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POLL: One Sock-o Dish

My friend--I mean "my friend"--has zero cooking skills. She's also a longtime lurker. She's determined in 2008 to learn to make that one mythic dish, the one great mainstay or even blow-your-minder that will allow her to pass as human and even superhuman at dinner parties, pot lucks, kitcheny conversations, etc.

She's careless is her problem. And she tends to lose the whole plot of cooking. Really, like she looks at a pepper and a recipe and just thinks: Why cut this up and mix it with stuff and heat up the stove? I'll just eat it here. Whoops.

She also messes up measurements, always and gets baking-soda-forgetting performance anxiety and puts stuff in the oven and forgets about it.

Strengths: technophilic, passably competent, adventurous, hospitable, ravenous.

If anyone has a solution, or even takes this poll seriously, I will--SHE will--be eternally grateful, and will try to make the sock-o spread for you once she has it down, in 2010.



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  1. You - I mean she - could start with something very forgiving, like American Chop Suey. My personal twist on that is to add loads of chopped jalapeños. If you and your friends like spicy food I guarantee this will be a hit. It does rely on pre-made sauce, but hey, you gotta take baby steps before you start running. Especially with scissors.

    Both the ingredient proportions and cooking technique are very flexible (though of course it's possible to screw up anything if you try hard enough). Just don't turn the heat up too high and you should be fine.

    Ingredients (all approximate, improvise as you see fit):
    A little olive oil
    One large or two small onions
    Two cloves garlic
    1 1/2 lbs ground beef
    1 lg. jar spaghetti sauce with mushrooms (or any other kind you like)
    1/2 cup sliced pickled jalapeños (the kind you use for nachos)
    1 lb pasta (elbow, rotini, wagon wheels, anything that comes in smallish pieces)

    Get a big (4 qt or more) saucepan. Or dutch oven. Or big deep frying pan. Whatever.

    Chop the onion and garlic and sauté them over medium heat in olive oil for a few minutes. Add ground beef, smush it around to break it up and cook, stirring occasionally, until the meat is all browned. Add sauce. Chop the jalapeños and add them. Turn heat to low and bring to a simmer.

    In a separate pot cook the pasta until done. Drain and add it to the meat sauce. Stir. Done!

    Good luck, and may the kitchen gods smile upon your efforts.

    2 Replies
    1. re: BobB

      Also, get one of those timers that you put around your neck - once it goes off, hopefully it will jog your "friend's" memory that there is something she is forgetting. Good luck! ;-)

      1. re: WildSwede

        The timer is very important for those of us who tend to wander. Not necessary to be neck-bound, but needs to be LOUD! Set it for before you think it should be set and, when it goes off, stay around. Smell the food cooking. Check it regularly from that point on. Good Luck!

    2. I'd recommend mastering roasting a chicken. There's a good thread already going here:

      You could roast potatoes, rosemary and olive oil in the same oven for a nice side dish. Add a green salad, and invite me over!

      1 Reply
      1. re: scuzzo

        Peel some carrots and lay them in there too. I think coleslaw, with chopped apple or pear in it, goes particularly well with poultry.

      2. Ideas for getting any recipe right: 1) Have a snack before you start so you don't accidentally eat a key ingredient. :-) 2) Read and re-read the recipe so you know how long everything is supposed to take (add extra time for prep the first time through) 3) Mise en place - works for cooking as well as baking. Clear a space on the counter and lay out all the ingredients and tools you'll need to make the dish. 4) Learn to use the oven timer(or a digital/wind up one) - mine has a one minute warning beep so I get myself back into the kitchen in time for the final beep...helps when you're making banana bread and wander off to do laundry during the 1 hour baking time :-)

        I hope that helps you er your friend :-D

        1. I'm good to help you/her on this, as I spent years as a five-spectacular-dishes-but-don't-ask-me-to-cut-up-a-chicken type chef, though I've recently been going hog wild into cooking. So I understand.

          First off, don't cook hungry, so you/she won't risk merchandise shrinkage. The alternative would be to choose a recipe using only foods you/she yourself/herself detest/detests.

          As for measurements and precision, there are two approaches: 1. grow up: stop whining, take your/her time, and apply care (deliciousness requires care anyway) or 2. develop an on-the-fly style of cooking that's less about precision than intuition (but don't cop out and use this to excuse an uncaring attitude...there has to be care in either the little or the big picture). In either case, avoid baking categorically.

          Also, I get the impression you're/she's hoping for something lavishly complex and impressive. Is that the case? Or can it be something simple but grimacingly delicious? The former requires substantial fakery, but the latter is a snap.

          Please answer which way you/she want/wants to go on all these issues and I'll/we'll try to churn out The Perfect Answer. You'll just vacuum right up the know-how.

          1. Hey Jude (sorry, just couldn't resist a beatles reference!) What kind of recipes are you looking for? Meat, casseroles, salads, vegetables? I bring various things to pot lucks, and dinner parties. The favorite thing people want more than once is oven baked brisket. but my chili is a close second - wait! Maybe it's equal. Also "Bone soup" made from the leftover turkey carcass.

