Tip of the Week: Writing in Cookbooks

Sur la Table recently released a series of online cooking classes, and to promote them, they offered a cooking basics course for free.  The course covered topics such as proper knife technique, how to use salt in cooking, how to perfectly cook chicken, and so on.  After watching the first session, I was hooked!  I took notes while watching and practiced in the kitchen over the next several days, and I feel the course was a tremendous help.

Only then did it occur to me:  although I cook almost every single day, and despite my improvements, I’m not continuously learning about cooking.  Yes, I’m getting plenty of hands-on experience; but there is still so much about cooking I don’t know, which means I have an endless amount of growing to do as a cook.  So each week, I will be sharing a tidbit I’ve learned about cooking–whether it is a simple, quick bit of advice, or a major tenet of culinary arts.

I read the following snippet of advice on the Epicurious website:

Write in your cookbooks.

Soup could have used more tomato? Chicken needed ten more minutes in the oven? Make a note of it and you’ll never make that mistake again.

This is something I have never—seriously, never—done. Yet I find myself making comments all the time like, “The vinegar is a little overpowering,” or complaining that the food took twice as long to cook as was stated in the recipe.

On the surface, this seems like a simple tidbit of advice for someone who uses recipes often. But for someone like me, this truly applies to cooking as a whole. Although my culinary skills have improved tenfold since I started this blog three years ago, I find I’m still lacking confidence when it comes to cooking without a recipe to guide me.

If I start jotting notes down in my cookbooks, it will not only help me the next time I cook that particular dish, but it will help me to recognize the things that make or break a meal. It will force me to consider how the different ingredients and their amounts work together and contribute to the final product. Usually I’m so focused on following the steps that I don’t really think about how each thing added really changes the recipe. By making notes in my cookbooks, I’m hoping this forces me to take a step back and analyze what I’ve learned by adjusting the recipe according to how it tasted.

What about you? Do you make notes in your cookbooks?

Cooking Zone of Familiarity: Missions for 2015

juliachildNo matter how much I improve in my cooking skills, I still have a list of dishes I’d really like to take a stab at, yet I am terrified to attempt. Unfortunately, I can’t seem to explain why I’m afraid of making them. Included in this list are:

  • Baby back ribs
  • Any kind of roast
  • A whole chicken or turkey
  • Anything “fried”
  • Lasagna
  • Homemade marinara sauce
  • Pie

I’ve finally admitted to myself that I’m trapped inside my comfort zone. I have no problem trying something new as long as it’s within the confines of what is already familiar to me. Well, that needs to change! There was a day when I was petrified of cooking chicken breasts, yet today I cook so much chicken I’m surprised my husband and I haven’t sprouted feathers. All I have to do is try. I might fail. I mean, it’s me we’re talking about—there is a good chance my first attempt will be humiliating and inedible. But once I’ve tried, that particular dish will have migrated into my Zone of Familiarity, and that’s when I can try again and improve.

The list above isn’t all-inclusive, but in 2015, I will attempt ALL of the items at least twice—once to become familiar with it, and twice to apply what I learned during my first attempt.

I’m starting with baby back ribs; they’re on my list for my trip to the grocery store today, and I already have my recipe picked out. Be on the lookout for a post in the next week or so!

For the rest of the items on my list, feel free to share your favorite recipes with me in the comments! I am going to OWN my kitchen in 2015!

One last thing, and I promise it’s the only time I’ll push it: I just started up a Facebook page for my blog, and every single follower means a lot to me. I’ll be sharing recipes, articles, and other miscellaneous cooking humor, so please take a peek. 🙂

One Last Lesson for 2014: Folding Fitted Sheets

One of my least favorite things to do is fold a fitted sheet.  I use the term “fold” loosely, because what I do with fitted sheets is better described as “roll into a ball and call it ‘close enough.'”

For years, I’ve told myself I’ll eventually educate myself on how to truly “fold” a fitted sheet.  With half a day to spare, I decided I would master it by the end of 2014!

I use the term “master” loosely, because what I managed is better described as “barely squeaked by and still needs practice.”

First, I should show you how I folded fitted sheets prior to December 31, 2014:

sheet.pngI found three videos online showing slightly different methods for folding fitted sheets, and I tried them all.  With the first one, I got off to a terrible start:

It took several minutes to accomplish this.

It took several minutes to accomplish this.

With the second one–from Martha Stewart, no less–I was such a failure I didn’t even bother taking a picture.  Sometimes you just have to save yourself a little dignity.

The third and final video I found was the one that finally did the trick.  Mind you, a two minute video equaled almost ten minutes to fold the damn sheet, but I got it done!  The first time I did it, my sheet looked like this:

Inner perfectionist:  please shut the f*$# up.

