The Fun Of Cooking

7 09 2008


When my mother was around 9, her own mother died. Being the girl of the family, with her father and brother as the males (and it being 1957, to boot), she was left to the cooking and cleaning.  She learned to cook a few good dishes, and, when she had visits with her Grandmother (rarely, as they lived about 700 miles apart), she was taught a bit more. Instead of being happy about cooking, she learned to hate it.

So, when I was old enough to have an interest in cooking, she let me make cookies, cakes, pies, breads and such.  But she didn’t teach me how to cook meals.  She didn’t want me burdened with having to cook.  About the only thing I did learn, other than how to bake (because that was a fun thing to do, according to her), was to prep vegetables and make popcorn.

Lets just put it this way – I could peel a potato really well, prep vegetables so that they look amazing, and I was an expert in the art of popcorn making.  When I first moved to New York, not knowing how to cook anything, I lived on popcorn and Dr. Pepper for about a year.  I still love popcorn, and can’t live without my Dr. Pepper ;)

I remember very clearly, one of my roommates in tears over my preparation of Kraft Macaroni and Cheese.  I didn’t realize the water had to be boiling /before/ you put the macaroni in the water.  I ended up with a gluey mess that really wasn’t edible for most people, but being so hungry that I ate it anyway.  Anna, the roommate I mentioned above, taught me some of the basics – that you need to boil water before the macaroni is put in, that letting an egg sit in the pot full of warm water for about 10 minutes before you actually cook it, bringing the egg and the water to the same temperature, kept the egg from splitting and cracking when it was boiled.

Once I got married, I learned a whole new lesson – I knew next to nothing about cooking and my husband expected actual meals, as if by saying “I do” at the alter, it immediately made me a cook.  My whole experience of cooking up until then consisted of using a can opener to “make soup”, pre-packaged “add milk & butter, mix, heat  and stir” meals.  I didn’t know the difference between elbow, lasagna, or ziti pasta.  I didn’t realize that sausage for dinner was not the same thing as breakfast sausage.  And the only way I knew to cook chicken was to bake it with a can of some condensed cream soup.

So I got out the cook books I had received as gifts for my wedding – The Joy Of Cooking (1975 version of the book), and Better Homes & Gardens Cookbook.  I began reading The Joy Of Cooking and, though I really wasn’t interested in some of it (Sweetbreads, for example), it did teach me a lot.  I followed recipes literally and very exactly, with no deviation whatsoever.  I would pick up a cooking magazine, or a new cookbook every once in a while, and make a new recipe, or ask people for theirs.

Once I got familiar with cooking, I was still afraid of it.  It literally made me nervous.  I was always afraid what I cooked would come out terrible and I was unsure of techniques that the cookbooks talked about.  I didn’t understand even the simplest things – braising vs broiling, boiling vs simmering, saute vs frying.

I started to watch cooking shows, most notably, Emeril.  Though I really didn’t care for how he presented his show, I learned so much from him.  Namely.. how *not* to be afraid of cooking.  He made food seem fun.  He, it seemed, would just throw ideas together, and come up with good food.

But by far, the person who taught me to lose my fear of cooking forever was Alton Brown.  I’m one of those people who *need* to know What, Where, When, How and Why for everything, and Alton Brown, on his show “Good Eats” teaches just that.  The show can be silly, is always quirky, but is always full of useful knowledge about the what, where, when, how and why.  I’ve watched him since the very first episode 12 years ago, and always have fun learning new things.  Or just watching his interaction with “Thing” ;)

About the same time I discovered Alton Brown, I also discovered a magazine.  I was always buying cooking magazines, which were filled with hundreds of recipes.  There was usually some theme to the recipes, but these magazines always made me feel as if I was missing something.  One afternoon, I picked up Cooks Illustrated, took it home, and read it cover to cover.  The magazine contains no advertising at all, and usually contains between 10 and 15 recipes.  Not a lot at all.  But what the magazine lacks in quantity of recipes is by far made up for with the quality of the recipes themselves.  A typical recipe is given after a lengthy discussion about how the recipe goes together, how the author of the article made the recipe, what changes were made to it, and why.  And How.

