Reflections of a New Cook: What I Learned in 2010

I usually hate those newspaper feature-y Top 10 lists that pop up everywhere around Jan 1 because I just lived  the damn year–why do I need to experience its minutiae again so soon? It’s like reviewing your notes as soon as class lets out for the day. So I apologize in advance that I feel compelled to add to this genre. My only excuse is that this is my first ever full Jan 1 to Jan 1 year cooking. Sometime down the road I might want something to remember it by even if no one else does. Plus, some of my lessons are so exceedingly obvious and stupid that I am sure someone will get a laugh–at my expense of course.

2010: What I learned

1.Cook books can be fire hazards–especially if you are lacking common sense: I am a sucker for cook books which, being a novice cook, I used to treat as sacred bibles of culinary wisdom. (No more.)Which is just my excuse for why I unthinkingly followed this instruction in The Lee Bros. Simple Fresh Southern Cooking recipe for “crispy (oh yeah it was sure crispy) skin salmon with buttermilk mint sauce:

“Pour two teaspoons of oil into a large cast iron skillet or broiler pan, and position it underneath the broiler so the bottom of the pan is about 5 inches from the heat source.”

Needless to say, a visit from the fire department was only narrowly escaped.

2.Bathe after you brine: Brining has to be one of my top revelations of 2010. This simple bath of salt, sugar and water can transform the most boring chicken breast into a succulent feast as the meat fibers open up to trap salt and water and create a juicier piece of meat. It’s a great way to prepare barbecued meat. However, I learned my lesson this past fall when I (again blindly) followed an internet recipe that called for brining a turkey breast then cooking it without washing it first.  The result was a little like eating a spoonful of salt sprinkled with a little meat. Yuck.

3.Cooking is scientific: As someone who is working on a PhD in social science, I love the idea of testing assumptions and finding out why something does or does not work. So when I purchased my first Cooks Illustrated magazine at an airport news stand, I felt like I had come home.  The Cooks Illustrated franchise, which includes the aforementioned magazine along with cook books, TV shows and bewildering array of Internet membership-only options, is kind of like a cross between Consumer Reports and a scientific experiment. It reminds me of the old newspaper platitude–“If your mother says she loves you, check it out.” Even if grandma has been salting the sauce successfully for the past 50 years, the Cooks Illustrated cooks will see if you might be able to do without. Assumptions are tested as are recipes. Authors often boast that they make 40 or 50 variations of a dish (each one taste tasted) before arriving at a final version. Alongside the directions are helpful and fascinating explanations of the chemical changes the food undergoes–ie why you should bother spending an hour brining your chicken. Although they do not always arrive at the simplest or least time-consuming version of a dish (It took me half a day to make their ultimate vegetable stock), they also probably won’t ever tell you to place an oiled pan under the broiler. (Yes, I am still bitter about that.)

4.Cook like an Indian: Indians use spices in a very different way than do most Americans.  For instance, they use many more types of spices and in much larger amounts. Even lentils are used as spices. Toasted, they provide a dry nutty flavor. This means you don’t need as much salt because your food already has so much taste.(To the recent Indian immigrant, American food must taste hopelessly bland.)And, though you wouldn’t be able to tell from the greasy takeout you buy in restaurants you also need less oil because-again-the spices provide the flavor. Curry, by the way, is not *a* spice. It’s a spice mix–like shrimp boil or poultry seasoning. It tastes better when you toast then grind your own. Back to health: Even the Indian method of tarka–adding spice-infused hot oil to a dish–tends to require only a table spoon or so of oil, at least in the recipes I have seen. Other “secrets” are coconut and yogurt, which add a creamy richness to dishes with fewer calories than cream–especially if you use lite versions of the yogurt and coconut milk.I can’t imagine how you could be a vegetarian much less a vegan if you did not include at least some Indian food in your diet. Obviously, I am neither but my cooking for a vegetarian friend has certainly improved a bit since I discovered Indian cuisine.

5.Cooking at altitude is a matter of trial and error: As someone who lives at 5280 feet, I am constantly trying to reinvent recipes since most Americans live closer to sea level. Unfortunately, there are not enough of us highland dwellers to make it worth Cooks Illustrated’s while to conduct any rigorous scientific experiments up here. So, here are a few things I’ve learned: Whenever possible bake cup cakes or use a bundt pan. Both forms seem to produce moister, more evenly-cooked cakes up here. Do not adjust the leavening in recipes for cookies or quick breads like biscuits or cornbread. I did this for months and ended up with flat, dull results. Cakes are the real divas up here and, as such, must be accommodated. I generally reduce leavening by about 1/2 to 1/4. Finally, keep an eye on the food section of the local high-altitude newspaper, especially the local features. Someone else has already cooked and thrown away the wrong version for you.

