Tag Archives: how to cook

Smashing the Culinary Ceiling, or How to Overcome Recipe Anxiety

19 Jan

No pretty pictures here, people.  Just the cold, hard, sometimes uncomfortable facts of how I got to be a better cook than I used to be.

Off and on, I spend time talking about becoming an automatic cook:  about letting go of fear, divorcing yourself from rigid recipes and having fun in the kitchen.  People seem to appreciate the sentiment, but I often get comments about how to do it:  Do you have to go to culinary school to become an automatic cook?  How do you learn the skills and techniques in order to become automatic?  How do you make that first leap from Recipe to No Recipe?

Well, here’s the thing, I can’t really answer those questions for y–No, wait!  Don’t go.  Please, stay, and let me ‘splain.  If you had let me finish what I was saying you would have heard me say “I can’t answer those questions for you; I can only tell you what worked for me.”  Everyone is differe–now, wait a minute. It’s not a cop out!  Sheesh, you’re pretty touchy.  Everyone is different.  We all have our strengths and weaknesses, both in and out of the kitchen.  My huge kitchen weakness is impatience.  Yours might be entirely different.

On top of our differences, we all have our own learning styles.  Some of us are visual learners–show us (or let us read about it), and we’re ready to go.  Other folks need to walk through the steps with someone who knows what to do.  These are the kinesthetic learners.  There are even auditory learners out there who can just hear a lecture about how to make a souffle and just go for it.  I am Not one of Those People.  But you might be.

So, the first step on the road to automaticity is knowing your learning style.  If you’re a visual person, learn by watching videos or reading cookbooks with lots of procedural photos.  If you’re kinesthetic, take a class or two and get your hands dirty.  Or open up your cook book and get your hands dirty.  If you’re one of those auditory folks, go to some cooking seminars.  You can also watch videos, too, especially if the person is good at explaining what they’re doing (and why) while they’re doing it.

None of this has to be expensive.  The Hinternets are full of free resources.  The Cyberworld practically bursts at the seams with Helpful Cooking Videos and Treatises.   Go borrow some DVDs and/or books at the library.  Find some classes in your area at a gourmet shop, community college or even at a cooking school or restaurant.  Just learn in the way that works best for you.

So, now I’m going to tell you about how I went from being Completely Tied to Recipes (and I mean completely) to being able to cook with what I have on hand, knowing it’ll turn out to taste good, if not fantastic.

Circa 1986
I had a wonderful friend in college, Kenny.  He loved my mom’s chocolate pound cake.  I decided to make him one when I was home one weekend.  Mom gave me her recipe, and I “followed it,” only to end up with runny, scary batter instead of the thick, creamy batter that she always turned out.  The problem?  I put all the eggs in at once and tried to mix them in.  I know that now, but then, I just figured that I was cursed and called my mom.  She told me that I had to put the eggs in one at a time.  Round 2 turned out just fine.  I didn’t really know why I needed to add the eggs one at a time, but I learned a valuable lesson:  knowing what to put in the bowl isn’t enough.  You also have to know how and in what order to put stuff in the bowl.  It’s also a good idea to know why.

Damn, I love me some Oodles of Noodles.

Collected all sorts of cook books–even the wee stapled ones at the check out at the grocery store.  I remember one time I wanted to make lemon chicken.  It had five ingredients.  I actually checked off the ingredients I needed as I purchased them.  During this time period, I a)made special trips to the store on many occasions to purchase silly stuff like 3 sprigs of mint or 1/2 teaspoon of sage.  Speaking of which, have you guys seen these?  Not a bad idea, just to get an idea of what flavors go together to evoke certain cuisines.  McCormick has a whole line of them.  I say, study them at the store and then buy the spices separately.

Another time, I wanted to make some chili–it had a billion ingredients in it, and I made sure that I had Every Single One, right down to infinitesimal amounts of herbs and spices.  That’s a long way from this:  How to Make Intuitive Chili.

