So I have this Personal Cuisine... NOW what do I do with it?
In my first article, I said what every uninitiated cook needs in their kitchen. In the second article, I went over how to put the materials together to allow you the basis for your personal cuisine and how to start building that cuisine from basic recipes. Today, I want to look at a few tips on how to further build that personal cuisine, how an uninitiated cook can integrate it into their day-to-day lives and some things to look for in grocery stores that I think will keep the uninitiated cook's refrigerator and cupboard in fighting trim.
Again, let me restate that the aim of these articles is not to tell people who already know and like to cook how to go about running their kitchens. If that kind of person gets something from my writing, then so much the better. However, I am mainly writing this for the poor college student without the money to spend on huge cookbooks and expensive ingredients or the harried working mom (or dad!) who want to cook something more elaborate than macaroni-and-cheese and meatloaf three nights a week. Think of this as a primer for people who know they want to cook more and better, but have no idea where to start. As always, questions and comments are welcomed and anyone reading this has permission to link and share it.
Okay, so now you've got the basis of your cuisine down. You've got a good dozen or so recipes gleaned from cookbooks, newspaper articles, the internet or wherever. You're ready to start making these dishes on your own now and that's great. To keep you going, I think it's important that you keep a few crucial hints in mind.
Hint Number One - Nobody bats .1000 in the kitchen
It's a fact that occasionally, you will goof up. A dish that sounded great on paper will come out awful or the pasta will be gummy and chewy instead of al dente. The mighty titans of the kitchen, godlike in their stature as chefs, mess up more often than you think (although they often call their whoopses 'experiments' or 'trial cooking'). I myself made a "vegetarian paella" once that was so over spiced, it gave me indigestion for two days. We've all had our whoopses and so will you. Learn to not give up when this occurs. Pots will burn, cakes will fall, and disappointment will occasionally rear its ugly head. Don't let yourself get discouraged! Learn the lesson that you should learn from the situation and move on.
Hint Number Two - Learn from criticism, but don't dwell on it
This is especially important for people with children who start screaming if they can't have mac-and-cheese five meals a day. If you set a dish in front of someone and they turn their nose up, don't let it hurt your feelings. If you taste it and love it and they taste it and hate it, then obviously there's a difference of opinion there. Keep the dish around for social events or private meals but don't toss it away because the person you're with doesn't like it. if nothing else, the basis for the recipe could serve as a starting point for new dishes of your own.
Hint Number Three - Cook as often as possible
Being a poor culinary student working full time as a cook myself, I understand how tight money and time can get. However, as the wise old master said, practice makes perfect. Cook as often as possible, if for no one else than yourself. Cook because you should. Cook because you want to grow your skills. But most importantly, cook because you're hungry and you want to know how best to feed yourself. When you cook for just you, a deeper knowledge of your culinary needs and wants will be forthcoming, which will allow you a better understanding of what direction to take your personal cuisine in.
As a previous reader mentioned, cookbooks aren't the only place to get recipes. If you taste something you like, then ask for a recipe. If your mother-in-law's string bean casserole completely takes your breath away, ask her for the recipe. Ask Miss Molly the Churchlady how she gets her chess pie that way. Mug the matre'd at your favorite sit down restaurant and see if he can score you a copy of the recipe for their clams casino. If you like a dish and it's not too far out to get the ingredients for your home, then ask! But remember to not fall into the trap of thinking that you have to obey that recipe period-point-blank. The key to having a personal cuisine is learning to think about what you're cooking and adapt it to your kitchen and your tastes.
So.. now you have this personal cuisine. What do you do with it? How can you integrate this thing into your day-to-day life? After all, if all you're going to use it for is special occasions and for family get-togethers, you might as well not have it, right? Integrating your personal cuisine into your daily life is exceptionally easy, but it does require some forethought on a semi-regular basis. People with children may be more used to this than people without because of the meal planning that goes on with a house of kids. Simply put, figure out what you want to have for dinner the night before you have it. That way, you can check your pantry and cupboards for the required goods, go to the store if you need to and set things out to thaw and not have to worry about it.