Inner perfectionist: please shut the f*$# up.

It was better than my usual results, but still looked a little lopsided.  So I unfolded the sheet about halfway and tried again, and I was finally pleased with the results.  Here is how I finally got it done:

sheet2.pngThere.  I will enter 2015 knowing the “proper” way to fold a fitted sheet.  Now I need to teach the husband how to do it, unless I feel like being the designated sheet folder of the house.  (Spoiler alert:  I don’t!)

Now I need to start a list of things to learn next year.  So far it includes cooking on the grill, making cat toys, and possibly (HUGE emphasis on “possibly”) knitting.  What kinds of things would you like to learn how to do in 2015?

I’m Baaaaaaack!

It’s my first post on this blog since 2012.  YES, 2012.  And I have to say, it’s like being reunited with an old friend.  I originally stopped posting because life was hectic and I felt I’d acquired an acceptable knack for cooking.

Well, life isn’t so hectic anymore since I finished my second bachelor’s degree (mark my words:  NO MORE COLLEGE DEGREES).  What I’ve learned since my last post is that cooking–though less comical and disastrous–is still a talent that often escapes me.  But it’s not just the cooking.  It’s the whole “being an adult” thing.  I’m 29 years old, I’m married, I have a ten-year-old stepson, I have a real career, I’m a homeowner, and yet most of the time I still sit back and wonder what the hell I’m doing.  Replacing furnace filters?  Barbecuing?  Using Goo Gone to remove the hilariously large sticker that clung for dear life to our new trash can?  Pffff, not a clue.  Good thing I have a husband.

So.  I’m picking up where I left off, and I’m even expanding on my blog.  This will be my journal of sorts as I try to make sense of anything that happens under my roof that used to seem like a cakewalk until I became the responsible adult who had to deal with it.  Cooking, cleaning, pets, husbands, children.  Somehow I’m going to figure it all out.

It’s good to be back.

pretend

Carrot Chopping 101

Well.  I can roast a Cornish game hen, but I can’t dice a carrot.  This all ties back to the fact that when it comes to learning to cook, I’m doing crap in the wrong order.  I’m pretty sure I should have started with chopping carrots, moved on to bacon, and then tackled the Cornish game hens.  But that’s too much “logic” for this girl’s brain to handle.

Before we get to my carrot-chopping skills (or lack thereof), it’s important that you watch a video of a carrot being diced properly:

Beautiful, no?  But in the absence of culinary logic, I spent months chopping (if you can really call it chopping) carrots in a very poor manner before I thought to watch this video.  Behold, carrot-dicing a la Hope:

Note that within five seconds, I have nearly cut off my own hand.  (Yes, I still have all of my fingers.)  Not only have I been taking the dangerous route by not making a flat surface on the carrot, but my attempts at dicing carrots have always ended up in many unevenly-sized pieces:

I honestly can’t wait for the next time I have to dice a carrot.  I’m sure I can do so much better!

Sauce master

Okay, maybe I’m not at “master” status quite yet.  But I think I’m actually getting the hang of making sauces!  Tonight I made Chicken with Sun-Dried Tomato Basil Sauce, which made me nervous from the start because the “sauce” is so important it’s in the name of the recipe.  Against my nature, I took my time when getting the ingredients together.  I situated them neatly next to the stove and double, triple, and quadruple-checked them before I even thought about turning on the burner.  Another noteworthy feat:  I read the recipe close to ten times between preparing my mise en place and starting to cook.  I’ve never felt so prepared to cook a meal!

Saucy sun-dried goodness.

Tonight also marked my first time cooking with sun-dried tomatoes.  I love sun-dried tomatoes, but I’ve never cooked with them because I felt they were–silly as it sounds–out of my league.  They have always seemed to me an ingredient that only appears in “real” dishes prepared by “real” cooks.  I don’t know why.  Though I haven’t come far, I do feel I’ve come far enough in my cooking journey to use sun-dried tomatoes without feeling like a fraud.

Voila!

Backtracking

A few nights ago, I attempted a bechamel sauce for the second time and (gasp) didn’t destroy it!  I used a different recipe than the one I used the first go-around.  Though the recipes were very similar, there were a few slight differences between the two:

Recipe 1 Recipe 2
1.  Melt butter over medium-low heat 1.  Melt butter over medium heat
2.  Whisk in flour to creat a roux 2.  Whisk in flour to create a roux
3.  Add warm milk to roux and stir 3.  Add cold milk to roux and stir
4.  Stir frequently over medium-low heat for 5 minutes 4.  Stir frequently over medium heat until thick and bubbly

Once I had the “thick, bubbly” consistency the recipe called for, I added a boatload of mozzarella and turned the bechamel into a cream sauce that I poured over a bed of spaghetti, turkey kielbasa, and peas.  Hooray for a decent meal!