So, between Alton and CI,  I learned cooking terminology, about pots and pans, knives and whisks; how to mix spices and herbs to create amazing flavor, why flavors work, and what flavors don’t, but most importantly I lost my fear of cooking and learned to love it.  And to love to experiment.  I would challenge myself to create new recipes, trying new things, with old things, and seeing what worked, and what didn’t.  I really had a lot of fun, and still do.

I’ve found out, over the years, that cooking is one of the things that makes me who I am.  I love to cook.  I’ve cooked for crowds of 75+, I’ve cooked 7 course fine dining type of meals; I can make fun and interesting amuse bouche; unusual appetizers that people actually beg for more.  But for the most part, I’ve learned to love simple foods, good flavors, create interesting ideas, and I’m never afraid to try something new.

Mexican food has always been a favorite of mine, and I enjoy making that type of food a lot, but I’ve learned to cook everything from Cuban, Brazilian,  Asian — Chinese, Korean, Thai, to Italian, Greek, Portuguese, and of course, a lot of regional American.

I’ve taken a couple of cooking classes, too.  Intro to Basic Cooking — where I learned why Kosher Salt is so much better to cook with, in certain dishes, and how to slice a tomato, and Knife Skills, where learned that a sharp knife won’t cut me and leave a bloody trail across the kitchen.  And Asian Fusion class — which wasn’t really my cup of tea, since the “Fusion” was French, and I’m pretty much a Non-French Food kinda person.

Since my divorce, I’ve cooked less — less people to cook for, but when I do cook, I have a blast doing it.  I have been teaching my son to cook over the last 2 or three years, and last year, I was persuaded by Sander to create a blog for my recipes.  I really enjoy sharing what I have learned, and the recipes I’ve created, or just recipes that I love there.

Madam Benoit says exactly how I feel about cooking:

“I feel a recipe is only a theme, which an intelligent cook can play each time with a variation.”

I guess, in conclusion, cooking, for me, is just a fun expression of myself, in the same way art is.   It can be masterful, or just ordinary, but it is always interesting.


image I actually remember the first time I cooked. I must have been about three or four years old – and had played in the kitchen while mother was cooking. The details are a bit vague, but I think I insisted on “helping” and mother gave me little pot where I could mix flour and water – which she then put to the oven with her cake. Thankfully, I don’t remember how my “cake” tasted…

At some point I got a childrens cookbook, I think I might have been about eight or nine). Remember, this was before the age of overprotection, so the cookbook still had things like making hot porridges (including boiling milk), cutting vegetables and so forth. I think I tried most of those recipes – my both parents worked and sisters were older then I, so I got home first and when I wanted something hot to eat, I had to make it myself.

Around twelve or so I started making cakes and other dishes – at first together with mother, then on my own. She must have been rather annoyed about the occasional unwashed cookware and table dripping with paste… not to mention, my habit of trying “new things” and changing recipes whimsically.

I guess at that time I also picked up the basics of actual cooking (not that I know overly much about them even now) and developed “my taste”. Few years after that I experimented quite a lot with different spices, including growing them in our country house garden.

And that taught me two things. 1. There is nothing better food-wise then oven roasted pork. 2. Simple is good.

image Oven roasted pork is still my very favorite food. And after trying it with various spices and ways, I figured out that you really cannot improve what is perfect already. So now I cook it with just some onion, pepper and salt. I like pork roast drier than most people, so the pan sauce is absorbed by the meat, instead of it just laying on top.

Oh, that wonderful pan sauce… onion, carrot, turnip and potatoes have added to the wonderful taste of the pork. Cut the pork open, smash the potatoes and pour that sauce on them. A loaf of bread and some hot milk… pure heaven on Earth.

