Monday, February 9, 2009

Culinary 911

OK, we've all been there, right? Having watched our mothers breeze effortlessly around the kitchen, whipping together tantalizing home cooked meals, we deluded ourselves into thinking we could cook. I mean, how hard could it be? Surely we absorbed the ability to be a domestic diva from our mother's gene pool, or at the very least, through osmosis as we savored her Chicken Divine, or ladled big spoonfuls of her Beef Bourgignon into our hungry mouths? And maybe your mother wasn't a domestic diva, but you figured if you watched enough episodes of Rachel Ray, you'd morph into a cooking goddess. And so, feeling newly confidant, you tossed some ingredients into a pan, added some spices, turned up the heat, and bingo! You almost burned the kitchen down. OK, maybe you didn't almost burn down your kitchen, but you might have committed a secondary offense, such as smoking your roommate out of the house, or sending your boyfriend running for the toilet. Your culinary masterpiece is actually a WMD! It turns out that cooking is a lot harder than you ever imagined! But so is algebra and The Iliad. The big problem isn't that it's hard, it's that no one ever sat you down and taught you how to do it.

Now those of you who know me probably know that I love cooking more than almost anything in the world, second only to eating what I cook. I spend hours in the kitchen, and hours out of the kitchen imagining what I'll do once I get into the kitchen. Often, my friends will ask me how I learned my rare skill. The truth is that I had to teach myself, and I had to start from scratch.

When I graduated from college and struck out on my own, my cooking repertoires consisted of boiling rice in a bag. If I was feeling extra fancy, I'd throw in some frozen peas and call it rice and pea surprise! To this day, I'm not sure what the surprise was, but most likely I wanted to make the idea of eating rice and peas yet again less vomitous. The sad truth was that despite that fact my mother was wonderful cook, and my brother was a top chef in training in culinary school, I didn't know how to cook a damn thing! I'd grown up lazily subsisting off of my mother's culinary generosity, and later, my father's financial generosity in providing me with tuition to college (thank you poppa!), and also room and board, the board part being most critical to this story. Sure dorm food was the bland meeting the blander, but it was quick and easy, and didn't involve me burning down the kitchen.

But after I graduated from college, everything changed. Suddenly, I was living on my own in a strange city being paid a sub-zero salary that didn't leave much room for dining out. Faced with the grocery store, I stocked up on boxed mac and cheese, spaghetti in a jar and my old stand-by, pre-cooked rice and frozen peas. My diet was repetitive and boring, but at least I wasn't risking any accidental flambeaus! It also wasn't particularly healthy. Like many overstessed, underpaid twenty-somethings, I was the frequent victim of every office bug, flu season and any other contagious ailment circulating around the great Los Angeles area. I should also mention that at this time in my life, I didn't belong to a gym. Not even cheap-o Bally's. And why not? Because I'd deluded myself into thinking that I could save money by jogging around the block instead despite that fact that I abhor running more than Oprah! (More on this later).

After a few years, and several additional pounds thanks to my sedentary desk job, I finally started to get serious about my health. I started by joining a gym, and I also began the slow, laborious process of teaching myself how to cook. I began with a basic cookbook and a basic recipe that my mother had mastered. My goal was simply to make the perfect risotto. And yes, I know that risotto is the fancy version of my dietary staple, rice and pea suprise.

The first time I attempted risotto, I stirred it so much that my arm threatened to dislocate from its socket, and the resulting rice dish bore little resemblance to my mother's flavorful, colorful risottos. Unlike hers, mine was bland, soggy and deserved to be served in a nursing home. But I didn't give up. It was the year of risotto, and I kept making dish after dish until I started to improve. Once I mastered the basic recipe, I began experimenting with variations. And yes, I even tried a rice and pea surprise version, but this time there was a surprise (thank you Jaime Oliver)! I added shrimp. And the result was delicious!

Since then, risotto has become a staple in my culinary arsenal. I always keep arborio rice stocked in my cabinet just in case I need to whip some up in a pinch. I do all kinds of seasonal variations on the theme, my recent favorite being a roasted cauliflower, kale and black cod risotto finished with a squeeze of lemon juice. After I perfected my risotto, I moved on to learning to cook other dishes. A big challenge for me, since I was raised mostly vegetarian, was learning to cook meat. And currently, my obsession is heirloom beans and braising. Before that, it was hash and paella.

I could go on and on, boring you back to work, but the point is that it took years for me to learn to cook - it didn't happen overnight. I started small, one basic recipe at a time, but each time I tried a new recipe, or discovered a new cookbook, I learned something important. And now, almost every night, for what costs less than dining out, I get to enjoy amazing, quality restaurant meals that I know are far healthier than anything I could buy. Also, I get the satisfaction of knowing everything that went into each dish. And now you can do it, too. One risotto at a time. And without having to dial Culinary 911!

Cookbooks that helped me learn:

The Naked Chef (Jaime Oliver) - He has great risotto instructions and recipes.

The Barefoot Contessa - Love her basics, and still cook her perfect roast chicken and turkey meatloaf.

Charlie Trotter - Especially his Kitchen Series (more for the experienced cook) and Cooks at Home. His recipes are more advanced, but cooking his food took my skills up to the the next level.

Google - This is probably your biggest resource, and even better, you already have it if you're reading this blog! Now of days, when I get the inspiration to make something, I will often google other people's recipes. After I read them, I'll either find a great one, or have a solid foundation to come up with my own approach to the dish.