6.Don’t be chicken of poultry: I started the year for some reason scared of bone-in chicken. I’m not sure why but it seemed difficult to cook, and disgusting to prepare–like touching something wet and slimy at a makeshift haunted house where the older kids stuff your hand into a bowl of peeled grapes. Somehow, with the help of the Zuni Cafe cook book and its kind, babying directions, I managed to overcome this aversion. This simple recipe for roasted chicken is now my go-to week night dinner:

Easy roasted chicken (Recipe from Zuni Cafe and Cooks Illustrated American Classics cook books):

1.  Buy a good quality, fresh (white not yellow) small fryer that weighs about 3 pounds. About one hour before cooking,  dissolve 1/2 cup table salt and 1/2 cup sugar in 2 quarts cold water. Stick chicken in mixture and go do something else. You can skip this step if you’re in a rush.

2. One hour later, out (dry!)  cast iron skillet in oven and preheat to 500 degrees. Remove chicken from brine and rinse well then dry well with towels. (Wet skin won’t crisp up as much). Using whatever you have in the pantry and refrigerator, create a flavoring paste to stuff under the chicken’s skin. I like to grind in my food processor: a couple cloves of garlic, a shallot, a jalapeno pepper, some mustard, whatever fresh herbs I have-parsley-cilantro-oregano, etc. I do not use oil or butter because the chicken itself produces enough fat. I do not salt the chicken because some of the brine salt inevitably remains.

2. Place chicken (carefully) on hot skillet, breast side up. Cook for about 40 minutes, being sure to open the oven vent because there might be some smoke. Turn chicken over and cook about 5 minutes more.  Cut into or test with a meat thermometer to make sure it is done. Remove chicken from oven and put on plate. Eat.

P.S. If you like potatoes with your chicken, thinly slice a few of them before you cook the chicken. Instead of using a cast iron skillet, use a broiler pan with a rack. Line the bottom of the pan with foil and toss potatoes with a table spoon or so of oil and salt and pepper to taste. Place chicken on the rack over the potato layer and cook as directed. The drippings will shower the potatoes with delicious flavor.

7.Cook under pressure: One of my favorite new cook books (They’re all basically new at this point) is Raghavan Iyer’s 660 Curries. The only problem with it is that so many recipes call for a pressure cooker, a common implement in countries like India  where electricity may be expensive and /or intermittent and long, slow cooking makes the house too hot. After one too many times hunting down stove top conversions, I caved and bought for about $100 a combination pressure cooker/rice cooker/slow cooker. I was immediately greeted with horror stories from those my parents’ age who recalled dangerous explosions in the kitchen. After some internet reading reassured me that slow cooking was a bit safer today, I cooked up the most perfect batch of rice I had ever seen. I was hooked. Pressure cookers are sort of like microwaves that don’t make the food taste bad. They impart a slow-cooked/stewed flavor in about a third of the time it would take to make something on the stove top while (supposedly) preserving more nutrients and (definitely) using less electricity and gas in the process. They are the perfect appliance if your New Years resolution is to eat more healthfully and to also go green.

8.The Freezer is your Friend: Things I keep in the freezer: Fresh ginger. Curry leaves ordered from online. Home-made chicken stock. Home-made vegetable stock. A one-pound bag of frozen shrimp to make a fancy dinner in a pinch. Etc. In fact, so many etcs that we recently purchased a standalone freezer to keep in the garage.

9.You don’t need a gadget for garlic. I know duh, but .. see number 1 for my common sense level. I love fresh garlic but hated peeling it. I’d inevitably resort to my stubby fingernails, which were, as a result, persistently smelly and scraped by garlic skins. So I anted up for this little gadget that ate an un-peeled piece of garlic and spit out peeled strands that emerged looking like those PlayDough barber shop toys that produce clay hair that you can then trim with your plastic scissors. Then, my mother-in-law came for Thanksgiving and in the process of making dinner, casually crushed a piece of garlic with the flat edge of a chef’s knife. “See–now you don’t need to peel it,” she said, pointing out how the skin rolled off the crushed garlic. Uh….Yeah.

10. If you start a cooking blog, probably no one will read it except your sister Amy. Okay, I kind of knew this going in. And it’s probably for the best. In a year from now I am sure I will look back at these “lessons learned” and be glad that my all-time highest traffic day of 2010 attracted just 40 views.

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2 Responses to Reflections of a New Cook: What I Learned in 2010

  1. Anne says:

    I read it!! And you are inspiring me to try brining … for some reason the idea of that has always grossed me out, but I know firsthand what a good meal you put on the table, so if you brine, then I shall try. 🙂

  2. I lovelovelove Cook’s Illustrated magazine and in fact, a subscription was the first thing on my holiday wish list for 2010. 🙂 Great blog!

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