Monday, February 7, 2011

In Which I Decide To Learn How To Cook. Again.

Once upon a time, a long long time ago, there lived a young woman who loved to cook. She made her own bagels, whizzed up enormous batches of homemade gazpacho, smooshed up garbanzo beans by the pound for hummus... She cooked. She had her own Cuisinart and KitchenAid and cast iron pans and stove-top waffle maker. And she used them all.

The young woman got a little older, started working at a culinary school's restaurants, and completely coincidentally started dating aspiring chefs. And she started cooking less. And by the time she got married to a man who, while not an aspiring chef, just so happened to love cooking, she'd stopped altogether.

Many A number of A few years passed. The no-longer-young woman had a family. And one day, she realized that all she cooked was breakfast. She did make a few sporadic stabs at baking. But really, it was breakfast or nothing. Her husband would leave for a business trip, and she would provide breakfast for dinner to her offspring. Pancakes, eggs, french toast, hash from leftovers. Breakfast. All the time.

And then she further realized that back when she did cook, her repertoire was almost entirely vegetarian. Not because of some principled stance against meat, but because meat is expensive and the woman in question was and remains cheap thrifty.

So, she decided it was time to learn to cook. Again. Now with meat!

But where to begin? How to begin? She decided to drop the third person and appeal to her invisible readers:

Peeps, if you were going to tackle (re)teaching yourself to cook, what would you do? I'm not about to work my way through Mastering the Art of French Cooking; I just want to learn to roast chicken and make, I don't know, pot roast. Ham. A turkey dinner. Classic home cooking first. The French can wait.

But who to emulate? JuliaMartha? Mark Bittman? James Beard? Irma Rombauer? The dedicated food nerds at America's Test Kitchen? Elizabeth David? Ruth Reichl? MFK Fisher? Nigella Lawson? Saint Alton Brown? Where to begin?

Seriously. Where should I begin? Where did YOU begin?


Anonymous said...

America's Test Kitchen. Yes!

And then you can move on to the fancy stuff. Easily.

Cate said...

I have The Joy of Cooking and the Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook (the one with the red gingham cover) as my go-to books for basic stuff.

I find her incredibly annoying, but Rachel Ray has a lot of good recipes that are in regular rotation here. And many of them are adaptable. I'm not particularly adventurous, but I modify her recipes all the time.

I've heard good things about Bittman but never read it myself.

rundeep said...

I too, married a cook. I am the proud owner of hundreds of cookbooks, many of which I have even read.

Any of those you mention are fine -- BIttman is a terrific basic cookbook. But it depends on how you like to eat. In my house, Mediterranean is beloved most of all. French and Italian accents. So our go-to cookbook authors are Patricia Wells (who is a fine writer and a clear, short, marvelous writer of well-tested recipes) and Marcella Hazan, because, dang it, she's Marcella. Pick any book by any of them and it will go well.

Other great sources -- Food and Wine Magazine (few recipes have more than 5 steps and mostly normal ingredients) and Cooking Light (which is not really all that light unless you restrict portion sizes to the amount that fits in your teaspoon.)

TT Vanilla said...

I see someone beat me to Marcella Hazan. Her son, Giuliano, has some nice updated ones (I have "classic pasta" and "every night Italian"). My all time favorite pasta recipes come from his books.

Micmacker said...

Dear Tia,
Stop worrying about all the fancy cooking, get over yourself, and throw a nice organic chicken in the oven. It's best if you have someone else purchase the chicken so you don't see the price. And here is my sister's one invaluable cooking tip, learned from bitter experience: don't forget to remove the packet of guts.

Anonymous said...

Tia -- I'm with micmacker. Get a whole chicken, rub it inside and out with olive oil, salt, and various herbs that you like and throw it in the oven until it's done. Maybe even slice up some apples, onions, and garlic to roast in the pan with it. Delicious!

Grace said...

