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Laid-off: how to spend my time cooking??

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Long-time board user, first time poster...

So I've been axed, laid-off, terminated, sent packing, blah blah blah, but with a decent severance. Before I embark on the next chapter of my yet-to-be glorious corporate career, I plan on spending the spring focusing on my amateurish foodie hobby. I want to shop, cook, experiment, discover, eat and drink as much good food as I can. Between the necessary trips to the gym, my goal is to become a better and more efficient cook.

So, I am looking to the hounds for suggestions, tips, ideas and generally, inspiration. What would be your dream set-up? My food preferences run the gamut.

I'm not looking for restaurant recommendations necessarily, but recipe ideas, unique food experiences I can attempt to recreate at home (outdoor fire cooked paella, whole roast suckling pig, etc...). I want to spend my mornings in the markets, delis, cheese shops, butchers (which ones?), my afternoons in my kitchen cooking, preserving, marinating, experimenting and writing about it, and of course my evenings eating and drinking wine.

My first big project is a 5 course dinner party for Friday. Suggestions?

I know this is a very general topic, but I plan to use it as a blog/dialogue as I try to put my idle hands to better use than watching tv.

Thanks,
laidoffhound in Toronto

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  1. here are some things I would love to do, and mean to make time for:
    -croissants
    - pate (my uncle made one at home that ruined all others for me)
    - salmon jerky
    - duck confit at home
    - drying my own shitake mushrooms (because I can only find those from China)
    - master terrine making

    enjoy the pit stop en route to glorious career!

    2 Replies
    1. re: toutefrite

      Sorry to hear that you got laid off. But the severance-induced cooking time sounds pretty awesome.

      For me, it would be bread. I would crack open The Bread Baker's Apprentice and drown myself in bread.

      My only advice for a five course dinner party would be that at least 3 of those courses should be something you can make ahead and serve at room temperature, or something that slow cooks so you can just pull it out whenever you're ready for it. Like, say you served veggies and bean dip, slow-cooked duck breast, bread, and ice cream. All that stuff just requires plating, so you if you wanted, you could also roast or fry some potatoes when your guests get there, without spending the whole night in the kitchen.

      Here is a link to some make-ahead suggestions people made to me:

      http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/695872

      1. re: toutefrite

        now I can't stop thinking of what I would do!
        - striped ravioli with filling of my dreams ( I never like what is on offer at restos)
        - perfect the egg souffle
        - gnocchi
        - naan
        - all manner of chinese dumplings and buns

      2. I'm in the same boat as you. Over 20 years with the same company and Wham! Laid off. So - I have been taking time surfing a lot of the cooking boards, making up menus for a whole week at a time, shopping and preparing all manner of new things that I have never cooked before. My DH has been a gem with all these new foods. Some are really great keepers and some I would do again with changes. Its kind of fun to run the gamut.

        New things I have made are Chicken Cordon Bleu, Stuffed Pork Chops, Roasted Red Pepper Fettucine Alfredo, Pulled Pork, Stuffed Peppers, Baked Potato Soup, and the list goes on and on. Some of the fun things are creating the menu around some key ingredient. When I was working, it was usually something quick and easy, nothing big during the week. Enjoy your cooking and surf around - if it looks or sounds good, go for it and enjoy the experience. Don't limit yourself.

        1. Like beer? Become a home brewer!
          When I have plenty of time for cooking projects, I enjoyed making dumplings...chopping all the ingredients really tiny, very theraputic. Same goes for making sushi.
          I second the rec for making bread, that's always sounded like fun.
          Homemade terrines, jams, preserves...as spring brings more fruit and veg to work with.
          Gardening...perfect time to sow some seeds...and grow your own ingredients!

          1 Reply
          1. re: BeeZee

            Home brewing! I have not tried that!

            I'm a semi-CH as in I know what I like but I don't usually have the equipment to make it.

