 2009 11:10pm

      i was so happy to see this post, particularly because i am addicted to sel de Guérande. my favorite purveyor is mister sel. it appears this picture is of mister sel’s stand. is it? any idea how i can buy sel de Guérande from him over the internet? perhaps you can recommend an alternative?

    • December 3, 2009 3:56am

      cara: Unfortunately Mr. Sel (aka Régis) is no longer selling his salts at the market. You can get fleu de sel de Guerande online, and perhaps at food purveyors depending on where you live.

    • rose
      June 14, 2010 10:32am

      Buying chocolate in bulk no good for me. Me snack on it too much. Sigghh.

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