Feedbag: How Do I Make My Food Seem Professional?SWelcome to the Feedbag, where all the dumb questions about food, drink, cooking, eating, and accidental finger removal you've been embarrassed to ask can finally receive the berating they goddamn deserve. Also: answers. Send all your even-vaguely-food-related questions to albertburneko@gmail.com with the subject "Feedbag." All of them.

Evan:

I am a college student and just got hired to cook at a retreat center for a couple of weeks which may seem kind of weird because a college student would be the last person I would hire to cook for a bunch of rich people who want to relax and eat "edible" food. But I digress. It's a meditation/yoga retreat where they sleep in yurts and shit but still pay a lot of money to have some guru teach them yoga and how to find themselves.

Ah, I think I know what's going on here. If they're anything like me, the notion of rich white people appropriating the traditions of foreign cultures as a way of recharging themselves between exhausting bouts of draining the world's wealth and vitality has destroyed their appetites completely, so they're not really gonna need a cook.

Sorry. Please continue.

It's mainly rich people from LA who go so that should give you sort of an idea.

Feed them ampules of Botox; they'll be just fine.

I am a fan of the Food(porn) Network and I cook dinner for my family every now and then because they think I have to work to live in my own damn home, but I'm not bitter. However, I have no fucking idea how to cook for people who expect their food to look nice and taste consistently good.

I think the real problem here is the use of the descriptor "people," rather than "giant, unconvincingly anthropomorphized vampire bats."

So do you have any tips on how to make one's cooking seem professional and any suggestions on how not to completely fuck it up?

OK, so, between and behind the concern about how to feed a bunch of quasi-humanoid millionaire Angelenos is a real and legitimate question for anyone out there who wants to host a fancy dinner party, or impress a date, or foolishly bank on the advice of a random internet food guy in their quest for a food-service-industry career: How do I make my food look and taste like it was made by somebody who knows what he's doing?

The answer's pretty straightforward, believe it or not, and it has to do with breaking some common bad habits of non-professional cooks. The first and most important bad habit to break is the bad habit of cooking everything over some wussy variation of medium heat because you're afraid of smoke or of black shit sticking to your pan or you're too impatient to truly slow-cook anything. Shit that's supposed to be cooked hot and fast should be cooked over real, serious heat to produce real, serious caramelization without overcooking the hell out of it; shit that's supposed to be slow-cooked should be cooked over genuinely low heat with real patience, to allow its connective tissues and shit to break down and its accompanying flavors to do their jobs.

The second bad habit to break is the fear of salt. Home cooks tend to use too little salt during actual cooking when it can do some real good, and then sprinkle it on their food once it's already cooked and plated, when all it can do is make their meal taste like salt. Use salt during cooking! The great thing about salting generously (but carefully) during cooking is that, if you're tasting as you go, you can always adjust if you go a little bit overboard; once your food's on the plate, if you add too much salt, you're fucked. Use salt. Salt meat before you brown it; salt aromatics as they're sweating; salt sauces as they're simmering; salt salads before they're tossed with dressing. Don't be afraid; be careful. Taste as you go.

The final bad habit to break (or, anyway, the final one I'm gonna share on this side of the nonexistent Foodspin Insider paywall) is the fear of tartness. I've harped on this before, so I'm not gonna belabor it, here, but: Put some damn tartness in your food. Citrus juice or vinegar or tomatoes or wine or whatever-the-fuck. Sour Patch Kids. Something. Please. Acidity is what wakes up your palate and makes food taste exciting.

So, to recap: heat, salt, tartness, vampire bats. Got it? No? Good.

Victoria:

I started a container herb garden this spring. Now I have an enormous basil plant (bush?) that is taking over my deck. What can I do with 37 lbs of basil?

Make pesto! Make like nine tons of pesto, freeze it, and use it to sustain your will to live next winter. Basil, grated cheese, pine nuts (or pistachios or whatever), a little bit of raw garlic, and a littler bit of black pepper, in the food processor. Drizzle some olive oil in there as the stuff's getting chopped up. Scoop it into an airtight container, cover it with a thin layer of olive oil, and freeze it.

Frankly, the answer to your question is so obvious that it's making me wonder if you're just trying to distract me so you can steal my wallet. There's no money in there, asshole! Only gypsy moths.

Kyle:

I am stuck in the soul crushing early 20s hell that is intern slavery and I need some help making cheap food that doesn't make me want to give up and move back into my parents house so I can eat like a real human being.