            I want to help, but I'm thinking you/her need to start off with just a few ingredients, and then work up to the more complex. I also agree about the timer around your neck, or in your pocket. Get one that works like a stop watch so you can see the time counting down.

            And when you place the ingredients out before you make the recipe, put them in the order they are called for. I put mine on one side of the counter, and after using one I move it to a different place, so I remember that I have used it. Nothing worse than doubling up on salt, or sugar, because you had a brain fart!

            Of course all of this is for your "friend"!

            1. Since I don't know "her" tastes, I can't tell quite what "she" thinks will be Sock-o, but I think that the best solution would be braising. Basically, the beauty of it is that you don't need to worry about cooking anything to temperature, you can always add ingredients as you go, to taste, and with little last-minute effort, you have a very delicious - and usually impressive - dish.

              I like short-ribs for this. Here (http://www.chowhound.com/topics/408312) is a thread that I started when looking for a good dish. There are several links. The one I made may seem like it can't be delicious, but it truly is, and so simple!

              1. One of my classic favorites - This is foolproof, and couldn't be easier with just two ingredients. Sounds simple, but is so much more than the sum of its parts.

                Roast Chicken with Lemons
                from Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking by Marcella Hazan

                CH reports and pics:

                1. My eldest daughter's (a brillant doctor and a terrific mother) isn't much of a cook. Her sock-o recipe is Chicken Marabella from The Silver Palate Cookbook. We don't like prunes or olives, but always enjoy this dish when she makes it.

                  2 Replies
                  1. re: Pampatz

                    Ditto on Chicken Marbella. I've only made it once, but it's on my "favorites" list, and it seems like a very flexible, understanding recipe. Don't let it cook forever, though.

                    Here's a link to the recipe:


                    1. I second the suggestion of putting everything in front of you before you start cooking - and I think an important flipside is getting rid of everything in your line of sight that you're NOT going to be using. Basically, I like (well, need!) to make my method foolproof, so I'll set ingredients up in the order they'll be needed, prepare all measurements before tossing the first ingredient in the bowl/pan, and make a visual reference (have used ingredients on left, have not used ones on right) so that I don't even have to remember what place I'm in if I don't want to. And keep the recipe handy for double-checking. If this sounds like a lot of work, look for recipes that don't have lots of ingredients or many time-sensitive elements. After a few runs through the routine, you'll get a better idea of your rhythm and can allow yourself more wiggle room. The time saved running around looking for the corn starch and quadruple-checking the recipe is a big plus.

                      I do this more with baking than with stovetop cooking, but it's exactly the same method I use in my work as an extremely absent-minded lab tech, and it suits me pretty well in the kitchen, too.

                      1. Already my eyes are starting to open. Why didn't I do this sooner? What great responses. A million thanks.

                        First thoughts: I clearly need to grow up, stop whining and slow down, Jim Leff. I need to do Mise En Place, and use that expression (in my head) as motivation. Left to right, and clear off things I don't need from the counter. And I am going to wear a loud timer, with a pre-time warning beep, around my neck. Can I order one of these online? Checking now.

                        I will seriously snack before cooking, to prevent gulping down ingredients like an Ambien eater but without the Ambien.

                        Whew. And now to the recipe itself. I think I don't want to be impressive, just delicious. However, I am very not afraid of many ingredients, and tend to like dishes with tons of ingredients all mashed up (fish paste in banana leaves, casseroles, jambalaya, duck with olives, etc). So I probably would be a bust at simple elegance--roast chicken, say. Although I wish it were otherwise.

                        Are there coarse-palette savory dishes in the puttanesca or stew vein that have lots of ingredients but don't require precision?

                        I also don't like dinner food that is sweet--like the duck dishes of yore or the miso-cod-style dishes of today. Pungent and umami more than spicy or sweet.

                        Sorry, this is turning into therpay. In short: messy and crude, but with a good helping of ingredients and flavor.

                        I like the idea of "forgiving," too. The Chop Suey and Chicken Marsala are frontrunners so far for my first foray. I mean hers.

                        Thank you! AJ

                        2 Replies
                        1. re: AstridJude

                          I just made these tomatillo sauce chicken enchiladas, and they're delicious - and I would think hard to screw up. Put ingredients in pot. Simmer a while. Process the ingredients, pour over a pile of chicken and tortillas. Bake. Eat!


                          1. re: AstridJude

                            "And I am going to wear a loud timer, with a pre-time warning beep, around my neck "

                            They don't call him "Flavor Flav" for nothing.

                            I'm not a 'many ingredient' guy, so I'll defer to other hounds. But gumbo, jambalaya, and chili are classic I-only-cook-this-one-dish dishes, I believe. Also crowd-pleasers.


