February 26, 2014

Kitchen Secrets

Born and raised in a family of all girls, where the only boys in my life were my boy cousins and/or friends, I never once questioned the fact that it is a lady's job to cook. A man's job to enjoy the food we cook. 

hmmm. what shall I cook tonight?

Oooooohhhhh. Stirrin' the pot now! 

Yep. For whatever reason I completely shut out the idea that men could cook. The idea of men actually enjoying cooking was flat out laughable. I mentioned this to my parents several years ago during a visit home from college. At my bold assumption, my dad was horribly offended. He had prepared dinners for us every single Sunday night since we were little! What made me think men couldn't cook? 

Well, that was just it. Dad only cooked for us because my mom, sisters and I all went to church Sunday (or sometimes Saturday) evenings. My dad, not being Catholic, chose to stay home and help the family by preparing dinner. I noticed my mom would give him pretty easy recipes to prepare. He generally had a rotating schedule: enchiladas, roasted chicken, chicken kiev, spaghetti, and anything on the grill. So, from my perspective, my dad didn't want to cook. He just helped out so we could go to church. (very much appreciated, Dad. Thank you :) All outside perspectives continued to prove that men either could not or did not want to cook. Whenever we visited my extended family, only the women cooked. My aunts, my grandmas, my mom, me... The men stayed far, far away from the kitchen. 

I was also raised in a culture where the children helped out around the house as soon as they could reach (except when it came to laundry. For whatever reason my mom insisted on always doing the laundry herself). When it was time to cook, all one needed to do was pull up a stool and voila--big enough to help cook. I do not have a "first" memory of cooking. I'm sure I was helping in the kitchen as soon as I could stand. It was an activity that would keep me busy while allowing my mom to keep her eye on me. Smart lady. Needless to say, I have always known how to cook. And I had a strong example to learn from. My mom was--and still is (better say that out loud just to make sure she'll still feed me when I visit ;-)--a pretty darned good cook. 

I'll bread some chicken...


She taught me how to follow recipes, and unintentionally many techniques one might need when making those various recipes. For example, don't shake your cup of flour (or sugar, or any dry ingredient) people. Level it off with the back of a knife. Don't tap the cup either. Keep the flour fluffy. This accurate measurement will ensure you have the appropriate density in your dough. No one likes to eat bricks. After all that time cooking with my mom and the basic techniques under my belt, I went to college fully prepared to cook for myself.

Pan fry in butter. Mmmm.

I stuck to recipes that I knew well. Those that I had tasted countless times growing up so that I could always have an end goal for my own attempts. Occasionally, rarely would try new recipes. I can only remember one that ended up being a "success," that is to say was worth repeating. That recipe was a stir fry with veggies, cashews and a pomegranate teriyaki sauce. Mmm. The other experiments? Definitely not worth repeating. Bland or dry. That was usually the outcome that knocked these recipes off the list. It took several not-worth-repeating experiments to help me realize that some recipes are just, well, bad recipes. We've all had experiences like this, yes? We think we've found a new great recipe to try. The picture looks just spectacular, tantalizing your taste buds. So you give it a whirl. Follow the directions ever so closely. Double checking your measurements. When it finally comes out of the oven (or off the stove), you take a bite. And wish you hadn't. Yeah. Sometimes, recipes are just gross.

My mom would try new recipes when we were kids. And, she did have "failures." I never thought my mom screwed up, though. Rather, the recipe was just a bad recipe. After dinner she would make a little note next to the recipe "not good." Very polite. Nothing too judgmental. Simply put, tried it once--don't make again. I look back fondly on her experiments. I can remember seeing her handwriting next to different recipes. Perfect cursive. Calm. Neat. No huge "X" marks through the entire recipe. 

Popped the browned chicken in the oven...

I, on the other hand, cannot stand making a bad recipe. I feel like I wasted money on the ingredients. I wasted time and energy cooking something that ultimately was not worth the calories. I do not write "not good" neatly next to that recipe. I cross it out. I tear it out. I write in big, block letters--DO NOT MAKE AGAIN: GROSS. Sometimes I even double underline just to make doubly sure I don't mistakenly skip over my note and try making the recipe again. 

...while I make me some sauce!

In my four years of marriage, I have continued to experiment. And from those four year I can point to some epic failures. I remember my first one. Oh boy, I literally threw my hands up and screamed in frustration about my failure. Yes. I was a mature, married woman. Don't you dare question that. I made lentil chili. Well, at least I thought I was making lentil chili. See, my mom's recipe is really quite good. That's an understatement. It is out of this world. I don't care to deviate from it. So I thought that her recipe was the recipe included in our family cookbook. I filled my pot with water, consciously questioning how MUCH water was called for in the recipe. It seemed excessive. Like three quarts excessive. But I ignored my instincts and experience. I proceeded with the recipe anyway. Dumb. Dumb. Dumb. In the end, the "chili" was water with lentils. 

This really was a dumb mistake because now I read that recipe and immediately realize there are several mistakes. First of all, the recipe calls for yes, far too much water. Even if I were to just cook the lentils aside from making a chili, too. much. water. Next, not enough seasoning in the recipe to add any flavor whatsoever. No garlic. No onion. No salt. NO SALT. What??? Just a few herbs. And for the amount of water in this recipe the amount of herbs called for needed to be increased by at least three. Wow. Riles me up all over again just thinking about this.  
More butter

Simmer until reduced by half

Remove from heat, add more butter. Love me some French cooking.

