January 23, 2007

Training for a cooking marathon

So, I've been spending much of my spare time thinking about HK's dilemma.

Adventurous when it comes to food.

Not much experience with cooking.

Decent-sized kitchen.


It's got the makings of a reality TV show, I tell you.

Anyways, here's my first and most ambitious suggestion: I figure it takes about a 6 months to a year to build up the base and a solid 18-20 week commitment to run a marathon. HK knows this. So, if I were him, I'd approach his cooking goals with the same attitude. I'd give myself 6 months for the basics and then an 18-20 week intense period of time for training, after which, I'd be a full-fledged home cook with lots of experience and useful recipes under my belt. Ideally, he'd schedule a big meal for family or friends as his "marathon" and tell us all about it, but perhaps I'm a bit ahead of myself?

A more reasonable suggestion, and one that perhaps lines up more readily with his request for subtle (not overwhelming) aid, would be to acquire one of the following and use it at will to develop his skills:

1. The Better Homes and Gardens Ring Bound Plaid Staple. It's a classic. My mother used it. My friends' mothers used it. It's updated and at $29.99 it's a steal. I guarantee it will meet the expectations of any beginning cook who needs to understand what they are doing and find recipes for their favorites.

2. Irma S. Rombauer's Classic: The Joy of Cooking. Yes, another classic. Food has been part of human existence for as long as we've been surviving. So, I stand by my preference for the classics. This is the *other* book that my mother and all of my friends' mothers turned to.

3. Women's Day Encyclopedia of Cookery, circa 1966. See, despite my recommendations, I don't actually own the BHG or the JOC. Instead, I refer constantly to these gems, left to my by my maternal grandmother. If you want to know the history of any food you eat, it's in here. Want to know the millions of ways you can prepare a fig? You got it. Interested in Danish food? Look under D, there's a whole sub-cook-book. Many of the articles are authored by James Beard. Any type of food you can think of, there will be multiple simple recipes on how to prepare it. Bang for the buck, this is probably the best option out there for aspiring home cooks. But, then again, HK said he's a *single* 28M. Perhaps he doesn't want a collection Women's Day Encyclopedias on his counter...(they are, however, very urban, angsty, hipster, retro, chic, much to my chagrin.)

4. How to Cook Everything by Mark Bittman. At $14.95, it's even harder to argue with than BHG. I own it and I will admit than every recipe I have tried from it has absolutely acceptable. No disasters. No high-effort likely-to-fail stressful endeavors. Solid and Good.

5. Subscribe to Food and Wine, Bon Apetit or some other foody magazine. At $12 or so for the year, this is another steal. You can mark recipes you like with sticky notes and keep them forever. I did this for two years while I was developing my cooking knowledge. To this date, I have probably only managed to complete about 20% of the recipes I marked as "to prepare." Even when I didn't mark the recipes as "to prepare," I still read them to determine if they made the cut. The act of reading recipes and stories about travel/culture/food (my version of porn) educated me and kept me interested as I was learning more and cooking. If you fear you will lose interest and you like the idea of a monthly reminder, I would actually recommend this as a first approach. Promise yourself that you will make 4 recipes from each issue. Mark 'em and go to the store and buy the exact ingredients and follow the steps. At the end of the year, you'll have acquired an immeasurable amount of knowledge about your food preparation likes & dislikes, as well as how to work your oven, use ingredients, etc.

In using these resources, I would recommend the following approach:

1. Soups: learn to make at least 2 from memory. They are a staple in any healthy diet and one of the easiest things to modify with random stuff from the pantry and fridge. I recommend you pick your two favorite soups and learn to make them. If you don't have a blender or cuisinart, stay away from puréed soups and go for chunkier ones.

2. Vegetable side dishes: try out several and determine your style. Memorize and become completely familiar with at least 2.

3. Meat dishes. Depends on your orientation. I tend to think that since meat is one of the more expensive raw materials you can use in the kitchen, I'd leave it for last on the list of things I'd experiment with. That being said, I didn't *really* get into cooking 'til I bought 2 cases of cooked wine (stupid webvan.com and their un-airconditioned warehouse over the summer!) and had to find a way to use it, which meant a year of cooking meat and impressing people. Turns out, it's not that hard and damn, do people like a well-prepared meal of meat (particularly if it's in a wine sauce). I recommend a simple black-pepper steak, filet mignon, pork chops over some sort of greens, and lamb chops as options that are fairly simple and designed to impress if you get 'em right. Any of the basic recipe sources listed above should have instructions on how to prepare each of these.

4. Pasta dishes. Seriously. Master 1 or 2 pasta dishes from scratch, starting with good pasta in the box (like Barilla). Easy to do. Guaranteed to smell awesome. A good place to start if you are skittish about your cooking skills -- they will build your confidence.

5. Rice. Risotto. Stir-fry. Rice-based soups. Pick one or more. Learn how to do one or two versions as a staple. You will be happy you did.

6. Salads. Everyone should know how to walk into the produce market and buy 5 fresh ingredients to make a salad that is delicious. The trick is learning to make your own dressing from scratch and choosing fresh in-season ingredients that compliment each other. This is a great place to start if you are concerned about burning things. Make a great salad, serve it with artisanal bread, nice olive oil for dipping and an artisinal cheese with a complimentary wine and all of a sudden you look like a gourmet cook despite the lack of any and all cooking.

7. Baking. I came to baking late in life. It's comfort food. It's much less forgiving than other kinds of cooking. And, it's very much appreciated. Bake your own pizza crust for home-made pizza, for example, and all of a sudden, the act of cutting up some pre-purchased ingredients and laying them on some pre-purchased sauce (unless you want to make it from scratch, which I recommend, but still, work with me here) becomes inspired. People rave. Similar responses are available for things like Brownies, home-made breads, cookies, cakes. I say let your appetite be your guide in this area and be sure to follow the recipes EXACTLY. In soups, rice, pastas, vegetable side dishes, salads, and even to some extent meat, you can improvise. But with baking: No. Just be a conformist. It tastes better that way.

8, 9, 10. In my opinion the whole point of cooking is to satisfy your own basic desires. So pick some 3 dishes you love and learn to make them. Best case scenario, they will become your signature dishes. Worst case scenario, the recipe may be WAY TOO MUCH WORK and you may never make it again. But I guarantee you will enjoy it that much more when you order it at a restaurant (I feel this way about any seafood cake after making salmon cakes). What is likely to happen, however, is that in the course of making them, you will learn more about how to combine things in the kitchen in the style that you like. You may never make that exact recipe again, but in doing it the one time you'll acquire knowledge that will make you a great improvisational cook in the style of food you enjoy.

HK (and anyone else who finds this useful), I can't wait to hear about your successes in the kitchen!

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