Monday, December 13, 2010

The Repertoire of 10

A week or so ago I received an e-mail from a reader. Here it is:

Hi Kim,

I just wanted to let you know how much I enjoy your blog. Your take on cooking with children is inspiring. I am trying to make better choices when cooking. I have never felt very comfortable when cooking and really want to overcome this. I buy cookbooks but get them home and find them lacking (or maybe it is me that is lacking). I was wondering if you have any cookbook recommendations?


I loved this e-mail. Mostly, because I think LOTS of people think this way about cooking at home. Many people sit on the couch, watching Food Network, and want to cook something great. The TV chefs, and bloggers, and food writers are telling folks how easy it is roast a chicken. They keep telling us, "get in the kitchen", "just cook." And that all seems manageable, doable, reasonable.

In theory.

I mean, I've been there, pouring over the cookbook that looked so promising in the book store. The one with the glossy, perfectly-appointed photos of gorgeous, even precious food, and all the promises to change your life, reinvent your pantry, turn you in to a kitchen goddess, get you laid, help you meet chefs, own a restaurant, cook something so damned amazing even the pickiest 4 year old on the planet will gobble it up, ask for seconds and tell you, you are the best cook in the world.

God, it all seems so damned fantastic before you hit the check out.

But in order to do all those easy recipes, you have to buy $70 in weird herbs and spices you've barely heard of because you have no pantry to speak of. And what to do about not being able to find lemongrass in your tiny neighborhood grocery store in Tiny Town USA, where the stock boy crinkles his nose at you and says, "Lemondade?...Frozen or Refrigerated?" And if you don't cook, then you don't know how to make a substitution, how to wing it, how to bump up the flavor in another way. How to save the firm thing that just went mushy right before your very eyes, even though you followed the recipe EXACTLY.

And don't even get me started on all kinds of emotional barriers. "My mother was an amazing cook who never let me in the kitchen." "My mother was a horrible cook and we used the kitchen to set up our tanning bed and in-house nail salon." "My mother was a 60's radical feminist who didn't want to be tied to the kitchen and thought Chef Boyardee was a middle finger aimed straight at the patriarchal pigs who defined and exploited her." Whatever.

We all have our stories and these stories define us, and make us, and in this case, either drive us into the kitchen or make us run screaming for the take out menu drawer. These things are so complicated, it would take years of analysis to figure it all out. "Just cook" doesn't always cut it.

So, I wrote Toni back and asked her if I could write about her e-mail here. This is her response:

Wow, thanks for the email. Sure I'm game and I am not shy. I have accumulated a bunch of cookbooks and as much as I enjoy the photos of the foods, I find myself not using them. I sincerely want to learn to cook. Not the hamburger helper, open a box, but really cook with foods that are not processed or dehydrated. Crazy as this sounds, my mom was a fantastic cook, but she never passed that knowledge on to me. In her defense she did try and teach me a few things when I was a teenager but at that time I wasn't interested. Even when I was a newly married person I never asked her how foods went together. She passed away a little over a year ago and I have lost the chance to learn from her. I think that one of the reasons I enjoy your blog so much is that you empower your daughters by allowing them to do the hands on cooking.

Again, thanks for the response.


So, here's my suggestion to Toni. One that helped me a lot to make the transition from crap cook to decent cook:

Back 10 or so years ago, in a column in the New York Times (I looked all over for the original, but can't find it, nor do I remember who wrote it) but it became sort of urban myth among people who didn't cook, but wanted to. I have no idea what the column was called, but it became known in dinner party circles as "The Repertoire of 10". (If anyone remembers this or has a link, I'd love to hear from them.)

The writer suggested (or this is how I remember it) that you make it your goal to learn 10 standard recipes. A good carbonara recipe, a great chicken recipe, an easy pizza recipe, etc. The idea is to pick the 10 dishes you want to know how to make and then, work on them, go to food blogs and try different variations, and have that dish be something you can whip up for yourself or for company, because you know it, you know how that dish works, you know how to change up the flavors to keep it interesting, you know how to save it when it goes flat on you.