Roast chicken: Remove plastic bag of guts. Put puddle of oil in bottom of (preferably glass) pan. Shake pepper, paprika, thyme and rosemary all over chicken. Lay it in the pan, drumsticks up, and put a pat of butter in each thigh crease. Stick it in the oven at 350 for 75 minutes. Baste every 15 minutes. Will last an adult and a four-year-old for at least three dinners, plus yummy chicken breast for sandwiches if (like me) you like the dark meat for dinner.

I learned to make this when I was 13. We call it "chicken 101" in my family. If you want to get fancy you can throw some garlic and a cut-up lemon into the pan.

Meatloaf: Moosh together 1.5 lb ground meat, 1/3 c. parmesan cheese, 2 T. each milk and tomato paste, and some rosemary, thyme, salt, pepper and parsley. Four-year-olds can have a blast getting their hands dirty doing the mooshing. Lump it all together into a rough oblong shape, dump it into a pan with a little oil on the bottom, and bake at 350 for 50 minutes. If you want to get a little fancier, you can make meatballs out of it, roll them in breadcrumbs, brown them in a pan, and then bake in the oven in a covered dish, immersed in a sauce consisting of the rest of the can of tomato paste plus water to bring it to a reasonable consistency, basil, oregano, and more parsley, pepper and thyme.

As you can probably tell, I don't do much cookbook cooking (I rely on What My Mother Taught Me!), but I do LOVE the cooking memoirs of Laurie Colwin, Home Cooking and More Home Cooking, which contain tons of easy recipes as well as lots of amusing anecdotes.

Good luck!

Grace said...

P.S. The one cookbook I DO rely on is the Joy of Cooking. We have an edition from (I think) the mid-70s - before the son/grandson got involved, anyway.

tia said...

Laurie Colwin and Patricia Wells sound like two authors I need to read. (Because that's generally what I do with cookbooks. Read 'em.) Giuliano Hazan, too.

We eat all kinds of stuff. Chinese, French, Italian, Indian (all courtesy of Tom). I just want to gain competence with the basics. Since I've got most of the cookbooks I linked to, I think I'll do a little reading (and then buy me an organic chicken to experiment on).

Thanks, friends!

Micmacker said...

p.s. Ask MiHae for her chicken pot pie recipe, for roast chicken leftovers.

Cat said...

First off, invest in one of those computerized thermometers with a timer, the ones where the probe is on a long cord and the display sits outside of the oven. WEP!!! I have not ruined a piece of meat since then.
As far as turkey? Even though the brining can be a PITA, Alton Brown is the King of the Turkey.

Susan said...

You should aspire to that young you!! Can't get any better than you anyway :)

AG Ambroult said...

Yes...america's test kitchen is always good. I'd also suggest Alice Waters' The Art of Simple Food
Also, Real Simple always has good, easy recipes.

Cindy said...
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Cindy said...

I'm with Grace ... that roast chicken recipe is a great standard.

I have a veggie chili recipe that is in constant demand here. Super easy.

Artisan pasta makes my easy spaghetti sauce (also vegetarian) taste good. And a large chunk of parmesan on the table with a microplaner makes me look like a chef.

I like to keep lots of fresh lemons, limes and oranges on the island because I slice them open and squeeze them on everything. I'm a big believer in Vitamin C and it gives everything from chicken to salad a nice zing.

Also, I find having a box of organic chicken broth in the fridge at all times allows me to cook with less oil.

Joy of Cooking is my go-to book.

Meredith said...

Tia, I'm a bit late on this, but I find for pure inspiration nothing beats Nigella Lawson. She is great writing about the occasions for certain kinds of foods, from the making to the eating of them, for one thing. And for another, once I've read her recipe, I don't always want to make the food (maybe it's something I don't adore) but I feel like she's told me a good story. Feast is really good for all sorts of foods - not always a Thanksgiving-dinner sort of meal, either, don't let the name fool you.

And seconding the enthusiasm for Food & Wine - their magazine-style cookbooks (with no ads) are fantastic. Totally makeable, and worth the effort in the end.