For the uninitiated cook, forward planning is the best ally you can have. Chefs and amateur cooks can go into a cold kitchen and improvise something, but the odds are that the uninitiated cook is not going to have the skill and wherewithal to do that. I'm not saying it's not possible; I'm just saying that it is unlikely. So planning what you'll have the next night is a good idea and really isn't as hard as you think. After dinner for the night is done and you're relaxing before going to bed, think about what would be nice for dinner tomorrow. Let's take something simple, like beef stroganoff. Run over the list in your mind. Do you have the sour cream? How about the mushrooms and the egg noodles? Did you take the beef out of the freezer? You should probably do so if you haven't already. Things like that are easy to consider while you're at rest and relaxed rather than in the middle of your day while you're stressed out. So consider what you want to cook, determine which ingredients are to hand and which are not, plan your grocery store trip if you need to take it and get it all done before you got to bed so that the next day, all you have to do is get up and go to work or school and not have to worry about where dinner is coming from the next night.
Now, a word about purchasing groceries. I have long had the tendency to attempt to buy more than I will need for a few days under the idea that I -might- want to cook a specific dish -sometime-, and so it would be good to have the materials to hand when I need or want them. And while this is not a bad idea when you are talking about non-perishables like canned food, dried beans or rice or things like that, it is less than optimal with perishable items and an especially bad idea for fresh foods like vegetables and fruit. It took me a few years to get the hang of it, but I have finally adopted an attitude that helps me well and I think will help all of you.
The key here is to buy only what you need for the next two days in fresh foods (specifically vegetables and fruits), for the next week in perishable items (such as meat, bread or milk) and for the next two weeks in dry staples (such as canned food. rice or dried beans). Now, for reasons that are pretty plain to anyone with children, this is not going to work very well for the child-having set because unlike we child-free people, running to the store is an event in and of itself, particularly with small children. However, the theory itself is sound. Buy what you need in a time line scale rather than in a need-based scale. Yes, you -may- want to make dill potatoes for dinner on Thursday, but if you buy that fresh dill on Sunday, by the time you get to it on Thursday, it's not going to be in great shape. Also, root vegetables like potatoes, garlic and onions tend to get bought in big bunches then left in the pantry, cupboard or cabinet and used so sparingly that the last few either turn nasty and liquid or try to put down roots by the time you get to them. Remember that these are -vegetables- and so come with a short lifespan, albeit one that's longer than your average fruit.
Meat is a special case here. I feel that, at the very most, meats should be bought no more than a week in advance and immediately frozen when you get them home if you're not cooking with them in the next 48 hours. While I am opposed to frozen meat on most levels, I also understand that people with children are not going to have the luxury of going down to the local grocery or butcher's to buy the night's meat fresh. However, the uninitiated cook that has no small children should seriously consider buying their meat fresh and again, at the most, no more than two days before cooking. The reason is that frozen meat is inferior to fresh meat because of cellular perforation that goes on when the meat is frozen. In simple terms, the ice crystals that form in frozen meat act like little knives that cut the meat to shreds on the inside, which accounts for the liquid, or "weep" that occurs when frozen meat thaws and the somewhat spongy texture. So, I feel that meat is better bought fresh, but if you must buy ahead and store, then please only buy what you need for the week. More than a week's worth of meat and you start not only compromising the taste of your food but cluttering up your freezer. You could use that space for other things, like frozen veggies (another time saver I'm not crazy about but am willing to make an exception for) or desserts (mm.. ice cream!)
From a somewhat food snobby point of view, I would caution the uninitiated chef against processed foods where possible. I know I said I would try to keep that food snob attitude out of here, but I think that it is necessary to caution the uninitiated chef against what I feel is a hazard to them and their guests. I am not a big fan of processed foods as everyday eating. There are far too many chemicals and additives put into your average package of cold cuts to make me feel good about them any more. I would recommend, where possible, that you look at alternatives to those processed foods for your eating rather than sticking with the old favorites. You may find out that the new stuff has more flavor and less plasticy taste than the old stuff. I'm just saying.
Okay, so.. there's only one more installation to go, where I give the uninitiated cook some resources to use and a few parting words. See you guys on Sunday.