Guidelines for beginners

Blog Dad Paul’s not-so-recent entry about a visit to my house (and a priori my new and improved kitchen) was touching. I vowed immediately to post a thank-you reply on MY blog with a reconstruction of the recipe.

So it’s been six weeks. In my blog, that’s almost prompt.

First, we must contemplate some rules for beginners, especially to cooking from Erin’s “recipes,” if you can call them that.

Trust yourself. I don’t usually measure stuff. You’ll have to use your judgment. As Dr Spock said, you know more than you think you do.

You should always taste the ingredients as you go. This doesn’t apply to things like raw chicken, but it does apply to raw garlic, onions, and pretty much everything else. Yes, you know what an onion tastes like. But do you know what thisonion tastes like? Different kinds have different characteristics, and they all differ throughout their life cycle sitting around in your pantry. If you make a habit of tasting a nibble of just about everything you put into a dish, you’ll automatically start adjusting your amounts of things and realizing what other things might be needed. You’ll also notice over time how much things that you think are the same aren’t. For instance, white and yellow onions are pretty much interchangeable in recipes in the sense that either one will end up tasting good, but they’ll taste good differently.

As for that raw chicken or fish or whatever, smell it. What are you smelling for? Preferably not much. Most raw critter flesh (yes, including fish) shouldn’t smell like much of anything, and that more that it does smell like something, the more you should be worried. You’ll get better at this over time. For now, just start adding to your own personal smell memory library.

Use kosher salt. No matter what. Throw out that other crap you have. Run it down your drain to help combat any tree roots that may be attacking your sewer. Use it to de-ice your driveway or to melt ice in your ice-cream freezer. Use it to kill slugs and snails in your garden. Use it in craft projects. Do not let it near any of your food. It’s nasty. If you don’t believe me, taste a dab of it on your finger tip, then do the same with kosher salt. You’ll become a believer. If you need culinary authorities to convince you, get either of the late Barbara Tropp’s fantastic books (Modern Art of Chinese Cooking is the bible of Chinese cuisine for Westerners, consciously modeled after Julia Child’s famous volumes on French cuisine for Americans; China Moon Cookbook is a collection of recipes developed at the late, great China Moon Cafe in San Francisco) and look up “salt” in the index.

Oh, all right. You may also use sea salt that is uniodized, or fancy-schmancy uniodized designer salts that you can buy in high-end stores. For extra credit, build up a salt collection, get in that habit of tasting your salts regularly, and you’ll become a more intelligent user of salt. I don’t generally give salt quantities, except when I’m afraid people will use too little, but it’s important to note that my quantities will always assume kosher salt or state otherwise. If you’re substituting some other kind of salt, you’ll need to adjust. No, really; this is true.

Use the damn salt. Unless you’ve specifically received medical advice against consuming normal amounts of sodium, as Blog-papa Paul has, you should stop worrying about the sniveling amounts of kosher salt I recommend and instead start worrying about why you consume so much sodium in crappy prepared foods, when you could instead be making much better food for yourself.

While we’re at it, salted butter is the only stuff I even buy, unless I’m committing the rare act of baking from a recipe that calls for unsalted. I don’t believe in margarine, and I especially don’t believe in partially hydrogenated vegetable oils (e.g. Crisco), which are basically a clogged artery waiting to happen and taste nasty besides. I have successfully made many a pie-crust and cookie using chilled butter instead of shortening.

Don’t fear your food. Food can smell fear a mile away, and it will eat you alive. Cooking is not that hard. You’ll be fine. If you’re not sure, try something, or look it up in one of the bibles of basic methodology (such as The Joy of Cooking, but be sure to get an older edition. The current one hacked up and dumbed down TJOC). Either way you’ll learn and do better next time.

Heat the pan, then the lubricant (butter, oil, or whatever), and then add the food. This seems silly, right? But it’s crucial! Many people put the pan on the burner, add the oil, add the food, and let them all warm up together, but this results in mushy, sweated stuff that sticks to the pan.

Your burners are probably too low. Unless you’re doing something that especially calls for medium or low heat, such as sweating some onions or braising some meat, neither of which I’m likely to recommend very often, you’re better off cooking things more quickly at higher heat. In general the reason for this is to get firmer, juicier, more flavorful results, especially when meat is involved. I’ve recently learned, however, that I cook bacon too fast. My more patient sous gets much better, crisper results from cooking it slowly over medium heat.