Friday, June 4, 2010

Reflection: Learning to Cook

Week 4 of DC-Inspired Recipes is up, and this time it's an Eastern Market recipe:

I've gotten asked before, "How did you learn how to cook? How do you find the time and energy to cook and blog about it?" Here's some of my reflections on the matter:

When I first took an active interest in cooking, I started from my mom's cookbooks and cooking occasionally for my family. I just had to think about what we had on hand, and what I could do with that. Since my family were creatures of habit and didn't buy a massive variety of foods, I had to look through a lot of recipes to find one that we had most of the ingredients for and that everyone would eat. 

Now that I'm out on my own and am free to make whatever I want, I often think of things I enjoy in restaurants, and then I try to make them at home. If I really liked the breakfast burrito I had for brunch at a restaurant, I'll remember that it had eggs, tortilla, peppers, beans, and cheese, and make it at home one day. Restaurants are a great source of inspiration. I find it's fairly simple to find a comparable recipe online, and most dishes are not as complicated as they seem. The magic is mostly in the flourishes like that fresh sprig of parsley or leaf of basil. If something does sound complicated, I look around for easier-to-make version of that same item. Ultimately, if I make a dish and determine it's not worth committing that much time to cooking it, I feel better about buying it at a restaurant. Sushi, for example, CAN be fun to make at home, but it's labor- and time-intensive and requires ingredients I don't normally buy. Even though it costs more at a restaurant, the time and work savings cancel out for me. Sushi's a fun "project" food, but not something I want to make regularly.

I constantly refer to cookbooks and/or online recipes. If you follow the ingredients list and cooking instructions, it's hard to go terribly wrong. What I like about online recipes are that I can see other people's reviews and suggestions on how to alter a recipe. Reading the feedback helps me know how hard or costly the recipe was for other people to make. 

Related to that, if I want to learn a new cooking technique, I use YouTube videos as my 'cooking school.' Cookbooks sometimes assume you already know how to, say, roll a gnocchi. If you don't know how, I can guarantee that someone on the web has already posted a video to teach you. I don't know what these random chefs' motivation is, but kudos to them.

Once I learn how to make something, I think of recipes as "equations." Take the omelette for example. You start with a "base" of egg and you can fill it with anything. Most recipes boil down to equations like that. 1 egg base, 1 type of cheese, 1 type of vegetable, 1 type of meat, and some seasoning. Ingredients are just variables. I hardly EVER make the same recipe twice. I like to vary my options. I do make similar recipes very often, though. When you invest time in learning how to make a dish, you learn even more if you can figure out what foods can be substituted next time. 

When I'm selecting items to go in recipes, I try to purchase raw, versatile ingredients. For example, if I buy mushrooms, I can use them in multiple ways such as salads, pasta, omelettes, stir fry, and so on. Purchasing raw ingredients (as opposed to ready-made frozen stuff)  allows me to be more flexible. If I have an ingredient leftover, I don't have to make the same dish again. I look up something new I can make with that!  

Where do I get the motivation to do this after a long day of work? I've always had an interest in making recipes, which I think I picked up from my mom. She also liked to make meals from scratch when I was a kid. We only went out to eat a few times a month! The rest of the time we had food from scratch, or at least from a kit or mix. I think one way she made this go efficiently was that she had special "nights" of the week for certain foods. I can still tell you what we ate when I was 6 years old because it hasn't changed much over the years. Sunday night used to be chicken, vegetables, and mashed potatoes (although now it is soup and sandwiches), Monday night is spaghetti with mushrooms and meatballs, Friday night used to be hot dogs, baked beans, and macaroni when I was a kid (but now it's seafood from the local shop), and Saturday is steak or hamburgers with baked potatoes and salad (always grilled during the summer). What about Tuesday through Thursday? Well, that was the mystery meat :) Anyway, it always makes me smile that whenever I go home, I can count on Friday Night Seafood.

Aside from that, I don't write about every dish I make. I think that would be boring! Not everything turns out great, but more often than not, I'm pleased with the results. If I think there is an unusual aspect to write about for something I've created, I snap a quick picture on my phone before I gobble it up. Then I try to write it up after dinner before I forget. 

That's most of what there is to it. Nothing too radical - just a love of variety, learning new skills, and good food.

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