Bechamel failure no more.

Now that I know I can pull off a bechamel sauce, I’ve realized the doors that are open for me.  When I couldn’t even make a simple white sauce, I felt limited by anything that involved sauces in general.  I can only imagine what would become possible if I learned the other cooking “basics” that have always eluded my skills.  I’ve done some reading and come up with a master list of the things I MUST learn about cooking before I continue down my experimental path of culinary destruction:

-Blanching
-Braising
-Roasting
-Pan Roasting
-Poaching
-Clarifying Butter
-Bread
-Lasagna
-Marinades
-Risotto

Of course, the list of things I can (eventually) learn is endless.  But from what I understand, being able to do these things is a sure sign that a cook is ready to move on to things more complex.  Two days ago, I had never even heard of “blanching.”  Now, it’s a goal.  A milestone.

Naturally, I am not entirely free of blonde moments in the kitchen this week.  Just tonight, I chopped a jalapeno and, with the juices still on my hands, I licked my fingers and burnt the shiznit out of my lips.  Rather than heading to the sink to wash my hands, I whined about it and proceeded to rub an itch in my eye.  Nobody’s perfect, I guess…

Amateur chicken pounder: Part 2

First things first:  exciting news!  Heeding the advice of blog commenters and a couple of friends, I successfully sliced an avocado.  It wasn’t entirely mess-free, but a huge improvement over my first attempt.

So far, so good...

No more diarrhea-like avocado innards!

Then came last night’s dinner.  I purchased some Gorgonzola, another cheese I’d never tasted, and thought I’d try my hand at some Gorgonzola chicken roll-ups.  Following my first chicken-flattening endeavor, I bought a meat tenderizer mallet so I didn’t hurt myself trying to flatten meat with a pot.  I read that to use a meat tenderizer, you first use the side with the teeth to break up the meat fibers, and the smooth side is used to do the flattening.

I began by laying a chicken breast on the cutting board and covering it with plastic wrap.  I held up the mallet, tooth-side down, and took a big whack at the chicken in front of me.  Now…I remember how hard it was to flatten the chicken using a really heavy pot.  So I could only imagine that the meat tenderizer, which feels no heavier than my pizza cutter, would need some serious force in order to do its job.  I hit the toothed side of the mallet to the chicken as hard as I could, over and over, before realizing that I had turned that side of the chicken breast into a pink, pulpy mess.  The chicken breast looked as if it had been drenched in applesauce.  Though the slab of chicken no longer belonged to a living creature, I felt like a slaughterer.  It was that disgusting.

I had three chicken breasts and three people to feed, so I made the best of my pulverized meat.  I breaded it and sprinkled it with Gorgonzola before rolling it up and securing it with toothpicks.  (Quick note:  if you have a box of 1,000 toothpicks and you need just two of them, remove two toothpicks before your hands are coated in mushy, raw meat.  Trust me, it’s good advice.)  It wasn’t pretty, but I just hoped it would still be edible.

Not my best work.

While the chicken baked, I worked on some pasta and homemade tomato topping for the side dish.  I was working off of a recipe, which called for six tomatoes to be chopped and cooked on the stove with some onion and spinach.  My fiance doesn’t like big pieces of tomato, so I threw the tomatoes and the spinach in the blender and thought I’d make it more edible for him.  Unfortunately, my blender has 16 settings and I don’t know what the difference is between any of them.  Not a one.  What’s the difference between blend and puree?  Between stir and beat?  Between chop and mix?  Hell if I know!  (Methinks it’s time to get out the user manual.)  I couldn’t even tell you what I pushed; several buttons later, I had a red-tinged watery substance to mix with my onions on the stove.  I added some tomato sauce to try and thicken it, but it did nothing other than change the color to a deeper shade of red.

Also noteworthy is the mess all of this caused in my kitchen.

Yikes!

The results of the meal:  I loved the chicken.  Gorgonzola is officially my new favorite cheese.  My fiance and his son, however, felt quite differently.  Guess that means I don’t have to fight anyone over the leftover Gorgonzola in the fridge.  And the pasta?  Well, the sauce would have been better served with tortilla chips (i.e., it tasted exactly like salsa).  It never did thicken enough and it just didn’t work as a pasta sauce.

This meal also brought about a new realization for me.  As I embark on this journey to be a better cook, I have difficulty distinguishing between peoples’ personal tastes and my ability to cook something that tastes good.  I thought the chicken and Gorgonzola tasted fabulous, but when the people I served claimed the cheese was odd and that they didn’t care for it, I had to wonder:  is it really the cheese, or did I take a terribly wrong turn somewhere?  To those of you who cook (well), can any of you share your thoughts?

