Twenty years into her job as editor in chief of Food & Wine magazine, Dana Cowin thought it was time to buff up her cooking skills. With tutorials from the top chefs in the country, Cowin cooked her way through her personal collection of recipes and found out how to improve them and her culinary technique. She offers the recipes — and the stories — in Mastering My Mistakes in the Kitchen ($35, HarperCollins.
Q. You’ve experienced a lot of changes over two decades of running the magazine.
A. The change over the last 20 years has been seismic. When I first came to Food & Wine, it was the year after the Food Network was launched. There were no star chefs yet. There were no chefs as celebrities. The ingredients we had access to were so much more limited.
What’s been amazing to watch in food culture over the past 20 years is to see how people have fallen so in love with food as entertainment, food as good health, food as pleasure. The idea of Food & Wine back then and today is that food was at the center of people’s lives. They would wake up and think about food. They would do other things, but they would always be thinking about food. It’s truer today than ever.
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Q. How did you become editor when you weren’t a skilled cook?
A. Part of the reason I got this job so long ago was that the world was not filled with foodies. The timing is germane. Had I tried to get this job today, knowing as little about food as I did then, I probably wouldn’t have gotten the job. But when I came to Food & Wine, I wanted to bring the idea of lifestyle and how people live around food, and that’s something I knew an awfully lot about because I had been at Vogue magazine and House & Garden magazine. Food & Wine seemed like the obvious next step. Because I came at it from a lifestyle point of view, no one asked me if I could cook.
My everyday job is to think about what readers want to cook and where they want to go. I’m actually a good proxy for them because I will sit in a meeting with editors who will say, “Everyone wants to make croissants,” and I will say, “You know what? They don’t.” I have the advantage of being more of the Everyman than some of the experts on the staff. Now I am corrupting my Everyman status by learning how to cook.
Q. The difference between you and most cooks is that you have at your disposal all these fabulous contacts with any chef you want. So you learned from the best.
A. I did. That is the great thing about my job. That is the light bulb that went off when I got sick of making all these mistakes. I thought, “I don’t have to go to cooking school. I can create my own.” I had the experts teach me their tricks of the trade.
Q. What suggestions did the chefs have?
A. Some of the tips I learned are incredibly practical. For example, I often burn the bottom of vegetables when I roast them and the top remains raw, which is very frustrating. It’s kind of like they are crisped to death but still raw. I worked with April Bloomfield, who is a mistress of magical vegetables, and she explained that one way to prevent that was to double up on the sheet pan below. Another tip she gave me is to cook the vegetables first before they are roasted. For me as a home cook that’s probably more than I want to do, but I’m very happy to know that.
The other thing she said that was so helpful was that when you are cutting vegetables, cut them with a sense of how long that vegetable will take to cook. If it’s a dense vegetable, you might cut it to a smaller size. If it is something with a lot of liquid in it, cut it to a larger size if you want these to cook at the same time as the dense ones.
Q. Are there more skill sets you need before moving on to the next stage of your cooking?
A. There are two things that would really make me ready for the next phase. One is that if I cooked every single day, if that became my job, I would be ready faster. But the other thing is the need to just slow down and focus. I feel like if I did, I’d be a massively better cook in a day.
Q. Any tips for entertaining?
A. I entertain all the time so most of the recipes in my book are for entertaining. Make ahead is one key. Making a great variety of food is another. Unlike most people who entertain, I don’t mind trying an entire meal that’s new. I think that’s part of the fun of it. I actually recommend experimentation while entertaining because what better way to push yourself than to try something new? You’re not going to try it with your family because they don’t necessarily care. But your guests might. So, I say, push yourself when you entertain rather than being safe. Very contrarian advice. And your guests are going to love you anyway.
From Andrew Zimmern
Cornstarch: Helps tighten the sauce and makes meat soft and tender.
Celery: Great addition because of its very strong flavor.
Ginger: To prep the root, scrape off the skin with a spoon, then slice.
Soy sauce: Older bottles of soy will have a stronger flavor because some of the liquid will have evaporated.
Green onions: Use them both for cooking and for the finishing touch.
Source: “Mastering My Mistakes in the Kitchen,” by Dana Cowin.
CHICKEN STIR-FRY WITH CELERY AND PEANUTS
1 1/2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken thighs, cut into 1-inch pieces
1 tablespoon Asian chile sauce (sambal oelek)
1 tablespoon cornstarch
1 tablespoon rice wine or sake (or rice vinegar)
1/4 cup soy sauce, divided
1/4 cup vegetable or peanut oil, divided
1 (2-inch) piece of ginger root, peeled and cut into thin matchsticks
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 green onions, thinly sliced, white and green parts kept separate
2 small celery ribs, thinly sliced, plus 1/2 cup roughly chopped celery leaves
2 large shallots, halved lengthwise and thinly sliced
2 teaspoons sugar
1/4 cup unsalted dry-roasted peanuts
1/2 pound snow peas, ends trimmed
1/4 cup drained and sliced water chestnuts
1 hot red chile, thinly sliced, optional
Put chicken in a large bowl. Add the chile sauce, cornstarch, rice wine and 2 tablespoons soy sauce; toss to coat. Set aside.
Set a large heavy skillet over very high heat and add 2 tablespoons oil. When oil ripples, add the ginger, garlic and the green part of onions. Cook over high heat, stirring, until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add the celery, celery leaves, shallots, sugar and peanuts and cook, stirring, until the vegetables are crisp-tender, about 2 minutes. Transfer the mixture to a plate and set aside.
Add the remaining 2 tablespoons oil to the skillet and let it get quite hot over medium-high heat. Add the chicken in a single layer and let it sit for a moment before stirring, then cook, stirring, until well browned and nearly cooked through, about 5 minutes. Add the snow peas and water chestnuts and cook, stirring, until the snow peas are bright green and crisp-tender, about 3 minutes.
Add the reserved ginger and celery mixture, along with the final 2 tablespoons soy sauce and a couple tablespoons of water, and scrape up the flavorful bits stuck to the bottom of the pan with a wooden spoon. Then stir everything together and season to taste with salt.
Transfer the chicken to a platter and scatter the whites of the onions and the chile slices on top. Serve immediately. Serves 4.
Source: Andrew Zimmern, in “Mastering My Mistakes in the Kitchen,” by Dana Cowin.