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Suggestions needed about cooking for others,,,

I have a question that probably doesn't have an answer, but I'll ask anyway, and hope for some insight! I am a private cook for a wonderful family. They are very easy going and have very few dislikes. They are open to suggestions and new ideas. I can always tell when they love a dish I've made, but I think they hold back if they don't like something I've made. I can't believe they liked EVERYTHING I've done, but it is a nice thought, lol. I've asked them about particular meals and they always say they liked it. I have no problem with criticisms with my food, I love hearing feedback. Maybe they don't want to hurt my feelings. Anyway, I am constantly trying to please them with new dishes and I am running out of ideas. I have a million cookbooks, but sometimes I like looking for a tried and true recipe that I know will work. I go to a few websites that have recipe reviews, but I can't always depend on them. One recipe in particular, a roast with dried soup mix and canned soup got hundreds of 4 star reviews...it looked awful, and I can't imagine my family liking it. I'm not a food snob, but I need more sophisticated recipes to keep my family happy. Epicurious is good, but is there another site you'd recommend?
My other question is, how do you cook something you don't like? I know I am cooking for their palate, not mine, but when I hate a particular ingredient, I have trouble cooking with it...I can't tell if the dish is good or not, or properly seasoned. My problem is lemon juice and vinegar. My family loves homemade salad dressing, but I can't pick out a good viniagrette to save my life, lol. I made a good poppy seed dressing and a sesame oil dressing that they liked, but otherwise, I'm lost. And lemon on anything other than a dessert is just gross to me, lol. So, overlooking that I don't like it, how do I even know what I just made is good? I've picked out popular recipes with good reviews, but I hate the ones with lemon juice. Again, my family seems happy with everything I make. I think maybe I need to chill out and relax, lol

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  1. Interesting situation- you must cook for them very frequently (six days a week?) in order to have hit a recipe wall...not sure that cracking traditional cookbooks would be such a great idea since I imagine that your skills include a lot of master recipes etcetera. Why don't you make the family a tongue-in-cheek-but-serious questionnaire and give them a chance to be very honest about what they've particularly liked or disliked and a few things they'd be happy to eat more frequently so you don't feel hesitant to offer repeats of things they may love more than you think?

    As for the vinaigrette...even though you are repulsed by vinegar, that flavor is pretty important in a dressing and the classic recipe, if followed, will yield you a really nice result and I promise you will not need to taste it:

    1 part acid (lemon, red wine vinegar)
    3 parts good fresh oil
    1 tbsp dijon
    1 tsp salt
    a few good grinds of black pepper

    Good luck.

    1. Tell the family one day how you honestly feel. Do what I do to my own guests. I tell them that I am never insulted if someone doesn't like something. But let me know. After all, I don't like everything that I eat myself. However - don't lie to me because if you do you are liable to get the same dish again!

      1. Basic Vinaigrette:

        1 part red wine vinegar
        3 part olive oil
        1 part Dijon

        Add a clove of garlic
        Add Tarragon
        Balsamic instead of Red Wine Vinegar
        Chopped anchovies

        It goes on and on. This should be your standby. It is fast, easy to scale, delicious and lends itself to countless variations.

        1. This is a perfect time to focus on becoming a chef!

          You must have tonnes of experience. What I'd do is go to some kind of big food market and take your inspiration from ingredients. Keep it fairly simple, but if something draws your eye, think what would go with.

          For instance, say you're strolling through the market, when suddenly you come across some wonderful smelling tomatoes! Many opportunities there. Then later, you come across a fishmonger with some fresh sea bream. Maybe you can think of a way to combine both?

          If that's not quite what you were after, how about refining some of their favorites? Or adding a twist?

          4 Replies
          1. re: Soop

            After reading your reply, I decided to pick a market,walk thru and find inspiration. The first market that I passed, was an Indian market..a place I'd never been too. I'm new to Indian flavors, so I picked up several spices I didn't have, and a few things I never heard of. I decided I was going to make Pork Vindaloo. Before I made the vindaloo paste, I measured the ingredients out, smelled the spices and in a few instances, tasted them. One of the spices didn't agree with me and I was so sick and nauseous that I couldn't even see straight, lol. I couldn't taste any dish I prepared without fear of becoming violently ill. It all worked out though, they told me it was the best vindaloo they had ever had. I just wish I knew what it tasted like!
            You're right about searching for inspiration for whatever catches my eye. It forced me to rely on my creativity, and not someone elses recipe. Thanks!

            1. re: ChrissyMc

              Awesome!! So glad it worked, I'm so proud!
              Sorry you felt ill though! What spice was it, do you know? There may be a good alternative (personally I hate corriander :P)

              1. re: Soop

                I'm pretty sure it was tumeric. There was another bottle labeled "sweet curry", but I don't know the particular ingredients.=(

                1. re: ChrissyMc

                  I dislike tumeric to. Very bitter.

          2. I would keep a list of every meal you make for the family. You can come up with new ideas from the list. If possible, add their comments. If they love sauteed breaded chicken cutlets, try veal.

            Also, what about introducing the family to some vegetarian meals? Lots of options if you decide to go that route...

            One of my favorite cookbooks for well-liked and relatively simple meals is "Everyday Food." It's by the Martha Stewart people, but the food is not stuffy or time consuming.

            Soup is usually a winner. Gazpacho with lots of garnishes or chilled zucchini leek soup with a squeeze of lemon. Both good with a simple platter of grilled chicken and vegetables. In the winter, comforting soups are delicious, quick to prepare, and filling. This past winter I made a roasted caulifower soup and grilled cheese- brie and raspberry jam on fresh multigrain bread. My husband raved about the meal and can't wait for it to get cold enough for hot soup!