Pasta water, sauteed spinach, and more things that once baffled me

The theme of tonight’s dinner was “new.”  New new new new new!

I’ve been seeing quite a few recipes that call for “pasta water.”  At first, seeing this on a list of ingredients was an automatic pass on a recipe.  I envisioned something along the lines of cooking pasta and then mixing it with water and pureeing it.  Gross?  Absolutely.  But I’ve seen stranger things in my culinary adventures thus far.

After learning that pasta water is simply the water in which pasta is cooked, I let out a huge sigh of relief.  The recipe I’d been eying calls for a cup of pasta water and I was thrilled to discover that it would not require filling my blender with cooked pasta.  Not only that, but this particular recipe uses mascarpone cheese–something I recently purchased for the first time, despite having no idea what it tastes like.  Also, an optional step in this recipe is to cook fresh spinach.  I’ve cooked plenty of frozen spinach–well, I’ve dumped plenty of frozen spinach in a pot of boiling water–but the only handling of fresh spinach I’ve done is toss it in a bowl and drench it in salad dressing.

So, the recipe is for Lemon Pasta with Mascarpone, Prosciutto di Parma, and Spinach.  However, I did make some slight alterations.  First, I eliminated the lemon.  Not because I didn’t want it, but because I didn’t have a lemon and didn’t much feel like going to the store for only a lemon.  I find myself in this predicament a lot.  Why can’t I just live in the grocery store?  Anyway.  I also added a couple of ingredients:  chicken and broccoli.

I’m not sure why I can’t seem to master mise en place, but I SUCK AT IT!  The recipe even contains a warning that it’s important to have everything prepped and ready, because once you get going the process is quick.  I gathered about half of the ingredients and thought, Welllll, I can do the rest while the pasta boils and the chicken cooks.  My plan failed and I once again found myself scrambling to wash measuring cups and utensils that I hadn’t cleaned beforehand.  It wasn’t nearly as bad as my recent bechamel disaster, but it was still a wake-up call telling me to get my freaking shit together.  Good cooks are organized cooks.

When it came time to whisk together the pasta water and mascarpone, I gave myself a good scare.  At first, it was so watery you couldn’t even tell the mixture was mostly cheese.  I stared regretfully at the skillet, positive I had ruined dinner again with another runny sauce.  But I let it sit a few minutes and it thickened up quite a bit.  It was actually quite delicious!

Nom nom.

So, silly confession:  before I purchased the mascarpone used in tonight’s dinner, I had pictured its texture being more like that of Gouda.  When I saw it came in a cream-cheese-like container, I was a little disappointed.  But when I scooped it out and realized how gooey it is, and when I tasted it and discovered how yummy it is, it became clear to me that I will be incorporating more mascarpone into my cooking.  I love it!

Little kitchen, big goals

It occurred to me the other night as I whisked some flour into a lemon sauce that part of my problem is that I let myself believe I am at a disadvantage because I don’t have things that “great” chefs have.  For instance, I have one of America’s tiniest kitchens…

Cute things come in small packages.

And a cramped, disorganized freezer…

Why yes, my freezer contains chicken and waffles. Purely coincidence.

And even my whisk, adorable as it is, is itty-bitty…

Oink oink.

I had a moment where I began to take inventory of the things I don’t have.  I had to remind myself that learning to cook isn’t about having fancy kitchen gadgets and lots of space.  How does that saying go?  It’s not how big it is, it’s what you do with it?  I have about three square feet of usable counter space.  My whisk is six inches tall.  All but one of my frying pans and one of my pots wobble on the stove top.  I have twice as many spices as my spice rack will hold.  I can’t reach half the cabinets in my kitchen.  And you know what?  OH WELL!  I can still do this.  It’s a matter of adapting to my surroundings and learning to deal with the circumstances.  Space and fancy shmancy gizmos aren’t going to turn me into a great chef.  Motivation is the only thing that can.

Having said that, I purchased my first avocado last night.  I eat them often, but I’ve never prepared one myself.  I came home from the store, set the avocado on the counter, and spent some time educating myself on how to slice one.  With a self-pat on the back for being proactive, I made the first cut with an extra dose of confidence…….and I STILL failed.

Must. Practice. More.

Luckily, it was still edible.  Luckily, it was wrapped up in a tortilla so I didn’t have to see the mutilation as I enjoyed my delicious taco.  However, I definitely need to polish my avocado-cutting skills.  Unless there’s some sort of fancy kitchen gadget that will perfectly cut one for me…