14 September 2007

How to learn to cook

In the comments section on the Book Meme, Alex Elliott asked about a good cookbook for someone who wants to learn to cook.

Most of the cookbooks in my rather large collection aren't for beginners. Many of them are those food porn books that feature recipes that take hours and days and piles of ingredients that are so exotic and expensive that you end up wishing you had just taken the $60 you spent on saffron, smoked paprika and hearts of palm and had just gone out to dinner instead.

I learned to cook from American Wholefoods Cuisine a huge vegetarian compendium I got back in the 80s. I had recently given up meat and was tired of quesadillas so I was delighted to find 1300 veg recipes to choose from.

One cool fall day I used that cookbook to make a carrot stew recipe while my housemates were out hiking. They came in, tired and hungry, and fell on my creation, praising me endlessly for being such a culinary genius. That did it. I was hooked - an instant cooking junkie and I cooked so many recipes from that Wholefoods Cookbook that it eventually fell apart in 3 pieces and is now held together with rubber bands.

When I first moved away from home, my mom got me a copy of The Betty Crocker Cookbook with the inscription "Be patient. Good things take time."

Little did she know how prophetic that would be, not about cooking, but about me. I only moved out for 6 months, then came home for an endless community college career, followed by a long, expensive stint at a state college (Thanks Mom, Thanks Dad).

During that time, I survived mostly on Taco Bell, dorm food and instant oatmeal. I cooked rarely and badly. I distinctly remember getting the idea to saute eggplant (Why, I really don't know. I had no recipe and no plan - just an eggplant and a pan) and having it soak up so much oil that I took one taste and pitched the rest of the eggplant, frying pan and all, out into the driveway where it sat in the mud and rain.

I have heard that Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything is a wonderful book for beginners and experts alike. Bittman writes "The Minimalist" column for the NY Times and has sprung some fabulous ideas, like no-knead bread, on the world.

But the truth about learning to cook is that you have to be interested if you want to do it well. If you don't care, actually truly care, it is going to be damned difficult to make a good meal.

I liken it to how I feel about fashion. I always think I would love to dress better, to look nicer, but when it comes down to it, I just don't care enough to put out the energy to make it better.

It doesn't make me that miserable to look like I do, and it doesn't make me terribly happy to dress cute, especially if it means spending time and money and/or being less comfy than I am in my baggy ill-shaped clothing.

The truly fashionable want to slap people they see wearing Crocs or wrinkly old clothing. I don't - to me it doesn't matter what people wear as long as they are happy, but I do want to walk into the kitchen and slap the cook who oversalted my Moroccan chickpea-vegetable tagine.

And when others eat the tagine and say "Oh, it's okay, I don't mind that it is a little salty," I want to slap THEM, too. Because I care deeply, and I can't imagine not caring. Just like I suppose some people feel about my corduroy jacket with the frayed sleeves and the ink stains. It's all a matter of what is important to you.

Do you cook? How did you learn?


BOSSY said...

Bossy reads cookbooks like Novels, but then when it's time to prepare dinner often resorts to her same old torn jeans.

Assertagirl said...

I'll have to keep an eye out for that Wholefoods book...we've been trying to eat more vegetarian meals but it's difficult to find unique recipes. No-knead bread ROCKS. I started making it last year and my husband loves it.

Jessica said...

I'm with Bossy - I ahve a collection of cookbooks, which I sit and read like stories (and some of them are!), but when it comes to dinner, I make the same stuff over and over. WTH?

Baking, however, is a differnet story. I use my baking cookbooks all the time and actually follow the recipes (well, use them for inspiration).

How to Cook Everything is my go-to cookbook when trying something new.

Average Jane said...

My mother and grandmother taught me to cook. Unfortunately, neither was a particularly good cook herself. I am seldom home in the evenings, so my cooking is sporadic.

However, I love to bake. In fact, I have two mini loaves of banana bread in the oven right now.

mar said...

omg! cooking v. fashion. i so hear you on that. sure, i think could dress in much cuter stuff, but i don't care enough either.
i 'learned' how to cook while my mom was at work & she'd leave a recipe for me to have dinner waiting when she & my dad got home. i have no idea what my little brother was doing while i was browning hamburger for the lasagna or peeling potatoes, etc. i also remember spending days and weeks with my grandma as she taught me how to make icebox cookies (for the state fair 4-h competition) and her famous buns. i wish i still had those recipes now that she's gone. she really only kept them accurately in her head. and now i read cookbooks and even occasionally bust out a few new recipes to test on my bf's cast-iron stomach. there haven't been (m)any complaints (since he knows what's good for him).

mcchubly was my word verification.

SUEB0B said...

mar - how fitting. I feel McChubly right now!

Mrs. Chicky said...

I still have my Betty Crocker cookbook that I received for my first wedding from my mom. For the basics, you can't go wrong with that one. I used it just yesterday, as a matter of fact.

Now, as for the over 70 bajillion cookbooks I own... Ah, food p*rn.

Mir said...

