As I suggested I should in my “Fun Stuff for Foodies” post of June 20, I went out and bought Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking. I have so far (p. 459) found the tome absolutely, positively overwhelming. I haven’t seen a single recipe yet that I would dare to try making without adult supervision. Every one seems to either call for a pan I do not own (what is a fireproof casserole, exactly?) or describes a complex technique that must be followed precisely or the dish will be ruined. Too much pressure!
Nevertheless, Julia and her co-authors do offer some good general advice to “servantless American cooks” right up front, and here are the highlights I found most helpful:
- Always read the [entire] recipe first, even if the dish is familiar to you. Visualize each step so you will know exactly what techniques, ingredients, time, and equipment are required and you will not encounter any surprises.
- Pay close attention to what you’re doing while you work, for precision in small details can make the difference between passable cooking and fine food.
- Allow yourself plenty of time…. do not plan more than one long or complicated recipe for a meal or you will wear yourself out and derive no pleasure from your efforts.
- Use all the pans, bowls, and equipment you need, but …. Clean up after yourself frequently to avoid confusion.
- Keep your knives sharp.
Speaking of knives …
When I was a kid, my mother was making lunches one morning when the knife she was using slipped and deeply sliced the thumb of her left hand. She actually severed the tendon; it was a terrible injury. She initially refused to go to the hospital, though, saying “I don’t use that thumb much anyway” (the whole family still occasionally teases her about this). Ever since, she’s been a bit leery of knives, particularly sharp knives, and her kitchen knives have just barely enough of an edge to saw through warm butter if enough pressure is applied. I have to admit, my kitchen knives are not much better. I know, of course, that sharp knives are safer and easier to use, but always in the back of my mind is that fear of getting cut.
Well, thanks to Julia’s advice, I finally, for the first time in my life, invested in a knife sharpener and put a fine edge on all my kitchen knives. What a difference! I can actually slice tomatoes into translucent wafers instead of crushing them into ragged chunks! I’ve always believed that every job is easier when you have the right tools, so I’m happy to finally have the right tools in hand.
However, no tool is any good if you don’t know how to use it, and I didn’t realize I had been using a chef’s knife wrong all my life until I watched a free “Handling a Chef’s Knife” video lesson on Rouxbe.com, an online cooking school in which I’m considering enrolling. Just a few minutes’ instruction made all the difference in my technique.
Another tip I learned from Rouxbe is to heat pans before adding food to prevent sticking. I have three cast-iron pans that I was always reluctant to use because everything stuck to them and made such a mess. But when I heat them empty over medium-high heat for 5 minutes before adding the food, I get great non-stick results every time. I even make omelets in the cast iron with no trouble. It’s so easy once you know how!
YouTube is also a great help in learning how to cook. It will show you how to core a head of lettuce in 3 seconds, how to make a classic French omelet, how to spatchcock a chicken (bet you didn’t know you were allowed to do that to poultry, did you?), how to debone a duck, and even how to poach an egg (I’ve watched this video several times because I like the guy’s sarcastic wit, but I still can’t figure out how to make it work in real life).
My foodie friends already know all of this stuff, of course, but for those of us who are not quite so adept, every little bit of knowledge helps. 🙂
Time to go make dinner!