Saturday, December 26, 2009

Realizing a Long-term Goal – How to Make Yourself into a Cook

It’s a lazy day after Christmas and I am doing what I normally do at year’s end: using the time to clean up unfinished tasks that I’ve been meaning to complete. Today it’s reading; I’m cleaning out my backlog of magazines and trying to make progress on the two books I’m reading. One of the sets of magazines I’m catching up on is a few back issues of Cooking Light. Given that this is the time of year to think about goals and given that I’ve used that subscription to improve my cooking skills over the last few years, I thought I’d relate that method for you as a way to look at developing goals and making good on them over the long term.

Cooking was always something I enjoyed but never really spent enough time on to do really well. Mostly I appreciate eating good food. As I was exiting my marriage about two years ago I decided that I wanted to become a better cook, specifically I wanted to be able to make meals that I could enjoy eating, that is being able to make really tasty food. I chose to do this with a particular method or formula that was regimented and thereby relatively easy to follow and stick to. Here’s what I did:

  1. Bought a subscription to a cooking magazine. In my case it was Cooking Light. I had a few friends who made recipes from the magazine regularly, and had enjoyed tasting them so my decision was easy.
  2. As each month’s issue arrived, I would in reading it mark those recipes that I thought looked good.
  3. I’d make photocopies of the marked recipes and place those copies into a stack.
  4. I resolved to make a regular habit out of grocery shopping picking the same time each week to go the store. This afforded me the ability of being able to plan menus for the week.
  5. At planning time I’d go through the recipes in the stack and pick 2 or 3 that sounded good at the time, and make a shopping list for the ingredients for that recipe.
  6. That week I’d take a few nights to prepare the selected recipes. If I liked them, I’d make a few notes about them (what they would go with, suggestions to improve the taste, etc) and then place them into a 3 ring binder. If not, then I’d either consider retrying them or discard the recipe altogether.

Over the course of a year or so then I managed to build up a repertoire of recipes that I liked, and in the course to improve my cooking skills. Sometimes, I’d make an error in the preparation by not realizing the importance of particular step. I’d make a note about it on the recipe, and then maybe a month or two later retry the recipe. If a particular combination of two dishes didn’t pair well, I’d make a note about what I thought the recipe would be better paired with, or maybe make a note about what sort of wine would pair well with the dish.

I think that this method had some really nice advantages over say simply buying a cookbook.

  • I wasn’t committing a lot of extra time, but rather was committing to a consistent routine. Any week I never was biting off more than I could chew or expecting to become proficient overnight. I simply was taking time to plan menus that were selected based upon my interest in eating the foods described.
  • I was learning techniques as I was making recipes. For example, 2009 saw Cooking Light do a while series of issues on basic techniques (braising, steaming, sautéing, grilling) and with each I’d understand the mechanisms of how each worked, what types of dishes they were used to prepare, and what they did not do well.
  • I was using my own interest in eating good food, by reading about it regularly to continue to keep myself motivated to try the recipes. I think this aspect is critical. Considering the fact that you’re going to have days when recipes fail (and believe me I did! sometimes a whole week’s worth turned out poorly) its easy to get discouraged.
  • Because the method is systematic, when it came down to the preparation of the dish on a particular evening, the planning had already been done. The recipe was tacked to the fridge. I knew all the ingredients were already purchased. On any evening I could simply focus on the basics of preparing the dish. And when you’re coming home from a long day at work, this is the sort of ease that you want. In fact I actually got to the point where cooking was a form of decompression for me. My work is at times abstract, long term, and at time frustrating. Cooking is immediate, concrete, and “hands on.” My success or failure was entirely mine, and would be evident within 60 minutes of starting.
  • Finally I was learning how to think about the science of preparation, not just trying to make recipes. By understanding cooking concepts and then attempting to use them, and by analyzing what went wrong or right I was making these techniques concrete for myself. Essentially applying theory to practice.

The result? Well, I won’t say that I’m a great cook. There are still lots of people whose skills I admire much more than my own. But what has changed is that I’m confident that I can assemble a menu, and prepare a meal well; one that I enjoy eating and would not be embarrassed to prepare for someone else. And that was essentially my goal. I also find that now I can modify recipes to suit my taste because I understand the principles behind how they are put together. All this has had the effect that making food at home is now something I can do as a social activity. I used to enjoy greatly going out to eat with friends or heading to a party where I knew the host(ess) was a great cook. There is something about enjoying good friends and good food together. Now I can do that by my own hand. This sort of sensual, emotional experience is one that is tied to experiencing our values through the people that we value, and our ability to provide them an enjoyable experience, and it is a fantastic experience to be able to create. Some people even make their careers by helping others understand and create this experience, such as good friend and objectivist Jen Iannolo, whose Culinary Media Network strives help people bring that sort of sensual experience into their own lives.

As an example, I had my sister over yesterday for Christmas. The day consisted of not much more than playing with our pups, and chatting, maybe watching a movie. But I inserted food into the mix and it added a special ingredient. In the afternoon I had a small cheese plate, and made up some homemade guacamole (first time I’d ever made it) which turned out fantastically. Then for dinner I made a tenderloin steak with sautéed spinach, and herbed potatoes. My Philly apartment isn’t conducive to owning a grill so I’ve been working on the best way to prepare meats without it. After several different attempts using slightly different technique variations, I made these steaks by first searing them in a pan for about 3 minutes a side, and then finishing them using the broiler, using internal temperature to gauge doneness.  The spinach was sautéed in sesame oil and garlic and finished with just a bit of rice wine vinegar to complete the wilting process. The potatoes tossed in olive oil and herbs, and then roasted in the oven. The whole meal came out perfectly; the preparation was part of the experience as she sat at the bar and helped while we chatted.

It’s taken a year or so to get to this point, but this is what I envisioned as a goal. A goal that was reached by a method that was rather simple to execute looking back on it.  Next year, cooking will be about expanding my repertoire. We’ll see what comes out in my goals for the year. That post will be up in a about a week. Stay tuned.

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