Slowly, I began to notice patterns in recipes:  Lots of Italian recipes start with cooking down some onions and garlic in some oil.  Cajun recipes often start with either a roux or cooked down onions, celery and bell pepper (trinity) with maybe some garlic.  Many French stews start with cooking down some onion, celery and carrot with maybe some shallot.  Lots of Spanish recipes start with cooking down some onion, sweet and bell peppers, tomatoes and garlic.  I began to recognize the common themes running through recipes from the same culinary heritage.

How did I learn this stuff?  Well, I’m a visual learner–I’m a voracious reader, and I read every cook book I had from cover to cover.  I also obsessively watched PBS Cooking Shows, as far back as my Oodles of Noodles phase.  As a matter of fact, my roommate Jeff and I lived in a rickety blue house with no heat that was owned by a person who I believe might have had a side business of dealing in illicit drugs.  We had no heat and no cable TV.  So, all we had to do was huddle by the space heater and watch either Star Trek: Next Generation or PBS cooking shows.  Good times.  But I learned a lot from Nathalie Dupree, Marcia Adams, Justin Wilson, Jeff Smith (and poor old Craig), of course Julia, and Martin Yan.

I also experimented on Friday evenings by making the most difficult recipes I could find–usually from the annual Gourmet Magazine Cookbooks.  One time I made a chocolate-raspberry layer cake with whipped ganache filling and poured ganache glaze.  It took me Nine Hours.  And I didn’t get paid.

My Ah-Ha Moment
I am not a fan of the term “ah-ha moment.”  It sounds like Oprah, and while she’s great and all, her halo blinds us and makes us squint.  Never the less, I had Such a Moment in regard to cooking, and it changed Everything.  Seriously.

I decided I wanted some rice.  I had always made rice by adding 2 measured cups of water to 1 measured cup of rice, putting in one measured teaspoon of salt and 1/4 teaspoon of black pepper.  And a pat of butter.  One day, I saw Martin Yan show me that I could measure the liquid for the rice with my finger.  This meant I’d never have to measure again.  Hooray. But that wasn’t the Real Ah-Ha Moment.  This was:

One day, when making rice, I realized I had some coconut milk in the fridge that I needed to use.  Before I knew it, I was just tossing that coconut milk in there with a Damn the Torpedoes sort of abandon.  Next, I thought in my brain, “Jenni, you also own coconut.  It wouldn’t be so wrong to put some coconut in there, too.  Plus, you’ve had rice at Asian restaurants that is sometimes flavored with cloves.  Put a couple in.  You also know that folks in India lots of times put some sweet yummies in with savory items. Why not throw in some raisins?” Well, I’m not sure if that was the exact order, but the end result was creamy good rice with yummy raisins.  I threw in some chopped peanuts at the end, too.

Now, I’m not saying that this was a Show Stopping dish.  It probably wasn’t even a really good dish.  But, I can remember how I felt while I was making it.  I was scared and exhilarated at the same time.  It sounds kind of stupid, but if you’re passionate about cooking, you probably know the feeling.  I felt like I was on a trapeze without a net.  The cookbooks were all on the shelf, and I was just winging it, pulling in ideas from things I’d read and eaten that seemed to evoke “Eastern” to me.  Looking back, I’m not sure there is any cuisine whose hallmarks are coconut/raisin/peanut/clove, but I was very proud of myself.  And guess what?  The best part was that it tasted pretty good.  Okay, maybe the rice was a little overcooked, and maybe I hadn’t yet fully embraced the Power of Salt, but still, it was Not Bad At All.

And, like they say, the first time is always the hardest.  Since then, I’ve been trying to make connections between and among recipes.  I’ve given myself permission to play with flavors and to build flavor profiles based on previous eating and cooking experiences.  If something seems a little tart, I add some sugar.  If it seems a little bland, I’ll add some salt.  If it needs a green note, I’ll pull out some herbs.  Not hot enough?  I’ve got all sorts of hot sauces and ground peppers I can add.  I’ve come to look at recipes as ingredient lists and a list of techniques/methods for how to put those ingredients together.  That’s pretty liberating right there, let me tell you.