I actually toyed with an idea of going to a culinary school after the high school and becoming an actual cook. Hovever, as I was faaaar more into biology, that is where I went.

I still like to cook, very much so. But I’ve learned that mostly I like simple things – I do turkey with simplest possible filling, my cakes tend to be simple (such as jelly rolls), my meat dishes simple and tasty. My tastes are very plain, give me a good chunk of meat and color me happy!

But in discussions with Michelle I found that I know very little about all the little tricks and tips of the trade. That happens when you’re self-taught and don’t like cooking books too much as well. Did you know how many different types of beans there are? I thought there were two, fava and kidney beans…

As she has an inquisitive mind, she knows a whole lot about why something is done in the way it is, not just “it is always done like that”. I’ve learned whole lot more about cooking from her – and will probably do so for a very very long time. At least I was able to teach her how to cook buckwheat porridge and semolina pudding – both delicious and simple dishes. First one is even the most read post in her food blog. Go me!


Beer or Wine

17 08 2008

His Opinion51tzejuCbTL__SS500_1

Beer… beer… BEER… Doesn’t even the sound of that word make you swallow thirstily? On the other hand, “wine”… just associates with “wino” and “vine” – and that’s it.

One is mellow golden brown and bubbly, the other looks like a wino took a leak… smells and tastes that way, too. Is there even a competition? (In case of red wine, make it a wino with a kidney problem).

To be honest, I am not totally against wines. There are some wines that I like, mostly semi-sweet muscat wines – you know, the ones that sommeliers hate. Because they are not real wines – made from sour grapes that have been crushed with bare feet, then kept in a barrel until it has gone stale – no, they are wines that actually taste good, not like someone crushed chalk into vinegar and bottled the result. Oh, and I do think that a big portion of a taste of the wine comes from toe fungus…

And yet, even two or three glasses of it give me a slight heartburn.

That is not the case with beer. No heartburn there, no matter if I have one bottle or six.

Of course, you have to choose your beers. Most major US beers are still the same as in that Monty Python joke: 

– Why is American beer like making love in a boat?

– Because it is fucking close to water!

There are some good US beers… or so I’ve heard. Corona from Mexico is worth checking out, Heineken and other German and North-European beers are usually at least drinkable.

For the BEER!

Her Opinion

Wine – the fermented juice of grapes, made in many varieties, such as red, white, sweet, dry, still, and sparkling, for use as a something that invigorates, cheers, or intoxicates; happy happy drink; classy; freaking yummyness.

Beer – Unpalatable fermented grainy liquid that does not taste very good, does not invigorate, cheer – just makes me have to pee incessantly; tastes like unbaked bread with too much yeast.

In case you wondered who was the “Beer” and who was the “Wine”, I’m Wine. He’s Beer.  And you’ll soon see why ;)

I will admit to drinking beer on occasion – when there isn’t any wine around, (and then only under duress), but when the choice is to be had, I’ll take wine anytime.

I  prefer the light, semi-sweet taste of a half-dry Riesling – full of delicate fruity flavors.  Or a robust Shiraz – amazingly delicious.  A bottle of wine has a history to it.  Every season produces a slightly different wine.  The weather, moisture, the barrels, the wine producer, the cork, the bottle type – all of these must be perfect in order to create a bottle of wine.  Wine making is part art, part talent, part luck, and all about passion. 

Learning about wine, and all that goes with it is something people grow into.  They become interested in wine, learn how to drink it, why you have to let a red wine breath, and why you should not over-chill a Pinot Grigio.  It’s a grown up thing to do.  Unlike beer, which is basically the first thing you get drunk on when you are 15. 

Like I said above, it tastes like unbaked bread that has gone bad.  Plus, I’m in the U.S. – we have crappy beer.  Have you ever actually tasted Budweiser?  Or <gag> Coors?  There isn’t much out there that can taste worse than Budweiser – even those overly priced energy drinks are better.  The cheapest wine has better flavor.

Typical Beer Drinker:

I’ll stick to wine, thank you very much.