                          2. Seriously - she should learn how to make one blow-out paella. It's a dish that can be expanded or contracted to serve more or less people; it can include whatever fresh seafood/chicken/sausage available; and it doesn't have to be 100% authentic to awe people. I am an experienced, competent cook but no matter what else I make, when I serve a pan of paella everyone goes crazy. My recipe:

                            6 tbsp. olive oil
                            1 medium onion, chopped
                            2 red and/or green peppers, thinly sliced
                            1 cup diced canned tomatoes (drain off excess liquid)
                            1 tbsp. minced garlic
                            1 tbsp. minced fresh thyme (I used about 1 tsp. dried)
                            2-1/2 lb. chicken thighs, each one hacked into two pieces (or not)
                            2 large chorizo sausages (or similar), sliced ¼-inch thick
                            ½ cup dry white wine (or broth – don’t open a bottle just for this)
                            5 to 6 cups chicken broth
                            ¼ tsp. crumbled saffron threads
                            3 cups Arborio rice
                            1 lb. large shrimp, peeled except for tail segment (you can use less shrimp)
                            24 mussels, scrubbed
                            1 cup frozen peas
                            chopped fresh parsley

                            First make the sofrito. In a medium skillet, heat about 3 tbsp. of the olive oil over medium heat. Add the onions and sliced peppers and cook, stirring, for about 5 minutes. Add the tomatoes, garlic and thyme and cook, stirring, for 5 minutes longer – or until most of the liquid in the pan has evaporated and the mixture is thick. Set aside. Rinse out the skillet.

                            Next, brown the chicken and sausage. Season the chicken pieces with salt and pepper. Heat the rest of the olive oil in the skillet and brown the chicken pieces, turning, until lightly browned on all sides. Remove to a bowl as the pieces are done. Add the sausage slices to the pan and brown lightly. Add to the bowl with the chicken. Set aside. Pour off the excess oil from the pan, add the white wine (or whatever you’re using) and deglaze the pan, stirring to loosen the crusty bits from the bottom.

                            All the above can be done several hours ahead of time.

                            About 30 minutes before you want to serve the paella, preheat the oven to 400o.

                            In a saucepan heat 5 cups of the chicken broth to a simmer. Add the deglazed gunk from the pan and the saffron.

                            In a large paella pan (14-inches in diameter, at least) combine the sofrito, rice, and chicken broth mixture and bring it to a boil over high heat. Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the chicken and sausage. Place on the lowest rack of the preheated oven and cook for 10 minutes. Remove from the oven and arrange the shrimp and mussels on the rice mixture – tucking them in slightly. (If you think it’s getting too dry, add another ½ cup broth.) Sprinkle the peas evenly over everything and cook for 10 to 15 minutes or until all the liquid has been absorbed and the rice is tender but not mushy.

                            Let paella stand at room temperature covered with a cloth for 5 minutes before serving. Sprinkle with chopped parsley and serve with lemon slices.

                            Makes 6 to 8 servings.

                            1. Simple and impressive--the no knead bread. People are always amazed at fresh crusty rustic bread. There are videos on youtube (or used to be?) that show how easy it is. I've been sloppy w/ measurements, time, technique, etc. but have never had a loaf turn out bad.


                              1 Reply
                              1. Just found this...apparently the #6 all-time most popular "Ask Metafilter" discussion:

                                "Help me find a recipe to knock peoples' socks off!"

                                3 Replies
                                1. re: Jim Leff

                                  Aha--thank you, Jim.

                                  One sock-o, socks-blowing dish, btw, should not be latkes. Not only do they demand attention but they don't blow socks off, even under the best of conditions. Or so I learned this weekend.

                                  The paella is my key. I am gathering courage, and plan to make one this weekend.

                                  Thanks everyone! And off to the new thread. . .xxxAJ

                                  1. re: AstridJude

                                    Latkes consistently leave me sockless.

                                    1. re: Jim Leff

                                      Latkes are absolutely always best eaten straight out of the pan, before the guests ever arrive at one's home. Sock-knocking? Well, yes, but only for the cook (and any lucky bystanders). Also it's a sad fact that, no matter how greasily delicious they might be, latkes almost never make a spectacular presentation (unless, of course, one takes the time to plate them in a decorative manner, which one never does).

                                      Paella, even the most pedestrian interpretation of the dish, almost always elicits gasps of awe. By the time one takes the first bite, one is quite past worrying about how it tastes anymore. It's just a beautiful thing to behold.

                                      For maximum effect, you need a proper paella pan. This will give the impression that you make it often enough to be worth an investment - whether it is true or not.

                                2. When gathering courage and determination to start cooking, I would advise: go for decent and yummy. You'll want to get some success and pleasure from your beginning endeavors rather than get exhausted, confused and overwhelmed in first seeking to make The Ultimate Best Ever Dish. I cook, alot, but not paella. Too much.

                                  I'd go for chicken cacciatore or a braised dish. Molly Stevens' All About Braising was a big hit in the Cookbook of the Month. It will give you courage and confidence. Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything is simple, flexible and relaxed. With either of these books and a little attention/discipline, you will eat well and happily.