10 dishes. That's the goal.

This was my saving grace back when I was single and had an empty fridge (save for meat scraps from the butcher for the dog, and a half drunk bottle of Sauvignon Blanc). It made being in the kitchen and cooking manageable. I could actually learn to make 10 dishes. And if I did that and that's all I ever wanted to do in the kitchen, I could still pull out 10 winners for a dinner party, or a romantic dinner, or a pot luck, and be able to feel good about that. As it turns out, conquering the 10 made me want to do more. It was my leaping off point.

This is my first dish of 10. It's from an Australian chef named Bill Granger and this sausage dish is simple and easy to make for yourself or company. By the way, the ciabatta in this recipe totally makes the whole dish, don't skip it. Although you can use any kind of crusty bread. Use a 375 F oven (his directions are in Celsius)and use uncooked Italian sausage, cut into 1-2 inch nubs. It should cook about 35-40 minutes. This is what I learned from tinkering with the recipe over the years.

Another early dish on my 10, was Short Ribs Braised in Wine from Lydia Bastianich from one of her earlier books (Couldn't find a link, sorry). It's simple, and the results are rich and impressive, and it was the recipe that taught me how to braise. That inspired me to braise other meats and move on from there. The love affair with the braise has never ended.

I stayed with recipes from people I trusted. Everything Italian came from Bastianich, for example, and if I found a cookbook author who had great ideas, but uneven, unpredictable recipes (Hello, Nigella, I'm talking to you)I bagged them. Threw the cookbook away. I wanted security just starting out, not surprise.

I started easy at the beginning of the 10, but added harder dishes as I grew more confident. I wanted to make a paella for a New Year's Eve party and I learned over multiple incarnations, and the help of my fish monger, to make a rocking paella. But it took a bunch of trial and error and a few mediocre, sloppy paellas to get there. The road to dinner party success was paved with bad rice and limp fish. But eventually, I got it.

So, that's what I suggest Toni does. But I'd love for you to give her your suggestions. Particularly you food bloggers and home cooks, because Toni is your audience. She's that reader who wants to cook from scratch, but hasn't quite gotten there yet. And isn't that why you started blogging/writing about food in the first place, to get people into the kitchen?

So, please give her some advice. Also, if you have recipes you think would be great for her "Repertoire of 10" (if she wants to go that route) by all means post a link to your blog (or someone else's site) in comments, so Toni can go there scoping for recipes and inspiration.

Let's help a cook out.

xo YM

Edited Note: Thanks to Xoch in comments for letting me know the idea for "Repertoire of 10" came from Amanda Hesser. You can read it here. I suppose this should've been obvious to me, but back in my non-cooking days, I had no idea who she was. Not a clue. It was like Amanda Hesser and I lived in alternate universes. But thanks to her brilliant idea, that took on a life of its own, even back in the day when nothing went viral because viral had barely been invented yet, I am happy to have settled quite nicely into her universe.



Anonymous said...

This is great. I think half the key to why having 10 recipes is a good way to start is that half (or more) of being comfortable in the kitchen is practice (as with many things!). This gives you a clear, definable goal that also gives you the practice you need. Once you get there if you want to expand further, you have the practice to give you the confidence and learn more! Or you have enough of a repertoire that you're set. Either way, you win.

Robin (Hippo Flambe) said...

I think the "the Repertoire of 10" is a great idea partially because it takes off some of the pressure. In addition do not feel you have to home cook every element of a meal. Making a stew for dinner, a crusty loaf of bread makes a great side dish along with green beans that are only cooked briefly in a steamer and then tossed with salt, pepper and butter or olive oil. Or you can make a boxed (yes I said boxed) rice dish, just check the ingredients, and frozen vegetables.