            This is what I've worked on when 'semi-retired'

            Cleaned out kitchen and re-stocked missing key ingredients.
            Made noodles
            Made bread
            Made sushi
            Made potstickers
            Canned foods - as in I canned foods (not bought them canned)
            Learned to follow a baking recipe and learned to improvise
            Annoyed my neighbors w/ all the "1st time" recipes
            I want to try gnocchi
            Never tried naan

            Still on the horizon is smoking a pork belly for bacon. I'm still hunting down the ingredients. I have the smoking woods / time.
            Repeat

            I have had more time to search the markets, etc. for the best ingredients, advice. Which was strange to me at first cuz' I'm usually in the "get in and get the eff out" mode. All store keepers are SO into their realm of departments. It's been inspiring even when I don't speak the same language. I could spend an hour in the produce department alone.

            LaidOffHound - Please keep us abreast of your adventures!

          2. When I finished grad school to an unforgiving job market, I got cozy with offals. Pig ears, beef tongue, chicken gizzards, chicken and pig feet. Along those lines I also challenged myself to work more with vegetables I was not familiar with like every squash not summer or acorn, Kohlrabi, Kale, Swiss Chard, Leeks, Cassava, and Mustard Greens. As a result I was drawn to many ethnic cuisines that I did not know too much about. Souse pigs feet, phoenix claws, tacos de lengua, ect.

            I also suggest starting a home-brewing hobby. I was making honey meads and apple cider for Christmas gifts.

            1 Reply
            1. re: Crockett67

              Offal is definitely on my to-do list. There are a couple places in Toronto that will let you watch as they dissect a whole animal and show you how to prepare every last little bit of it in the most delicious sort of way! I don't have the space or tools to take on a whole pig for example, but I'm on the look out for the opportunity.

              But the innards are on my shortlist. My sister is pressuring me to prepare sweetbreads as one of my course on Friday.

            2. I'm sorry for your predicament but LOVE your attitude. I'd second the really finicky baking skills (like croissants, brioche, etc.) but I'd also love the time and patience to learn cheesemaking.

              2 Replies
              1. re: Beckyleach

                Thanks. It could be worse, at least I was fortunate enough to get not so much a golden handshake, but a bronze tip-of-the-hat. Cheesemaking is something I've never considered. I sort of was putting that off until I bought my first monastery or at least had a dark and cold cellar to age with, but I have thought about making my own buffalo mozzarella - mmmmmmmm.

                1. re: laidoffhound

                  Please don't put off cheese - I used to make this years ago (we had a farm and milked cows) - it is the most wonderful thing ever - you don't need that much space. Just give a couple of loaves a try. I also think the canning thing is fantastic. (On the same farm, I grew and canned anything I could get), although it has been years. I even canned meat. I don't know where you live, but if you have access to fresh tuna, that is also something to can and there is nothing else like it.

              2. Same thing happened to me, and I ended up "funemployed" in NYC for 8 months between the last job and the next step, which ended up being grad school. NY was a great place to do it, since I had access to any cuisine or ingredient I could ever want. The big tings for me were making my own yogurt & granola, making pizza, discovering Indonesian food (tangent: one COTM near the beginning was Oseland's Cradle of Flavor, now one of my favorites. It was that cookbook that got me interested in Indonesia, so I when I started grad school I decided to study the language, and just last week I got accepted to a program to spend the summer over there doing research. Crazy where these things lead.) and making several big old pots of tomato sauce. I threw a lot of cookouts and dinner parties. Enjoy your time off!

                3 Replies
                1. re: Emmmily

                  Wow! Congrats, Emmmily! I hope you have time to hone your Indonesian cooking skills this summer. And I'd love to hear about how some of your favorite CoF recipes compare to the real thing, once you have a chance to try it!

                  Good luck!

