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reading from a cookbook

Schooled: Teaching Yourself the Science and Art of Cooking

If you’ve been reading this column for any length of time, especially in the past few weeks, you might have noticed the library staff are a little obsessed with food. Okay, we’re extremely obsessed with food. Need a restaurant recommendation? Call the library. One of us is bound to have a detailed review of a place that features the cuisine you desire. But many of us are accomplished home cooks and/or bakers and much of our non-work related conversation revolves around dishes we’ve made or are hoping to make. Many staff events have been catered in-house by our talented colleagues.  

I don’t think we’re alone. Americans have always been focused on the art of DIY, the ability to teach yourself a skill and the desire for constant improvement. Food is just the current focus of these desires. And most of us feed our desire for the next craving through the consumption of media. Traditional media outlets like newspapers have always featured columns for food topics and recipes to clip. According to Amazon’s magazine subscription section, there are over forty-four food related periodicals to which you can subscribe. There are multiple cable TV channels dedicated to watching chefs prepare meals and elaborate food competition shows. And then, it should go without saying, there is the Internet.

So we have plenty of information about food at our fingertips these days but where does a person begin? I am an entirely self-taught cook. I had some instruction from my parents but more in the baking department. Turns out, you can’t eat apple pie for dinner every night and maintain a healthy lifestyle! Once I had to start providing nutritious meals on a regular basis for myself and then for my growing family, I had to acquire some serious chops in the kitchen. Where should a kitchen novice start? I think some analysis and self-reflection are necessary here. Are you type A or type B? Can you deal with the possibility of failure? Most importantly, do you think cooking is an art or a science? When I started my cooking journey, my answers were: Type A, NO, and I’m not sure. While I’m still type A, I’ve learned enough tricks to turn my kitchen failures into successes and I now know that cooking is just chemistry and eating well is an art.

The very first cookbook I ever owned (and still own) is America’s Test Kitchen’s The Best Recipe. Headed up by the beloved and reviled Chris Kimball, the America’s Test Kitchen/Cook’s Illustrated franchise is all about getting results. If you need to know how to make the basics and want assurance that you will always a recipe for success you can’t go wrong with The Best Recipe. The recipes that come out of this school of thought are definitely science-focused. Every recipe is meticulously tested with multiple variables to produce the best possible version of the dish. Recipes also have a lengthy introduction that describes the methods utilized and the reasons for selecting them. There are also delightfully descriptive side notes that explain particular techniques the recipe requires. My personal favorites include chicken parmesan and the popover recipe.

If The Best Recipe represents the scientific, modern end of the spectrum for the beginner cook, Mark Bittman’s How To Cook Everything is more firmly rooted in the traditional artistic idea of kitchen basics. Bittman, former New York Times food columnist, started writing How To Cook Everything as a way to spread his belief that “anyone can cook, and most everyone should”. Bittman has a wonderful basics chapter that describes various techniques and ingredients every new cook should know. But the rest of Bittman’s approach is fast and loose and geared towards reality: busy people with crazy schedules and hungry people to feed.  Recipes are simple, straightforward, and filled with possibilities for substitutions, in case you don’t have the exact ingredients on hand.  

The only possible downfall I see is what I call the “Amelia Bedelia” factor in his recipes. In Peggy Parish’s classic, Amelia Bedelia is the literal-minded housekeeper. In her employer’s long list of instructions, Amelia is supposed to “dress the chicken”, so she makes little doll clothes for a whole chicken waiting to be cooked! Now, of course, that’s an exaggeration of how people can misinterpret directions but I could see some confusion happening with Bittman’s pared down instructions. For example, he directs his audience to “scoop out the flesh” of an eggplant in the roasted eggplant dip recipe. Scoop out?  With what? Most of us would realized that we need a spoon to accomplish this but this lack of specificity could terrify a beginner in the kitchen.

There are many more books I could recommend but like everything else in life, the Internet has revolutionized the kitchen for the self-taught cook. It began with the widespread availability of recipes online. People could now search for reviewed recipes on websites and be spoiled for choice in nanoseconds. Once the smartphone entered the game, there was no need to panic at the grocery store anymore as ingredients and amounts can be checked instantly.

Perhaps the greatest advantages home cooks now have is YouTube. I learned how to truss a chicken, seed a pomegranate and properly chop an onion from watching YouTube videos. I could recommend channels but the best thing to do is a simple Google video search for the technique you need when faced with a kitchen conundrum. Bring your laptop or tablet into the kitchen, watch, re-watch and then imitate. This is modern living at it’s finest!

You can have all the recipes, cookbooks and technology at your fingertips but the only way to truly learn to cook is to try it. It’s just one of those skills you must learn by doing. There will be failures. There will be recipes that don’t have quite the right timing or the right temperature. You’ll forget something; the smoke alarm may go off. But that’s ok. Great chefs aren’t born, they are made in the kitchen!

Kate Tigue is the Assistant Children’s Librarian at the Morrill Memorial Library. Read Kate’s column in the September 29th issue of the Norwood Transcript and Bulletin.

Kate Tigue

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