Even in baking, which has many more rules due to all that pesky chemistry, I find that I can alter “recipes” to my taste by introducing different spices, zests, extracts, liquids.  (If you’re not familiar with the Van Halen pound cake and all its iterations, go check it out).  I can even use different mixing methods for the same list of ingredients to get different results.  If I want a fairly sturdy cake, I’ll use The Creaming Method.  If I’m looking for a more tender cake, I’ll go with the Two-Stage Mixing Method.

And I think I’ll stop now.  I hope this helps you.  As you stand in your kitchen cooking, just think of me ruining my chocolate cake batter.  It will make you feel better.  And if a quiet little voice speaks up and says, “How about adding a bit of sage?”  go with it.

Another of my posts you might find useful.  It covers some of the same ground, but repetition is not a bad thing when it comes to building confidence:  Oh, Look What Has Come Around on the Guitar Again

All January ad revenue goes to Haitian earthquake relief.  Read more here.  Thanks.

My Cook Book Dilemma, Or Why Cook Books Make Me a Little Squidgy-Feeling These Days, Part: The Second

6 Aug

I wonder how many basic cook books actually focus on the hows and whys...

So, my best friend that I’ve never met, Linda, left a comment yesterday over on fb.  Here it is:

I love my cookbooks. I read them like novels. A really good cookbook writer brings much more to the party than merely recipes. You can learn the culture of countries, the history of their food and why certain peoples eat certain foods. I adore heirloom recipes and enjoy reading the memories associated with them. Call me sappy – I like knowing that the cake recipe presented was handed down from someone’s grandmother who was conducting a secret love affair with Calvin Coolidge and served him this particular cake post coitus.

As usual, Linda made me laugh and think.

And then, I received a comment on Ye Olde Blogge from Jessica.  Here’s what she said:

If you have any pointers to cookbook titles that actually explain the whys of different ingredients/techniques/etc I would be most obliged if you could share, I’ve been having a hard time finding cookbooks that don’t have exactly the problem you’re describing. And you should definitely consider writing a book! Forget the recipes, I just want a book about cooking techniques, I can find recipes a dime a dozen…

Okay, so here’s the dilemma:  I agree with Linda that cook books are an endless source of culinary and cultural history, but I also agree with Jessica that recipes are a dime a dozen and that basic cook books should focus on the science and process of cooking.

I love to read cook books that focus on a particular state, country or region.  I love to look at the beautiful, full-color photographs and drool and drool.  I own quite a few of those Coffee Table-type cook books, and I’m becoming reacquainted with them now that I’m finally Unpacking.  I’m still looking for the anecdote about the post-coital cake.  I will find it one day–maybe in the First Ladies’ Cook Book

I also have more than my share of basic cook books that cover everything from Soup to Nuts, as it were.  I already railed against BH&G for awhile yesterday for leaving so many questions unanswered.  For keeping us ignorant of the basics of cooking.  Sure, there’s a Glossary of Terms so I can look up sauté, but I can’t find what mirepoix or soffrito is or how to make one and why they are important.  I can look up weep and find out what it means, but it doesn’t tell me why it Happens.  And, get this one:  it tells me that a dash is 1/16 of a teaspoon and I can measure out a dash by filling a 1/4 teaspoon measuring spoon 1/4 full.  Seriously?!  If I measure any less than that, I might start splitting atoms and cause a Monumental Explosion.

Ahem.  On to Jessica’s question.  She wants to know if there are, indeed, any cook books out there that teach How to Cook as opposed to just What to Cook.  Aside from my as-yet-unwritten book, of course.

The answer is “yes.”  I will only comment on the books that I own, otherwise I’m not Being Fair.  For some great basic cook books that teach the hows and whys, try:

There might be others, but these are the ones that immediately come to mind.

I must be off now to Clean the House.  We are having some friends over for dinner, and I have made a Yummy Vegetabletarian Meal for them.  Because the wife is a Vegetabletarian, and I am nothing if not Accommodating.  Next up, the Mopping of the Floors and the Cleaning of the Bathrooms.  Yay.

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