I've seen a number of wise people on this forum and elsewhere recommend that novice cooks pick a number (usually 10 - 20) of dishes to really work on mastering as a way to become more proficient in the kitchen. I'm a decent cook, but I think I have an awful lot to learn. I can follow a recipe okay, know a few of the "principles" behind cooking, but I don't have that easy facility that the cooks I really admire do. I thought picking ten dishes to really work on might be a good way to improve my skill.
So, Chowhounders: what recipes do you think would be particularly useful to this end? And, if you have some in mind, where should I start in learning how to master them (ie particular books or websites etc)?
I don't have any dietary restrictions, per se, but I do mind my calorie intake (allowing myself the odd treat of course) and don't have an extravagant budget-- I am a student. I'm less interested in desserts at the moment than I am in producing great entrees and/or sides.
I recommend Julia Child's "The Way To Cook."
She separates the book into sections on techniques, so you learn the variations on how to roast, how to braise, etc. The recipes are meticulously detailed and well photographed in steps so you know exactly what to look for. She takes a basic "master" recipe and outlines it this way, and then proceeds to show variations on the recipe. This is all classic American/European style cooking, so once I had a good grasp of those techniques, then I would branch out for specific cuisines such as Indian, Middle Eastern, various Asian cuisines, etc., and get recommendations on excellent guides for those.
Not a recipe but I use these basic steps to get a good number of meals on the table. Dredge meat in seasoned flour, sear. Remove meat from pan, sautee vegetables (including garlic) until softened, deglaze, add seasoned flour and cook, Add stock and stir until starting to thicken. Add meat back in and cook until done. The beauty of it is that you can use thin, pounded meat, like chicken breast, pork chops, etc. for a quick meal, vary the vegetables, wine (or lemon juice or acid), add a dollop of butter at the end and have dinner done in less than half an hour. Use a meat with more connective tissue like a chuck roast or chicken thighs and leave in, either the oven or on the stove, on low for a few hours and you have a stew. There are limitless variations to it. Chicken marsala, veal piccata, coq au vin, beef bourgignon, stew, curry, etc. To thicken it further, you can remove the meat and puree the vegetables or add beurre manie. There's probably a name for this whole technique because it's so basic.
my most rewarding class in culinary school was stocks and sauces. we learned the 5 mother sauces and then how to make variations of them, as well as making all sorts of stocks. that's also an inexpensive experiment for you.
learning not to be afraid of using very high heat was another major lesson. most recipes call for moderate heat, but for many things i like hot hot hot pans, and that's how most of your plates are done in restaurant kitchens.
appreciate the value of mise en place. read the recipe through before you begin and have everything out and ready.
read about cuisines you enjoy, whether it's french, morrocan or japanese, and learn the common ingredients that are used and what is often used together. for example, the mediterranean is abundant with fresh herbs like mint, rosemary and basil. they grow profusely and cooks use them in copious amounts. far greater quantities then the measly chopped tablespoon listed in a cookbook.
improving your basic techniques and understanding food is a far greater achievement than learning a few recipes by rote. i entertain often. except for desserts, i never use recipes. my friends and guests are always blown away by how delicious everything is and then flabbergasted that i wing all of it.
what is is that you love to eat? start there.
Jfood tried to come up with a list that you could use for your family (or solo) as well as combine if you would like company.
1 - Tossed salad with homemade dressing
2 - Vegetable Soup
3 - Roasted Chicken
4 - Grilled Steak
5 - Lasagne
6 - Salmon with roasted vegetables (OK so jfood sneaked #11 in here)
7 - Roasted Potatoes
8 - Risotto
9 - Apple Pie
10 - Brownies or chocolate cake
Jfood would also recommend three books as starters:
1 - Joy of Cooking - Rombauer (Jfood started using this when he was 12 years old)
2 - How to Cook Everything - Bittman (This may get panned on the Board but he does a good job with lots of cuisines)
3 - The New Basics - Russo & Lukins (Silver Palate)
Welcome to your latest obsession. Over forty years later jfood still learns something absolutely every day.
A very good list. . . but I'd sneak Pizza onto the list when jfood isn't looking. Loved by kids and adults, is versatile, can be traditional or artisanal. Lunch, supper, (cold for breakfast), snack. Vegetarian or carnivorous. Healthy or decadent. Goes with beer, wine, or Coke. Uses up leftovers.
Definitely like jfood's list and think it's a good general list. For my taste, I'd swap our numbers 4, 5, 9, and 10 with ...
- stir fry
- bread (white, French, or otherwise)
- omelets (the perfect omelet will sustain you through the poorest times and will never make you feel poor)
Overall, though, I'd echo that knowing how to roast a chicken is the best "recipe" in a homecook's arsenal. I'm off to roast one this day. :)
OP can also take the route that I do, which is to say that I take up projects. One summer, my goal was to perfect my biscuits - it may have taken 3 months, but I can now make perfect (or at least perfected in how I like them) biscuits in my sleep. I find that it's a better way to focus than to split attentions between 10 recipes.
Also, nothing like playing the "what can I make with only what's in the pantry and fridge" game every week night to make you a better cook! :)
I would recommend learning to roast a whole chicken. And then add a few great side dishes to go with a roast chicken.
There will be eight zillion people with eight zillion different ways, but a whole chicken cooked in a 400 degree oven until a meat thermometer inserted into the thick part of the breast reads 165 is a good start. You can season the skin, starting with salt and pepper...or more. You can roast vegetables in the pan alongside as well.