When I taught myself to cook I used rice mixes and simple vegetables. It was a long time before I was making every element of the meal from scratch.

One of my family's go to easy dishes that the whole family loves is Chinese Hamburger wit Peas. It is easy and only needs rice to go with it.


Grace @eatdinner said...

This is such a great topic and idea. I cook and have been doing so forever, but I know just getting started is a huge barrier to people who are not in the habit of cooking. For weeknight meals, I think you should have at least 4 recipes that are "go-to" 20-30 minute deals. I think Mark Bittman has the best basic cookbook out there for beginners.

Cheryl Arkison said...

Fantastic idea!

I think for anyone the 10 should include dishes that are familiar from a history point of view (the family dishes) as well as those you want to make.

For me, that means borscht and pyrohy are pretty important. I am Ukrainian after all. Then there was stew and meatballs. And don't forget dessert.

You've also pointed out that the 10 evolves and changes as you master a dish.

Grace also makes a good point about having dishes that are go-to when you don't feel like cooking much. Carbonara is one for me, as is a crustless quiche.

The Yummy Mummy said...

Toni -

Grace from EatDinner made a terrific suggestion: Mark Bittman's Book "How to Cook Everything" is a staple in my kitchen.

The book is organized by main ingredient, so if asparagus are looking good, you can go to the asparagus section of the book and get 5 or 6 recipes for asparagus.

They are all relatively simple yet sophisticated recipes and Bittman is very good at educating the reader about technique. I always find I learn something after doing one of his recipes.

Also, great to hear from Robin at Hippoflambe. She knows her stuff.


The Yummy Mummy said...

Cheryl -

I love the family history idea. This is especially true for Toni who has fond memories of her mother's cooking. A way for her to connect with her mother could be by learning and replicating and mastering some of her mother's favorites. That makes it personal. That puts her mom tight there in the kitchen with her.

Love the way you think. You are brilliant.


Donna @ Way More Homemade said...

I think the repetoire of 10 idea is a wonderful one. I would try to master least 1 dessert, 1 slow cooked recipe, 1 quick sautee, etc. This would give you mastery in several different techniques. I also wrote this article earlier this year on things I did as I taught myself to cook.

In the article I suggest books / periodicals that teach techniques and discuss why to use one technique over another. Personally, my choice for this type of learning is "Cook's Illustrated."

Best of luck to you. Toni. You can do it!!

Mommy Lisa said...

Leads to my now GO TO pork chop recipe. Its really flavorful and simple - not a lot of ingredients and nothing strange.

Christine said...

Great suggestion Kim! I'm one of the lucky people who had a mother in the kitchen, who made just about everything from scratch (except baked goods) and encouraged me to get into the kitchen young. One of the first things I remember making all by myself with absolutely no help was a white wine chicken coq au vin that baked in the oven. In fact, a quick google and I found it: ta da! The only thing I didn't do was ignite the brandy (I was ten). :) The dish didn't suffer for the lack of ignited brandy. And I made it over and over again. I remember it giving it to my cousin's wife at the age of 12 or so, when she was his fiancee.

I love Toni's idea of trying to recreate family favorites. I often find myself inspired by dishes from restaurants.

Good luck!

Christine said...

whoops, Cheryl's idea. Good luck!

CookiePie said...

Such a fantastic way to approach this! It's so true - TV chefs always make it look so easy, but for the average person, it's daunting, and the last thing they want to tackle at the end of a long day! This way, it feels so much more manageable.

Paula said...

You have given Toni a wonderful method to begin learning how to cook in your Repertoire of 10 suggestion.
My husband taught himself to cook when he left home using some of his favourite recipes from his Mom. From there he began branching out and trying recipes from new cookbooks he purchased. He always enjoys trying out new recipes and says *if you can read, you can cook* Toni, don't be afraid to try and don't be afraid to get creative. Trust what you are reading in the recipe and then thrown in your own ideas when you feel more confident. Enjoy and good luck :)

xoch said...