                  ~TDQ

                  1. re: The Dairy Queen

                    Thanks! There have been a few events for the class with food from my professor and other Indonesian families in the area, and it's been, without exception, mind-blowingly good. I fully intend to keep a blog going while I'm over there, and likely gain a few pound while I'm at it :-)

                    Laidoffhound - I do recommend you find a copy of Cradle of Flavor at your library, peruse some of the threads here from when it was cookbook of the month last winter, and try a couple of dishes. Such an incredible cuisine, and so underrepresented in this part of the world!

                    1. re: Emmmily

                      I love cooking from Cradle of Flavor. Last month I had a visitor from Singapore who absolutely approved of the book's ingredients and techniques. In fact, she was rather astonished to find such a book in a USA kitchen. Punched holes in some of her stereotypes of us.

                2. I was actually working on a blog post earlier today about how I wish I had more time to cook my way through the French Laundry cookbook. If I were in your position, that's where I'd start. Amazing book and well written, but those recipes take time!

                  Best of luck to you!
                  Ladyberd
                  http://ladyberds-kitchen.blogspot.com

                  1. Best place to start is with food you most like to eat, what have been your all time great meals. Learn to make them yourself!

                    Focus on a specific cuisine that you particularly like. Get recs here for the best books/websites. Look online for classes nearby. Learn techniques, follow recipes and then experiment so that you know how and why dishes come out the way they do. Learn where best to buy foodstuffs, including on-line. Keep practising so that the dishes taste best to YOU.

                    Most of all HAVE FUN.

                    1. Get yourself a Weber Smokey Mountain smoker and join the BBQ cult. Best way to cook Q is low and slow. You have lots of time so the slow is not a problem. Within a few months you will have mastered the techniques of good butts, brisket and ribs.

                      1 Reply
                      1. re: duck833

                        My parents have a Weber smoker that's almost 30 years old! It was our cottage bbq until a few years ago, now it's in Toronto. I've spent lots of time cooking steaks and the standards, but haven't quite graduated to the super slow smoked meats yet. Butts, shoulders and beef ribs are things I intend to work on after I ahem steal (ie. borrow) my folks' smoker.

                      2. Have you made your own pasta, this was a gift from my son with lessons this xmas and I never realized how awesome the difference is - I really love pasta now.

                        Congrats by the way, I too believe, that when one door closes another awesome door opens so have a blast.

                        If your guests on friday are good foodie friends, I would do a neat theme and base your dishes around it - I'm always intrigued by asian food so that would be mine. Or maybe a greek evening. Or if you're doing homemade pasta - an Italian evening with laidoffhound!!!

                        or even very different, hold your own cookoff where you do all the dishes - everything made with shrimp. might be too weird but I would do it!

                        :-)

                        1. Thanks everyone for their input so far - keep em coming!

                          I've settled on the middle 3 dishes for Friday - second course: rustic cottage pate made with pieces of duck and chicken breast, calf's liver, etc. (first foray into pates so gonna make it tomorrow); third: simple scallop served in the shell (haven't decided whether to sear it or ceviche it); fourth: baked lamb shanks.

                          Still thinking about courses 1 and 5. Leaning towards a custard for dessert. First course I'd like to find something crazy and way out there that I can prepare tomorrow ahead of time.

                          Tonight I made a simple baked pasta with bolognese sauce topped with homemade Italian breadcrumbs, fresh mozzarella and basil. I didn't have any traditional wines to pair with it so I opened a bottle of Niagara chardonnay: Le Clos Jordanne Claystone Terrace 2007 and it went really well with the dish! The leftover wine is going over quite well right now actually.

                          Tomorrow I'm going to the Healthy Butcher in Toronto to grab my meat order then spending the afternoon making my pate. I think I'm going to buy a whole duck and some jars and make confit on the weekend.

                          1. Paella
                            fresh mozerella
                            fresh ricotta

                            1. I would pick a country and/or continent. Review the COTM list and reviews of the recipes. Buy a book, and learn to make Northern Chinese food, or Thai food, or French classic bistro food.

