(ARA) - If you like to cook, there's a pretty good chance you're doing more of it now. With the economy slowly recovering and families rediscovering the value of gathering around the dinner table, more people are skipping restaurants and honing their skills as home chefs.
In fact, 84 percent of Americans reported cooking or preparing a meal at least once a week, according to "The Masterbuilt Cooking Habits Survey," a national poll of U.S. consumers conducted in March 2010.
"It's clear that people are returning to the family dining table. When you think about it, it's the original social network," says John McLemore, author of "Dadgum, That's Good!," a cookbook of Southern recipes and family favorites from Masterbuilt, a leading cooking equipment manufacturer, that will be available in the fall. "There's nothing quite as satisfying as sharing your news of the day with family or friends over a home-cooked meal. That builds real community."
Perhaps you find yourself among those placing more emphasis on family dinners and cooking at home. If so, there are a few easy ways to improve your cooking chops, impress your family and bring more flavor and variety to your table.
"When you entertain, you want variety. You want to increase the number of ways food can be enjoyed, whether it's meat, seafood or vegetables. The best kind of meal is one that has a little bit of everything," says McLemore.
Here are a few ways to add a little kick to your meals at home:
Find recipes, learn from recipes
Undoubtedly, you have your favorite recipes that you like to follow. While it's easy to cook what you know well, expand your horizons through reading new cookbooks and seeking out recipes online; you may get ideas on how to expand on dishes you already know well.
Spice things up, literally
Expanding your use of spices and herbs is the easiest way to add flavor to dishes. And if you buy spices and herbs in bulk, as opposed to prepackaged containers, they are usually fresher and less expensive. You may find that certain spices go well with just about anything you cook. Fresh herbs like garlic can add a ton of flavor and won't add much extra preparation time.
If you have foods that you are really into, try different ways of preparing them. There are plenty of different ways you can prepare meat, including frying, broiling and grilling, and a variety of different spices that go well with each. If you love preparing turkey or chicken, you might want to consider adding a countertop-safe turkey fryer to your kitchen, for a different type of flavor.
Don't just reheat leftovers, rethink them
If you cook up a whole turkey, consider doing more than putting the rest in the fridge only to be reheated later. Instead, find a recipe for a salad or pasta that features that type of meat for the next night.
Sometimes all it takes to make a recipe go from good to great is adding a sauce. If you're looking for a place to start, try this unique barbecue sauce recipe from Masterbuilt.
Alabama BBQ Sauce
1 cup mayonnaise
1 cup cider vinegar
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 tablespoon black pepper
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
Mix mayonnaise, vinegar, lemon juice, black pepper, salt and cayenne pepper together. Refrigerate for at least eight hours before using. Brush lightly over chicken, turkey or pork during the last few minutes of grilling or smoking.