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