Dude, to learn the basics there is (still) no trumping Joy of Cooking. Every section has an "About" intro, that gives you basic information about breads or cooking chicken or whatever you're doing. The recipes are easy and standard and it's not rocket science, but it's a good place to get your legs if you really have no idea how to cook.

Once you have a sense of how it all works, THEN you can start collecting cookbooks and making crap up. A frequent conversation in this house is "This is really good, what's in it?" "Umm, I'm not sure. A little of everything." ;)

Chase said...

I don't own a single cookbook. Well, I take that back, I have one called "Crazy About Cupcakes". But that doesn't really count as a cookbook.

I do love to cook, though, and can do it well when I try. I usually stick to the same stuff, though. If I'm feeling adventurous, I go on an internet search for recipes. Love finding new stuff!

Especially love finding new cupcakes. YUMMMMMMM!

shannon said...

I do cook, but don't truly remember how I learned. I just did. I think I probably helped my parents in the kitchen growing up, but no memories really stick out.

In college I would cook almost nightly with dear friends who are amazing cooks. The kind who don't need recipes and everything always turns out great (except the one night with the red peppers in the sauce)...

The Cooking Light Cookbook has become our favorite. Whenever we make something from it friends love it. Then they can't believe it's *good* for them!

mothergoosemouse said...

You're right on about how caring is the key. I'm not the cook, and it shows. But Kyle really loves cooking, and it shows. Lucky me!

Maggie said...

I learned to cook out of necessity. Raising my first by myself, well hot dogs just wouldn't cut it. But I found once I started, I was addicted to it. My first book was the Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook. That poor thing is stained and falling apart but I still use it often.

Blog Antagonist said...

I cook well (probably too well...I learned to make a lot of typical American and German fare that is high in fat and calories) because my Mother cooked well. She taught me, and a lot of what she taught me was learned from her mother. But I learned a lot of new stuff when I moved to the South.

Strangely...I absolutely LOATHE cooking. The other day my son asked me what I cook just for fun and I told him that to me, "cooking" and "fun" are contradictory terms.

Stephanie said...

I love cooking. My grandmother taught me all the old-fashioned Fanny Farmer stuff. Once I was living on my own I turned away from the lard and salt and New England boiled dinners to lighter fare. And having a food allergy forced me to become more creative and experimental. I collect cookbooks and food books and try to make at least one dish from each.

I think you just have to have the desire to do it, and to keep at it. Lots of dishes have ended up in the trash over the years. But eventually the scales tip so that more of them end up on the table.

Count Mockula said...

My mom had to cook for her family growing up, and then re-taught herself as an adult (because her family had horrible taste). She'd cut recipes out of magazines and stuff. And she taught me pretty explicitly.

I got better on my own as I practiced more and fell in love with cookbooks. As a vegetarian, I always felt like I had to be a little more creative. I live entertaining, and didn't want people to feel like they were missing out, so I'd throw these elaborate veggie dinners. I just HAD to become a better cook.

Now I cook the same stuff a lot of the time, but only because my husband and I are both STARVING about 20 minutes after we get home from work.

Nancy said...

I'm like Bossy and Jessica too. I love the idea of cooking -- that is, when I have a whole day free to cook from scratch (though I have to follow a recipe, no improvisation from me.) And you know, I have so much free time... so I actually end up cooking for real maybe twice a year.

But cookbooks and food-related books are like porn to me. I love them. I want a whole wall-full of them in my kitchen.

Mom101 said...

"But the truth about learning to cook is that you have to be interested if you want to do it well. "

Spot on, Suebob. There's no cookbook that will crack the eggs and dice the onions for you, but I'm all about the Bittman.

Heather B. said...

Magazines: Food & Wine or Vegetarian Times. It's easier to flip through the pages that way and have lots of pictures and articles rather than go through a cookbook. So now I have a collection of magazine pages strewn about. Come to think of it, maybe the cookbook would be a lot easier to manage.

Alex Elliot said...

Hey, thanks for answering my question! So now I just have to focus on enjoying cooking and dressing better.

QT said...

I love to cook and rarely make the same thing twice. I have a handful of "old faves" I will make repeatedly, but rarely.

I learned to cook from my mom and grandma, I think because I was the oldest, I was always recruited to help!

Suzanne said...

Husband cooks sometimes, and he's good at it. Cooking stresses me out. I think about the mess I am making and can't focus on anything else. I do like making weird Jell-O recipes, though.

Staci Schoff said...

I liked to cook until I had kids. Now it's more like hurrying up and getting some nourishment for everyone, as opposed to drinking a beer and hanging out and creating something really fun.

My favorite for basics is Better Homes & Gardens, but probably just because that's what my mother used when I was a kid, so it's familiar.

I like to read about cooking still -- but I don't get too adventurous anymore. The most time-consuming cookbook that I LOVE is Nourishing Traditions. Love the concept, but hate the idea of pretending that it's 5,000 years ago and I don't have access to anything that's actually edible without me spending 4 days preparing it.

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