A 2010 Goal: Major Culinary Overhaul

Last weekend among the bevy of new releases at my neighborhood Blockbuster Video, I rented “Julie and Julia” on DVD. Halfway through the film, I had an epiphany. Rather than simply stew on my lightening-bolt of an idea, I pressed pause, hopped on my Macintosh and fired off an email to my sister, Katie.

(For those who haven’t caught the film, charmingly written by Nora Ephron, the gist is this: Two all-true stories are simultaneously told; one on master chef Julia Child, the other on Julie Powell, a wannabe writer and above-average cook who, in 2002, blogged about her experiences preparing French-inspired recipes by the aforementioned Child.)

I immediately saw a connection, albeit transposed, between me and Julie Powell. I consider myself an above-average writer, yet a wannabe cook.

In the email to my sister, I said, essentially, that nearly seven years ago I purchased my home, complete with a cozy galley kitchen and usable appliances. In those seven years it has become an extremely rare occurrence for me to prepare a meal of any significance or memory. Lack of motivation is a huge reason, but another is complete and total ignorance on what it means to really live in the kitchen.

Having just turned 31, I quickly became embarrassed by all of this. To put it bluntly: What the hell happened?

As a response to my inquiry on wanting to improve/develop/grow my skills in the kitchen, Katie sent the following thoughtful reply. I intend to take all of her advice, now and in the future. If you share my shoes, you will likely find education, inspiration and even a little motivation to make 2010 the year where eating out is overdone.

So, I’ve been thinking a lot about the email you sent about wanting to cook more and wanting some of my recipes. And I started thinking about all of the things I love to make. I thought about a basic cream sauce, a base you can add to to make Alfredo sauce, macaroni and cheese and even a base for cream soup. And then I thought I’d tell you to melt butter and add flour, but without a practical knowledge of how this works, you’ll end up with puff pastry. Which isn’t all bad, but hopefully I’m making a point somewhere in here.

I’ve heard people say if you can read you can cook. And that may be true. Your chicken will be done. Your cookies will be brown. Your soup will be hot. Sure, if you can read you can cook, but it doesn’t mean you can cook well.

So, that said, I would love to take you under my wing and help you be a better cook. But it’s going to take more than recipes. It’s a lifestyle. Friday night I found myself in bed with my headphones in, listening to The Splendid Table podcast and reading my new Bon Appetit. I am obsessed. But these obsessions made me a better cook.

You don’t need to be obsessed, but you need to make some life changes, and these things will build the foundation on the basics.

1) Subscribe to American Public Media’s The Splendid Table podcast. Listen to as many archives as you can. (If host Lynne Rossetto Kasper is off on her travels interviewing a 100-year-old Russian woman, skip it. It won’t teach you anything practical.)

2) Buy a copy of Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything. It’s a kitchen bible as far as I’m concerned, and it should be consulted before you try anything new.

3) Avoid websites such as cooks.com and about.com like the plague. They are full of vague and useless Campbell’s soup recipes. Instead, bookmark Epicurious and America’s Test Kitchen. The latter especially will not only tell you the best way to make Minestrone, but the best pot to cook it in.

4) Read food. I would tell you to read Gourmet magazine, but it’s sudden demise has left us waiting for Ruth Reichl to find a new outlet. In the meantime, Bon Appetit is a fine substitute. Cooks Illustrated is the best, but let’s not rush into anything.

5) DVR America’s Test Kitchen, Lydia’s Italy and Everyday Food on PBS. In my opinion, Food Network has become more food-ertainment than food-ucation. Especially, don’t waste your time with Rachel Ray. She specializes in taking one recipe and turning it into another recipe no one will ever eat. Enchilasagne? Chicago Dog Salad? No.

OK, that should get you started. Now my homework is to really think about the things I love to make and help understand what makes them good. Then I’ll pass them onto you.

Happy eating, dear sister!

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2 thoughts on “A 2010 Goal: Major Culinary Overhaul

  1. Your sister is 99% right about the Food Network (great for inspiration, terrible for education), except for one show: Good Eats. It is entertaining, but they go at length about why you do one thing over another, like why you’d use a certain flour or fat in a dish. It’s what I’ve been watching a lot of lately. The other stuff is good, too, but not as engaging.

  2. Your sister’s email is culinary poetry. As another passionate (obsessed?) home cook, I applaud her advice. She is spot-on. I look forward to reading more about your adventures in the kitchen!

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