Catherine de Orio was eight years old when she bought her first cookbook. After paging through the recipes, she decided which dish she would attempt. Her father enjoyed fish so the fish dish was the clear choice. Her mother, however, was a bit apprehensive with this selection. She wasn’t a fan of fish or its smell.
But Catherine had one huge advantage. One of 14 cousins in an Italian family in Elmwood Park, Ill., she served as sous chef to her grandma. The de Orios gathered every week at Nana Kay’s for Sunday supper. Immersed in a world of food, Catherine learned the basics of cooking and the role of food beyond nourishment. Food was more than calories. Food served as a uniter. Long before Mo Rocca’s My Grandmother’s Ravioli, Catherine learned the basics the old-fashioned way, at the side of her nana.
Dutifully following the recipe with her mom’s help, she proceeded through the instructions. Despite the best intentions and attention to detail, their home was quickly filled with the distinct aroma of burnt fish. Her mother opened all the windows trying to air out the stench. Like a lingering house guest, the aroma wouldn’t leave for three days. Catherine wanted to create a memorable dish for her dad and succeeded…just not in the way she imagined. In a sign of true parental love her father still ate the fish and said he liked it.
While Catherine lists this blackened fish as one of the worst dishes she ever made, this wouldn’t be her last foray in the kitchen. She continued cooking and learning from her grandma and cooking some more. When she went to college, she cooked for her friends. One girlfriend consistently asked for a pasta dish with red wine. The dish only needed a splash of vino which leaves the rest of the bottle for thirsty college students. Fast forward about 10 years and Catherine has found her way back to food as a food consultant after pursuing a career in law.
Earlier this month, Catherine joined forces with ConAgra foods for the #GreatAmericanCookIn. The challenge is to “cook in” for one straight week. I asked her for advice for bachelors (and bachelorettes) who are just getting started in the kitchen. She shared five tips and recipes to simplify cooking for yourself and friends. One of the biggest hurdles for new cooks is getting past the desire to be perfect. With cooking shows, Instagram, blogs (not this one), it’s easy to get caught in the perfect dish trap. Like Catherine and her burnt fish, everyone starts somewhere. My chicken a la vomit is one of the worst things I ever made/eaten, but you charge forward. The more you cook, the better you will get. It’s as simple as that.
Bachelor Basic: Buy pepper with the grinder so you can freshly grind pepper for your food. It makes an incredible improvement. Pre-ground pepper isn’t worth using.
Catherine de Orio’s Advice for New Cooks
- Start with cuisines you know. If you grew up eating Italian or Mexican food, start with that. The flavors will be familiar to you, so you’ll know if it tastes right.
- Use pantry staples to get started. Rather than cooking everything from scratch, use canned tomatoes like Hunt’s that come pre-seasoned with garlic and basil.
- Season your food. Even if you use items that have some flavor added, you still need to salt and pepper your food.
- Be adventurous when dining out. Try new foods when you travel. Ask questions to learn what spices or flavors are used.
- Add sumac and zaatar on everything. Catherine joked that she doesn’t leave home without these spices.
Catherine de Orio’s Custom Recipes
Whatever you do, just don’t burn the fish!