Friday, July 21, 2006

Cooking for New Cooks (or How I Learned to Stop Being Afraid of the Kitchen)

Inspired by my friend Lucas and his love of kitchen gadgets, cookbooks and yes, Rachel Ray, I'm going to go out on a limb here and talk to those of you who are not so comfy in the kitchen.

Yes, there are some of us out there who aren't sure of our ability to make great tasting, healthy (or not), fabulous dishes and meals. I have always been pretty comfortable in front of the range; baking and cooking being strong suits of mine from a very young age when I would mimic Julia Child making pancakes for my parents. Then again, I grew up watching the PBS morning cooking show lineup for years (between This Old House and The Victory Garden); The Frugal Gourmet, Madeleine Cooks, Julia Child - they were all my childhood heroes.

I think that the best way to overcome this lack of kitchen confidence is to just start small and build up to the grander dishes. Not everyone is going to be able to make a demi-glace or puff pastry or Black Forest Truffle Bundt Cake with Mascerated Rasberries and Creme Brulee Crust on their first time out (I've actually made this, SO freakin' good) but you can get there. I've been known to mess things up pretty badly myself (like forgetting to bring a prime rib roast up to room temperature from the freezer before roasting so that its still raw in the middle after 4 hours of roasting). To help you out I offer the following Top 10 Items You Must Accept To Learn How To Cook:

  1. You will make mistakes. Get over them.
  2. Sometimes things work out for the best when you make those mistakes.
  3. You never know until you try.
  4. Peanut butter and chocolate are NOT good together (sorry, just had to sneak that one in).
  5. Burnt things are not to be called "Blackened", they are BURNT. Throw it out and try again.
  6. Roasting is super easy, poaching even easier - if you can't do one, do the other.
  7. Try making the things you know you already like and perfect them - don't waste your time (for now) on things you don't like.
  8. Don't try and become a chef overnight. It takes time and lots of practice to flip ingredients in a pan.
  9. Read the recipe ALL the way through and make sure you have everything before you start cooking.
  10. Enjoy yourself! What's the worst that can happen? If its crap, throw it out and call for pizza. You'll try again another day.

So, where does one start? With Rachel Ray? (Sorry, Lucas, NO.) You start with the basics. How to make a really nice vinaigrette is a good one. Learn to chop garlic, whisk together lemon juice or vinegar with olive oil, and if its crap - no big loss. See Item # 10.

Another good one to start with is an omelette. Its basically an egg pancake with something folded up inside. Just keep the heat on medium, stir it round with something flat until it gets hard to stir and eventually it will all cook. Plonk some stuff (like cheese, roasted red peppers from a jar, baby spinach, sliced ham or whatever). Fold one side over the filling and there you go. If it turns out that its too stiff to fold, just call it a fritatta when you slide it on the plate.

Why not try a bunch of roasted veggies? Cut them up however you like (keep them on the bigger side), put in a pan with a few glugs of olive oil, sprinkle with salt and roast at 400 degrees for a while until they're brown (check them after 20 minutes or so - but let them get BROWN. Seriously. BROWN.) Stir a few times and there you go. Peppers are good this way with onions, carrots and potatoes.

And finally, for my friend Lucas, fish is one of the easiest things to make - even if you don't know how. Don't worry about breading and frying, baking or roasting. Poach it. Bring up some water with a few slices of carrots, onions, celery and parsley (whole, don't chop it) to a boil (big bubbles) and then turn the heat down to a simmer (little bubbles, no big ones) in a large frying pan. Slide in your fish fillets and cook for about 5 minutes (or a little longer if its a REALLY thick piece of fish). Turn off the heat and leave in there while you make your vinaigrette, toss the salad, open a nice bottle of wine and slice some bread. Then take the fish out and put on your plate. Plop some salad on the plate, put the fish over top and drizzle with your vinaigrette. The fish will be nice and cooked - add some butter on top if you like, a bit of salt and pepper and eat. Very quick, easy and tasty (and looks damn impressive too!).

But now you want more? More you shall have. Get thee to (or .ca, whichever) and start searching for beginner cookbooks. Most of the books seem to be a bit patronizing but they are generally pretty good. The Dummies series has never let me down yet when I wanted to learn something - I can't see this being any different. If you need to see them online, go to the actual bookstore and look at them. Sit down and read them a bit and see if they make sense to you. And if Rachel Ray is the best you can do, well, then do it. If she gets you cooking then I guess she can't be all bad. Just don't you dare stop there. I hereby give a 6 month pass for newbie cooks to read and watch Ms. Ray - then NO MORE. Don't make me come over there and break a spatula over your hand!

Finally, think of cooking as learning to ride a bike. You had a hard time doing it at first, you may even have fallen off and hurt yourself. But once you figured it out and learned to steer, pedal AND have fun - you never forgot how to do it. Its the same with cooking. Once you learn that ingredients are just like wheels, the heat of the stove like pedalling and riding really is like cooking - you WILL have fun doing it.


At 3:35 p.m., Anonymous Matt said...

*LOL* For some, I guess Rachel Ray is a gateway drug to the harder stuff, eh? ;)

BTW, for those looking for a great intro book for Chinese cooking, I can recommend two: Martin Yan's Quick & Easy, and The Essential Wok Cookbook.

You should be able to get both at Chapters, and I have little doubt you can get Martin Yan's book elsewhere. The Wok book might be harder to find, since it's considered a "bargain book", but it's got really nice pictures, and lots of fairly simple dishes.

At 9:16 p.m., Blogger Eric said...

Hey Matt! Thanks for the added comments on Chinese cooking! If I get time this weekend I'll pop into Indigo and check them out (I want to compile a list of books for beginners that I would consider good and those that I would consider, well, less than good...

Hope you're doing swell!!

At 9:59 a.m., Blogger lucas mirĂ© said...

Thanks for all of the tips, Eric! I'll start weening myself from the Rachel Ray immediately! :-)

At 12:32 p.m., Blogger Eric said...

If you start weaning yourself from the Rachel Ray, I'll wean myself from the James Blunt...
They have a commercial in VERY heavy rotation for her new talkshow starting this fall. GROSS me out...

At 9:36 p.m., Blogger Ostara said...

The first time I cooked for company in my condo, I exploded a stoneware plate and set the linoleum floor on fire! Yes, I am afraid. But working through it. (And it was a good excuse to install an updated and stylish tile floor. LOL)

I like your new blog, Eric. Now that the local farmers' markets are in full swing, I'm finding lots of fresh fruit and veggies to inspire me to start cooking again.



At 11:13 p.m., Blogger Eric said...

Cheryl! I'm so happy to see you found me here!
Don't you dare be afraid of cooking - I'll help you out any time you like!
I really wish I had more of a farmer's market that I could get to with ease - the St. Lawrence is fine and the North Market is great - but talk about not cheap! I know the one at Nathan Phillips Square is pretty good too, but its kinda hard to get to for those of us who don't work next to it. Oh well, here I'm complaining about farmer's markets! In the city! LOL

Keep on cookin'!


At 11:59 p.m., Blogger Ostara said...

I'll help you out any time you like!

You may live to regret that! LOL

I had the best cold cucumber soup today...and am now on a quest. Details at stillpoint -- recipes welcome!

Must get me some of that Zardetto prosecco you wrote about, too. Sounds good. :-)



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