Basic Kitchen Equipment:

(a/k/a the things every kitchen should have, but probably doesn't, unless you overindulged on your wedding registry!)

Pots and Pans - A quality set of stainless steel pots and pans will save your life - and your dinner. When I first began my culinary adventure, my top chef brother visited me and was horrified to discover two things about my kitchen. One was that I possessed the world's worst pans: they were thin, refused to heat evenly, and consistently burned part of every dish. So I invested in a set of All Clad MC2 (their least expensive line) and I never looked back. That was eight years ago, and I'm still happily cooking with the same basic set. Yes, they're more expensive, but they last forever! Also, please avoid non-stick like the plague. Not only does it cook food differently than stainless steel, it has also been shown to leak bad carcinogens into food when the surface is nicked or scratched.

Here are the pots and pans I can't live without:

-Stock Pot - For soups, risottos, etc.
-Saute Pan
-Small pot with lid for rice, etc.
-Small frying pan (not non-stick) - for eggs, etc.
-Braising Pan (more advanced) - this is my most recent acquisition, and I'm obsessed with it! Wonderful wide cooking surface and domed lid. Made to go in the oven. I cook everything in this dish from simple sauted greens, to
braised meats and stews, to mussels, to risotto (yes the dreaded R word again!).

- This is the second horror my top chef brother discovered lurking in my kitchen. Cheap, awful, dangerous knives! He refused to do any cooking until I dispatched him to Williams Sonoma with my credit card to procure me a respectable knife. You need one good, high quality knife. And ideally a sharpener. Yes, it costs a little more, but it will save you time, money and trips to the emergency room.

If you buy a decent Santoku Knife, you won't need any other knives, except possibly a serrated bread knife. Wusthof makes decent knives that won't break the bank. I also love their sharpener. For anyone interested, I use this Shun Santoku knife almost exclusively.

With good pans and a good knife, you're ready to go! Here are other basics that I love:

Wood Cutting Board
High Quality Blender (Cheaper than a food processor, and works well for all sorts of soups, sauces, etc.).
Mini Food Prep - I use it instead of a food processor, easier to pull out, and to clean.
Microplane greater - amazing for lemon zest and parmesan reggiono.
Cast Iron Pan - Cheap, non-stick, amazing for warming tortillas and making hashes, potatoes, and anything that tastes great with a crust. Can't beat it for the price!

Grocery Shopping:

This is where it all begins! I will post a lot of more later on sourcing food, shortcuts, pantry must haves, the importance of organics, cost saving ideas, etc. But here are some basic tips. I get my food almost exclusively from these sources:

Whole Foods - Yes, the nickname Whole Paycheck isn't entirely undeserved. However, the quality and quantity of foods they stock is unparalleled. Also, by cooking at home, I eat out infrequently, and actually save money even though I shop here. I believe that shopping at a regular grocery store (Ralph's, Vons, etc.) for healthy foods is like trying to navigate a mine field without losing a limb. I hope that will change in the near future (C'mon Obama!), but for now, it's bleak out there. I will share some cost-saving tips for how to shop here for less in later posts.

LOVE Delivery (Los Angeles Organic Vegetable Express) - I subscribe to this organic fruit and vegetable delivery service, and have for many years. For less than $30 a week, I get a fully customizable box of organic fruits and vegetables delivered to my doorstep. This allows me to buy less at Whole Foods (only proteins, grains, etc.) and saves me time shopping. I'm a big proponent of organics (more on this in later posts), and you can't beat their pricing. Also, incredibly nice people run it.

Trader Joe's - On occasion, I will find myself shopping here. They carry amazing things sometimes, but can be very hit or miss depending on the day. If you're doing a recipe, you may have to go somewhere else for a key ingredient. Also, while their prepared foods can be delicious, reading the labels here is important - not always the healthiest. Also, proteins, especially fish can be tough to find fresh here. Here's some things they have that I like:

-Tilapia - In a pinch, theirs is usually decent (check expiration date), and this fish does well farm raised. Quick recipe, I saute some veggies in a pan, then add the fish and finish with white wine that I reduce into a sauce.

-Organic Chicken - Whether you're after a whole bird, or just breasts, they have this at a great price.

-Organic Veggies - Their organic veggie section has expanded, just look for it rather than the normal veggies. Sometimes, they have very special items too, like gourmet small potatoes I found the other day that were amazing in a braised stew.

-Organic Omega 3 Eggs - They have these at a nice price.

-Ezekial Bread

-Canned Wild Alaskan Salmon (better than farmed fresh) - you can make this like tuna salad, dill and lemon added are delicious, serve on whole wheat toast or over salad.

Some avoids:

-Salmon - Farm raised salmon raises major health red flags, and it's what they carry usually. Salmon could be farmed well, but currently is not. Also, best to avoid at WFs, too. Look for MSC certified wild Alaskan salmon. The canned is a better option, and just as healthy. I'll do a post later on which fish to eat and which to avoid.

-Their other fish in general - Unless you know the sourcing, it's best to avoid. For example, almost all Tilapia will be farm raised in a healthy way, so it's fine to buy here.

-Deli and cured meats - Almost everything they carry is loaded with nitrates (carcinogens). Look for nitrate free only.

-TJ's Processed Foods - These are very tempting, but read labels on their prepared and processed foods. Some are going to be better for you than others, and this is where you'll find lots of hidden sugars, fats and salts.

Good luck!

No comments:

Post a Comment