            2 Replies
            1. re: cheesecake17

              I do keep a very detailed log of all the food I make. I also have a star system, rating everything. Only the 4 star dishes get repeated.
              i asked them about vegetarian meals, and they said they'd love to try some.

              I forgot to mention that the wife is on a no carb diet. So any rice, pasta, potatoes, etc. must be served separately from the main dish.

              They said they love soup, but because it's the summer season here, they don't want any til the fall. They like gazpacho, so I've made that. Other cold soups are out.

              Thank you for your suggestions...I wrote them down and added them to my list of new things to try.

              1. re: ChrissyMc

                What about a white gazpacho?

                And since the wife is on a no carb diet, what about preparing spaghetti squash for her instead of pasta? Have the rest of the family try it... and if they like it use it as the basis for a whole meal.

            2. For other websites, check out Leite's Culinaria, stay away from All Recipes!

              As for cooking with ingredients you dislike, I think over time a palate learns not to appreciate merely flavors, but also balance in food. I personally hate the combination of fruit and meat as with tagines or certain European sauces. But I can taste the balance when everything comes out right.

              1. I love Cook's Illustrated's website and cookbooks/magazines. However, there is a charge for using the website and a subscription fee for the magazines. Since it is your profession, perhaps you could write it off. That said, no cookbook or website is 100% infallible. Taste is such a subjective thing. And yes, I think you do need to relax more and worry less.

                1 Reply
                1. re: PAO

                  I went into work today with the mantra "relax more and worry less" running thru my head, and it worked. They liked everything I made, I made something plain and simple, and didn't stress over it. I made tilapia with a salsa topping, phyllo cups filled with black bean, corn and avocado, a mexican inspired cole slaw and a salad. They don't want carbs, so no rice or pasta, etc.

                2. How would they react to a vegetarian day each week?
                  I'm betting that would make you look at new dishes from those you are used to cooking them.

                  6 Replies
                  1. re: Peg

                    I asked them about a vegetarian day, and they were ok with that. As long as I "don't feed them grass", I'm ok. And I have to have chicken nuggets on the table so that the 5 yr old doesn't die of starvation, lol.

                    1. re: ChrissyMc

                      Do you make your own chicken nuggets?

                      1. re: cheesecake17

                        Hi Cheesecake . Yes, I do make my own nuggets. They had been eating the frozen nuggets, before I came to cook for them. I felt guilty serving them, so I've tried a variety of recipes. So far, the favorite chicken nugget/finger recipe they like is the one I coat in potato chips. They like panko ones too, but the potato chips always get a smile from the kids.

                        1. re: ChrissyMc

                          I dip chicken pieces in egg whites and dijon mustard, then in crushed baked potato chips. My husband loves them!

                          My friend does it with fish for her kids, and they love it.

                          1. re: cheesecake17

                            I made fishsticks for the kids that way too. They both know it's fish, but they call it Chicken Nugget Fish..Makes me wonder what else I can get them to eat, if I just roll it in chips, lol

                            1. re: ChrissyMc

                              Pretty much anything! You can also make zucchini rounds or sticks rolled in chips. Any kid will eat their green that way...

                  2. I'd start going ethnic in a big way. Indian Kofta kebabs or Tandoori chicken, or even chicken masala are all basic, and they'll probably love them. Even Rogan Josh, when served as a lamb or lamb and beef meatball is great.

                    Pork meatballs Asian style with ginger and water chestnuts (Lion's Head) are fabulous.

                    I can sympathize. My DH is really limited on veggies, so side dishes are where I hit a wall.

                    Chicken is a fave around here, but I'm not as crazy about turkey, so sliced turkey in gravy over bread with veggies (open faced sandwich) is a good way to do it.

                    What about veal? Do they like stews?

                    I haven't started on fish. You can do paellas, gumbo, etc.

                    1. Sometimes I hit a roadblock of what to make as well. I do two things.

                      first I keep a binder of pulled recipes from magazines etc. so what i don't knwo what to make I start shuffling through those. they are things that i want to make but haven't yet. Sometimes that works.

                      Otherwise it's coming up with one flavor or ingredient that i want to use and then working from that. Am i in the mood for pumpkin? tomato? black beans?

                      Sometimes it's just best to simplify instead or trying to think.. OK.. I want to make a soup... now what kind. It's just two broad.

                      1. hi
                        I also cook for a family and I just take my cues from them. its a can't fail approach. I ask them what they would like for that evenings dinner/snack/special requests and I go from there. They also supply me generously, with a ton of veggies, meats, spices, additives and ingredients so I can basically cook at my own whim and use my imagination.
                        I'm with you, I often don't like the dishes I cook but I remind myself that I am not cooking for me. I taste it and I know if its good as a recipe..
                        These people have traveled all over the world and have a semi-sophisticated taste without being snotty. They love Asian dishes which I have come to master and they love veggie dishes. Any kind of veggie dish. My specialty before I came to work for this family was baking. cakes, cookies, pies etc.. but had to nix it for the healthy meals they request. Reluctant at first, I soon learned to love all cooking. but I miss the wonderful cakes, puddings, cheesecakes and desserts, that are more what I'm all about.

                        1. One thing you could do for some new ideas is subscribe to a few blogs. A couple I like are Simply Recipes and Smitten Kitchen. You might have your own version of suggested recipes or want to adapt them, but they will be a source of ideas.

                          Another thing would be to look at the recipe index for food blogs you like. Here's one from a blog that I don't think is as active as it used to be, but may have some ideas: