April 23, 2013

Aristocrat in the Kitchen: Learning to Cook

A yellow kitchen in an old castle.
Despite the old walls, the kitchen still feels welcoming.

It is a sad fact of life that not all of us are born knowing how to cook. It is even sadder that reading through cook books, food blogs, or nutrition text books does not grant you the ability either. Oh, it is possible to slough through a cook book, following each recipe exactly, and emerge with some idea of how to cook. But it won't be that enviable competency of the kitchen.

The sort where, upon strolling into the grocery store and seeing tomatoes are on sale, immediately inventories their fridge and buys half a dozen knowing how to create salsas, pizza sauces and the like as soon as they return home. It isn't the sort who has rack upon rack of spices and tosses them into the soup seemingly at random- stopping only taste the broth, nod sagely to themselves and then a few more sprinkles of this and that and- Voila! Perfection in a bowl.

Luckily, if cook books lead to half knowledge and experimentation leads to unedible or bland constructions- in my experience- there is a very simple way to learn how to cook: ask a friend. Learning from another person is far more enjoyable than the other ways and, I believe, is far more instructive. Unlike a cook book, a friend can answer your specific questions or explain how to do some incomprehensible step. The process is very simple:

A gothic kitchen: the wall behind the stove is a decadent carved tile. Worth of a castle.
A dream stove.

1. Find a friend who is willing to teach you to cook. No doubt there is always someone who possess more knowledge in the kitchen than you. Be it your best friend or someone you would like to be better friends with, ask them. People like doing other people favors.

2. Choose a menu. Depending on your skill level, it is better to start with simple basics that you can make on a weekly basis without going over budget growing sick of. Pizza dough and pizza, roasted root vegetables, pasta sauce, home made soup, fruit tart, etc.

3. Go shopping. Everyone has their own route through the grocery store and their own small list of things to buy. Going shopping with a friend is like stepping into an entirely new building. Aisles you never traveled down before suddenly become full of new, exciting products. Plus sales or certain items might spark last minute menu revisions. An elegant touch is to offer to pay for all the groceries. After all, you're the student.

4. Cook! You may end up doing a lot of things you've done before- like chopping garlic or washing lettuce. But that's alright. Watch your friend carefully. Ask questions or for clarification. Pay attention to what spices or sauces are used. Play some nice music. Have a good conversation in the down time. Learn to clean as you cook.

5. Eat the food you prepared. Most cooks will have a commentary about what they have just made. The butter didn't cool enough. The chicken wasn't cut into small enough pieces. It could have used some more garlic salt. Listen to that and memorize the taste of the food. You are beginning to develop a palette for different dishes. Soon, possibly, you'll be able to deconstruct dishes at restaurants.

6. Make the food again. Within the next week, make each of the dishes you learned again. They won't be exactly the same. They won't taste quite as good. But you need to memorize how to make them and start learning to tell yourself that "Oh, this needs more salt" or "That was over cooked." This is also a good time to realize that you didn't remember how hot to have the oven or that you weren't paying close enough attention to the spices. Look it up online or call your friend.

7. Go back to the cook books. Now that you know the basics of how to roast a sweet potato or make a pizza, go to the cook books or online for inspiration and variation. Tastespotting is one of my favorite cooking sites. As you grow more comfortable with the foods, feel free to start improvising with ingredients or techniques. The more you learn, the more confident you'll be in the kitchen and the better your diet will become.

How did you learn to cook?

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