I totally feel you on the cookbook thing, Toni! they end up gathering dust (hello nigella) and nowadays I rely more on likely looking recipes from blogs, or ideas from serious eats and chow.

I'm lucky that my parents are good cooks, especially my dad, and I learned watching him. Comfort food / part of my 10 is rice (mexican style with lots of pureed tomato), beef caldo, picadillo (ground beef with potatoes), chiles rellenos and maybe spaghetti. Somewhere around my hard drive I have the link for lemony italian chicken pasta which I have made my own and now just do it sans pasta and with a lot less cream. I like to experiment with channa masala or other stuff, but these are my basics.

Bittman is a good idea for cookbooks, and I like Giuliano Hazan's 30 minute pasta.

Kim, about the basic 10 on the nytimes, maybe it was Amanda Hesser who wrote that? She wrote something similar in A Food Lover's Courtship.

xoch said...

This is the Amanda Hesser article about having a repertoire. It's almost exactly as it appeared in her book later.

Mardi @eatlivetravelwrite said...

What a wonderful, generous post Kim. I also love Bill Granger's food and, like you, How to Cook Everything is a staple in my kitchen too. I used The Joy of Cooking religiously when I was just starting to get interested in cooking and recently acquired Harold McGee's Keys to Good Cooking. I reckon with those three, you pretty much have an excellent base from which to start.

My staples? Chili (vegetarian and meat), a decent tomato pasta sauce, a bolognese, a baked pasta dish such as lasagna, baked goods such as muffins or quick breads, a good chocolate chip cookie recipe and, of course a few soups.

MrsWheelbarrow said...

Dear Kim and Toni,
I think this is a superb post pointing out all the really great ways to learn to cook, as well as the pitfalls.
I've been pondering for a day what I would add to the list.
At first, I thought - Split Pea Soup! It's something I've been making since college - costs very little, takes about an hour start to finish, and can be used as a jumping off point for lentil soup, add barley, add this and that - also from there - dal and other pulse recipes from India... and so on.
But then... I began to think my focaccia recipe would be even better. This recipe serves as a pizza crust, bread sticks and focaccia. It's dead simple and will make Toni feel brilliant! Here's the link
Be happy in the kitchen, xoCathy

The Yummy Mummy said...

Toni -

The idea of having a couple of desserts in your pocket is a great one. I personally am not a baker and don't really enjoy it the way I enjoy cooking, so I rely on a book written by my friend Abby Dodge called "Desserts 4 Today".

It's under $20 and every dessert in it can be made with 4 ingredients. I've made 8 or 9 of the desserts in it now and all of them have been sophisticated, rich, and tasty. You can't tell how simple they are to make. You can learn how to make the Nutella Fudge Brownies (4 ingredients) for a more casual meal or a Trifle (4 ingredients) for a swankier meal.

It is a great book for mastering a couple go-to desserts for your repertoire.


The Yummy Mummy said...

Toni -

Whatever Mrs. Wheelbarrow tells you to do, do it. She is one of the best cooks on the planet. And yes, she can totally make you feel brilliant. Happens to me all the time.

I'm going to make the focaccia dough this weekend.


Nuts about food said...

I always had a few simple dishes that I knew I could trust for a dinner party and that always seemed much more involved then they actually were. I didn't learn to cook as a child from my mom. I just love food and am curious. What changed me was starting my blog. It forced me out of my comfort zone, I am learning, experementing and making mistakes along the way. I still keep it simple, I still get anxiety when I cook for guests but I am learning and that is what matters. I mean, truth be told, the worst that can happen is that your meal isn't fantastic...right?

Anonymous said...

I finally found the Post a Comment link! :-)

It took me a long time to figure out my way around the kitchen. I once cooked a hot dog that was burned on the outside and still frozen on the inside.