                              And, I would take this opportunity to learn to make bread. The smell of fresh bread in the house is amongst the most wonderful things in the world.

                              Enjoy your stay-severance-cation.

                              1. I think it would be cool to build your own outdoor wood-fired oven. There's a book on how to do it: "Build Your Own Earth Oven" by Kiko Denzer. If you have no burning restrictions in your community I think it would be really cool to bake your own bread and pizzas in your backyard. I live in a townhouse, so I can't build one.

                                1. Check out The Paupered Chef food blog....particularly the older posts. These guys have become obsessed with everything from homemade cider to charcuterie. And they blog about their adventures in detail. By the way (unrelated to The Paupered Chefs), duck confit and/or moussaka would be my first suggestions. Best of luck in your unemployedness. We rarely get opportunities to take some time off. Enjoy it!
                                  http://thepauperedchef.com/

                                  1. I too, found myself in the same predicament as you. I also decided that this would be a good time to do some baking and canning. I started off by canning tomatoes then I progressed to making jams; strawberry, raspberry and rhubarb. After that I got into pickles; kosher dills, sweet pickles, pickled cauliflower and pickled jalepenos. Next it was on to baking, some thing I have had problems with in the past but I forged ahead anyway. I am partial to rye bread and I finally found a recipe that results in a good quality loaf of rye. Naan was another I just had to try and it was the easiest bread I have ever made. Parker House rolls are always a hit and easy to make since decent dinner rolls from the store just don't cut it.

                                    My most recent forray has been into sausage making. This is something I have wanted to do for some time but I have been a little leary about trying it. I started by making breakfast sausage which was really easy and then I stepped it up and have made two batches of Italian sausage. Both turned out really well and next it's on to Polish sausage.

                                    As you can tell I have alot of time on my hands but I am sure you find it very rewarding. Best of luck to you!

                                    1. I'd echo everyone about your great attitude! I'm sure you will bring a lot of joy to your friends and family. It might be good to think less of things you want to make and more of skills you want to gain in the kitchen. Things where you learn a technique an its infinite variations. A few ideas:

                                      Croissantmaking
                                      Puff Pastry
                                      Canning
                                      Breadbaking
                                      Pastamaking
                                      Foraging - mushrooms, wild greens etc.

                                      1 Reply
                                      1. re: Dcfoodblog

                                        Sod foraging fer stuff...all that shufflin about lookin fer weeds in other peoples gardens no non ....nah...smoke things....the weather is great for smoking things,,,or slow roasting....or heck...even build a tandoor for the back yard...

                                        and if all that fails i suggest listening to the John Cooper Clarke track entitled tw*t whilst tenderizing a piece of flank steak...which you could then rub with garlic and marinate over-night in an ancho-chile, lime and salt reduction...smoke over chips (hickory is always good)...and serve with fresh naan bread from the new tandoor you have just built.

                                      2. I would:

                                        learn to bake good bread
                                        cure my own meat
                                        learn to BBQ (not grill)
                                        roast a whole goat/pig
                                        brew my own beer
                                        grow my own herbs
                                        make pasta
                                        practice making really good pizza and ramen (substitute your favorite dishes).

                                        1. Hi laidoffhound, I am a grad student which at times is like being laid off. I've been experimenting with vegetarian and vegan cooking during the last semester and it's really improved my cooking skills as a whole.

                                          Don't get me wrong, I love rich, full-fat meat and I'm no vegetarian. But this lets me try a lot of new foods and cooking techniques and it has the side benefit of saving a lot of money. It's really challenging to cook a savory meal for friends while avoiding flavor enhancers like meat and butter. A five-course vegetarian dinner that everyone will enjoy would be a real test of cooking skill!

                                          1. Get yourself a copy of Peter Reinhart's "The Bread Baker's Apprentice" and "Peter Reinhart's Whole Grain Breads" and try some of the recipes. I have the Pain a l'Ancienne from "Bread Baker's…" in the oven right now. Pretty easy and the results are great!