I don't think there's a magic-bullet solution to the misery of trying to both A) eat, and B) be poor at the same time. The closest I can get is to encourage you to make the best of the shit you can get cheaply. So, first of all, buy the biggest bag of plain white rice you can fit into your hovel, because you're going to eat a lot of it. I sure hope you're not diabetic.

Buy cheap animal proteins and adapt your cooking to their particular traits. For example, you can get all the bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs in the industrialized world for, like, 10 bucks; the great thing about these is that they taste better than all other things; the worst thing about them is that roughly 97% of their matter takes the form of fat, which will convert to liquid grease the instant they are exposed to any heat warmer than the inside of your refrigerator. So, instead of discarding that rich, delicious, calorie-dense fat, make use of it! Season one chicken thigh with salt and pepper and sauté it in a skillet with a teaspoon of oil until it's cooked through and the skin is crispy; remove the chicken; cook some plain non-fancy mushrooms and roughly-chopped garlic (both of which are cheap) in the five gallons of leftover fat; plate the chicken on one cup of cooked white rice; pour the mushrooms and garlic (and liquid fat) over the chicken; squeeze a lemon wedge over the whole thing; eat. That's less than two bucks' worth of really fucking tasty and filling food, right there. Stick the rest of the lemon in a plastic bag. Bag the rest of your chicken thighs in individual sealable sandwich bags and freeze 'em. Repeat as needed.

That's just one example. Another thing to do is familiarize yourself with dried beans. It only takes a tiny quantity of aromatics (onions, garlic, etc.), seasonings (salt, pepper, spices, etc.), and liquid (water, broth, beer, whatever, probably not urine) to turn a cup of dried beans into a genuinely hearty and satisfying meal that can be prepared under nearly any bridge in the United States for about a dollar.

You'll have to plan ahead. You'll have to be creative. And you'll have to take your employers to the Supreme Court to advocate for a fair wage and labor protections. No sweat.

Jolie:

I made popcorn earlier today and only, like, half my kernels popped. It was sort of sad for me! But not really the greatest tragedy ever since I have more popcorn kernels in my home than I think I could use in a lifetime. Anyway! I think what happened is that the popcorn is old? Is that ... a thing that happens?

Method-wise, I heated 1 tablespoon of canola-ish oil plus one kernel in my enameled cast iron dealie, put a lid on it, waited until the one kernel popped and then added the rest of the kernels.

[makes infuriating knowing smile, nods like an asshole]

Then I waited, as one does, for the pop-pop-popping and then the slowing down of the pop-pop-popping. But there really wasn't enough popping and when I checked under the lid the popcorn that had popped was starting to burn

[continues nodding and smiling]

[fills you with murderous rage]

so I took it off the heat and let it go a little longer in the lidded, hot pot and yet still! Far too high a kernel to popcorn ratio.

So, the problem here, as I cleverly deduced one sentence into your second paragraph and then used to congratulate myself while allowing you to continue explaining because I am a smug asshole, is that you added your kernels to hot oil, which caused the early-poppers to pop immediately and burn before the late-poppers had a chance to heat up and pop.

You see (oh man, I am just gunning for maximum superior-asshole-ness here), the thing is (drawing out the explanation to make you really furious), not all popcorn kernels are exactly the same (he says, following his lengthy, needless, patronizing preamble with a statement of such bald obviousness that your mind is filled with nothing but visions of thermonuclear mushroom clouds). Some of them want to pop right away, and others like to take their time. This is why the correct way to pop popcorn in a pot is to add the kernels to cold oil in a single layer, then turn the heat on and bring them to popping gradually: So that they will all heat at the same rate and the late-poppers will be close to popping by the time the early-poppers start doing their thing. When you dump a bunch of kernels into oil already hot enough to pop popcorn, they're not all hitting the oil at the same time, which means they're not all heating at the same rate, and the oil is hot enough that, as soon as the early-poppers pop, they're going to start burning. And then they're burnt before the late-poppers pop and then half your popcorn is burnt and the other half isn't popped and you have failed and must move back home to North Dakota and work at your Uncle Marty's pharmacy counter.

So. Cold oil. Single layer. Gradual heat. Delicious popcorn! So glad I could help.

Also: may one use olive oil for the popping of popcorn?

OH GODDAMMIT JOLIE.

(Yes. In fact, you should use nothing else.)

Send your Feedbag questions to albertburneko@gmail.com.

Albert Burneko is an eating enthusiast and father of two. His work can be found destroying everything of value in his crumbling home. You can find lots more Foodspin at foodspin.deadspin.com.

Image by Jim Cooke.