I think learning to cook also depends on your learning style and personality. I am a bit scientific by nature so Alton Brown's methodical approach on Good Eats really appealed to me. His book I'm Just Here For The Food explains how cooking works so you can feel confident to try techniques.

Here is a recipe I make almost every week - rice pilaf. It is easy, delicious, requires very few ingredients, and no special equipment. The link is from my old blog, Valley Victuals.

Kate said...

I second the suggestion of Bittmans' How to Cook Everything'. It's straightforward and clear on every aspect of being successful in the kitchen.

The second suggestion is to be patience, and to experiment. Cooking well is yet another art that takes time to master. You will have failures and dishes that may disappoint. Create your own Repertoire of 10 that works for you. Experiment with ingredients that provide excellent nutrition at a reasonable cost. Learn to prepare and use lots of different vegetables. Find a grocer that sells bulk spice and other items so you can buy small amounts and learn how to use them properly. Learn about different grains and how they work for you. Think outside the box, and be sure to invite friends over that can help you critique and share the wealth.

Warner (aka ntsc) said...

And from the picture I thought you had finally started making your own sausage.

John Sandford in his novel Winter Prey (1993) has the girl talking about 'Five Good Things', a course she had taken so she had 5 meals to make for friends. She is a surgeon and has limited time. So the idea has been around a while.

For me the go to book is Joy of Cooking, the late 60s edition (the current edition is fine, but the prior one is to be avoided). I opened this up and read it in about 73 as my wife and I both wanted to really be able to cook (different wife by the way).

My wife (the real one) uses Julia Child 'Mastering the Art of French Cooking Vol I', in much the same way.

We think we are pretty good at it.

Warner (aka ntsc) said...

Beef Short ribs braised in red wine, pp 218-219, Lidia's Italian American Kitchen

Book to accompany a 52 part PBS series

The Yummy Mummy said...

Warner -

You are my hero - mostly because you called your wife, your "real wife".

And yes! That's the book. Lydia's Italian American Kitchen! Love that book and the series and her.

Had to throw the book out after the binding became infested with cockroaches back in my single days when my apartment was next door to the compactor room...but that's another story.


Warner (aka ntsc) said...

My first wife was very unreal.

I have no regrets to having married her, but I also have no regrets to having divorced her.

Had to wait for the real wife (30 years in Feb.) to get up to ask her. Of course I could simply have done what she did which was to start checking indexes.

The Yummy Mummy said...

Warner -

Tell her thanks from me!

My goal for 2011 is to meet you and your wife face to face. Finally.

I might even make sausage from scratch.


Warner (aka ntsc) said...

I will pass along the thanks.

And yes we would like to meet you and family or you and husband.

The Yummy Mummy said...

...and eat my sausage. :)

Carol said...

Hi Kim and Toni, very late to this, so apologies! So many smart people already have weighed in.

I have found learning techniques and applying those techniques to other dishes is a great way to build the repertoire and confidence.

For example, Chicken Marbella from the Silver Palate (Yes, I'm that old!) was the first time I marinated something. And, making a marinade is pretty easy. Twenty-five years later, I use this technique once a week -- and it's a great approach for flavoring and tenderizing less expensive cuts of meat, too. (I use a great marinade recipe from @goodappetite that my 9-yr-old LOVES -- here's the link: We ate this tonight using tri-tip.

I'm a big believer in soups; they're generally easy to make -- @JenniferPerillo's site, In Jennie's Kitchen, is a great source for chicken soup (and other soup) recipe: I use her technique for making other soups (browning the meat and vegetables before adding the stock). It's a brilliant way to increase flavor. Best thing about soups: they're always better the next day.

The Barefoot Contessa (whose recipes are easy-to-follow and very well tested) has a wonderful blueberry-sour cream muffin recipe. I use it for coffee cake, muffins, mini-breads; I substitute other berries. It's versatile and easy. Here's the link:

Best of luck to you, Toni and know that there is a community of people who love to cook and bake cheering you on!