If I had the knowledge, experience and the expanded repertoire of cooking techniques that I have now, perhaps I wouldn't have tried this recipe. In the four years later after the incident, I have fine-tuned my ability to filter recipes. For the most part I can tell if a recipe will be a success or not before trying it. Thank goodness! Saves me so much time and angst and money and, well. It just saves me! What are these tips and tricks you ask? Oh, I have been just itching to share them with you. So. Ladies and gents (yes, I'm including the gents because I have come into the 21st century and realized that gents really can love to cook. Furthermore, not all ladies like to cook. Mind-blowing!)...

Voila. Lemon Chicken Piccata. 

Elizabeth's 5 Secrets to Finding a Good Recipe:

1) Know what flavors you (and your family) like. David is a ZERO TOLERANCE guy when it comes to mushrooms. And generally onions (my grandmother's home-canned tomato sauce recipe is pretty much the only exception. Good job, grandma :). David also does not care for super spicy or strong hints of mustard. When looking at recipes, I consider if the recipe would lack depth of flavor if I omitted onion. If not, the recipe is a maybe. If so, could I substitute with celery? I know I can reduce flavor elements easily as long as their properties do not affect the textural outcome. For example, I could not omit peanut butter from a Thai peanut sauce. But I could substitute it with say, cashew butter. The fat content of the two nuts are similar enough the final texture of the sauce would be the same.   

2) Be comfortable with all the recipe's ingredients. The number one lesson I always, always, always emphasized when I was a culinary instructor on the east coast: know. your. ingredients. If you don't know one or more of the ingredients, but the recipe still sounds enticing... Google it. What is it? What does it taste like? What is it used for or in? How do I prepare it? When I was pregnant with Samuel I could not get enough of the hot, hot, hot foods. Nothing was hot enough. I loved the taste, the feeling on my tongue. Yum. Near the end of our relocation on the east coast, I found a one-pot recipe for Chipotle Chicken and Rice I wanted to try. The ingredients were all super simple: rice, chicken, garlic, tomatoes, lime, seasonings, and chipotle peppers in adobo sauce. Oh man. Everything was smelling scrumptious as I prepared the pot. The last ingredient to add was the peppers. They smelled heavenly. Sweet, smokey, rich in flavor. Not having ever worked with chipotles before, I decided to follow my gut rather than do my research. Peppers are peppers. I knew what I was doing. The recipe called for two peppers. But surely, for this whole pot that wouldn't be enough! So I added three and dumped in some extra adobo. Mmmm. Smelled soooooo good. Until a hour later when I took a bite. Oh. My. Goodness. When I said I couldn't get enough heat, I was wrong. If I had simply taken 5 minutes to Google "chipotle peppers" then perhaps I would have known that they are dehydrated jalapenos. Two peppers would have been plenty hot to begin with.   

3) Consider the proportions. There are standard ratios of seasoning to liquid, or flour to fat to liquid. Ratios are the root to all recipes. I have observed and ingrained what proportions will work well for yeast breads, stocks, marinades, etc. and can imagine how a recipe will turn out by reading the amounts of each ingredient needed. If you want to be very technical, or if you need more straightforward direction in learning about ratios, check out Michael Ruhlman's book, Ratio: The Simple Codes Behind the Craft of Everyday Cooking. I never learned the specific ratios. In fact, I just Googled "recipe ratios" which led me to that book. Maybe I'll read it and further improve my culinary skills. :) 

4) Visualize the recipe as you read it. Imagine the flavors. Imagine how it will look. When you do this, you can better anticipate mistakes and prevent them. Last week I attempted Chicken Cordon Bleu for the first time. Ever. I read four different recipes before concluding how I was going to make the dish. Each recipe had a different method. Each recipe had pretty similar ingredients and proportions, though I learned that Chicken Cordon Bleu has room for interpretation. As I read each recipe I visualized how I would prepare the chicke:. a) Pound it flat to roll ham and Swiss inside, pin closed with tooth picks, roll in flour, egg, then breadcrumb. Ugh, that would be annoyingly time consuming; b) Place chicken in dish, layer with ham, Swiss and sprinkle with breadcrumbs. Flavors are there, the traditional roll was not; c) Cut a slit in each chicken breast. Roll grated Swiss inside a piece of ham. Stuff the ham roll inside chicken breast. Roll in flour, egg, breadcrumb. Bingo. The last option was the best option for my cooking abilities--authentic, but simplified.   

5) Continue to learn new techniques. As with any skill, the more your refine your technique, the more likely you will be able to visualize how you will achieve your goal; in this case, be able to filter through the good and not-so-good recipes. Currently, I'm trying to find a good recipe to prepare short ribs. I've never cooked short ribs before, so I'll need to learn a new technique. I've researched several recipes. I've read various methods. The conclusion? I want to braise them low and slow in the oven to end up with fall-off-the-bone meat. I've never braised before. That's when I turn to good ol' Michael Symon, the King of Meat. Wish me luck! 

BONUS: Know your limits. Does the recipe require you to make a cream sauce from a rue? If so, are you able to anticipate the need to baby-sit the sauce because the milk will burn if you forget to stir constantly? Do you have children scrambling at your feet preventing you from being able to stand at the stove for six-plus straight minutes? No? Then perhaps that mac-n-cheese isn't for you. Not tonight anyway. Instead, maybe a soup that simply requires you to toss in a number of ingredients and walk away. Ahhhh. That sounds nice. Your limits also include what cooking equipment you have available. Some recipes really do need to be made in a Dutch oven, not a stock pot. Sorry. The Dutch oven heats more evenly, preventing dry over-cooked meat on the bottom. Stock pots are great for well, stock, :) soup, and stew. I cook my lamb stew in the stock pot. Short ribs, on the other hand...I'll need a Dutch oven.  

1 comment:

  1. I fondly remember your wonderful cooking when we were roomies. :)