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Beyond RealLemon: Why I’m REALLY Not A Better Cook

OK, so by now we’ve probably all seen the Chow story, “Top 10 Signs Of A Bad Cook” by Joyce Slaton, in which she identifies various ways in which you might determine you are not in the presence of culinary genius. I say “identifies” in the sense of meaning “compiles from Chowhound threads” because the majority of her article appears to heisted from CH contributors.

As seen in the comments below, ‘Hounds—including some of the ones making the contributions—ripped her a new one, calling the article elitist, pretentious and condescending. Although maybe some of us took it a bit too personally, it got me to thinking: I’m guilty of a few of the warning signs listed (“kitchen too clean” is not among them). But, I don’t think it’s my love of the green-tube parmesan cheese that clinches my kitchen disasters. No, there are MUCH WORSE things I do. So, in the interests of transparency, here’s the top ten reasons (ok, six; that was painful enough) I’m not a better cook. And I invite you to share yours.

1) I can’t always recognize poor quality ingredients.

I’ve learned that just because you go to the farmer’s market doesn’t guarantee that the zucchini won’t be bitter, the melon underripe, the avocado flavorless. A pro chef can call his suppliers and scream for a delivered replacement, but most of the rest of us will inadvertently make a bad meal now and then from ingredients we got ripped off on. Usually when we’re entertaining important business guests.

2) I’m not always sure when it’s done.

Some dishes aren’t time critical, but others are. Frequently, my fish and vegetables are one side or the other of perfect. Not inedible, just not timed as precisely as I’d wanted.

3) I rely too heavily on cookbooks and recipes.

The problem with this is there are so many variables that go into cooking, in many cases it’s impossible to make something exactly like the inventor did. Of course, Mario has fresher tomatoes and Emeril better seafood, but beyond that, how finely you chop the shallots or what you consider a “large” onion can make significant differences in the outcome. Good cooks hack, improvise, invent. Recipes should be a starting point for our own cooking styles and ingredients.

4) I don’t spend enough time.

I like cooking, but my time is limited. I don’t make my own stocks, grow my own chervil or raise free-range poultry in my condo.

5) I don’t spend enough money.

My funds are limited as well. Of course, great food can be made on a shoestring, but sometimes if you don’t have the good stuff, it just tastes like...a shoestring. Aged balsamic, highest quality olive oil, top-tier imported cheeses are things I mostly dream of.

6) I bite off more than I can chew.

I attempt dishes from too many cultures and nationalities, all the while knowing my favorite restaurants are ones staffed by professionals who have spent a lifetime learning to perfect a few dishes of a specific ethnicity. Moreover, I believe I can salvage my foreign food fails simply by having the proper condiments, which only results in a refrigerator stuffed with expired jars of unrecognizable glop whose purpose I’ve long forgotten.

Despite these unsavory sins, I DO manage to churn out a decent meal now and then, much in the same way a kitchen full of monkey chefs, working ‘round the clock, might eventually produce the dishes of Escoffier, although perhaps with more bananas. I’m working to overcome my shortcomings, learn new tricks and better my product, and these are the obstacles I face. What are yours?

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    1. 1-5 all totally resonate with me, especially 2 and 3.

      Also, I don't trust my palate. I've always been a somewhat picky eater, and so don't have a lot of experience with different foods and what goes well together. And when a recipe says "season to taste," I'm never sure whether "my taste" equals "actually tasty."

      Lately, I've gotten better at two things, simply because I've been practicing: Sauteed chicken breasts (hubby's been on a chicken kick) and omelets (I've not been on a chicken kick).

      So I focus on how I've improved over the years. For example, I used to think a steak wasn't cooked until there was no pink left. =)

      And maybe all the monkey chefs are the reason why my kitchen is never clean.

      1 Reply
      1. re: kathleen221

        After years of cooking and not trusting my palate, I've come to realize that "season to taste" really just means don't skimp on the salt. Really good recipes that actually give salt amounts always use more than I would put in without such a measurement and the food is always more delicious because of it. If you think it tastes just okay, add more salt.

      2. I'm totally with you on number 5 and the rising food costs don't help. I wish I was better equipped, it would make things a bit easier but space is an issue here as well.

        1. I agree with you on some of the pointsbut not all. I was recently laid off from my 21 year job that I expected to retire from so I do have to economize more than ever. I bought the green can parm once to use as an ingredient in things like meatballs but then I found that the real parm at BJ's, price per pound was the same. The cheese I'm buying may not be fabulous but it's fine. I have never bought top tier stuff, I don't even think it's available here. And I always bite off more than I can chew. How else would you learn anything? When I'm cooking and have the time and know that it will be eaten on time, not waiting for anyone, I'll try anything. I can't forget that the first thing I looked up in a cookbook was grilled cheese and that seemed difficult at that time. My friends call me Martha Stewart because I always set a nice table, cook great food, and take care of my guests. What else matters? Recipes are the point you start at and with experience there are no failures. Home cooking is not restaurant cooking so there's no way to do restaurant food in your house. Personally I find it odd to plate food at home, I know plenty of people do it but I just set the table and put the food out. I'm not running a restaurant and how do I know how hungry anyone is. In addition, I was taught that if there are no leftovers someone went hungry. If you're plating food in your house, how would you know that? Well, that's my opinion.

          7 Replies
          1. re: Floridagirl

            Ha ha yes, it does seem weird to plate food at home, but sometimes I do it anyway, because it's fun to play restaurant. Then when people go back for seconds, they can slop it all together any which way they want. Which inevitably reminds me of my sister's observation that the Pittsburgh equivalent of fine-dining style stacked food is to stuff the french fries inside the sandwich.

            1. re: BobtheBigPig

              I like to plate food at home. But then I'm weird. We eat with our eyes and well as our nose/palate. We enjoy the presentation of good looking food when out why deprive yourself at home.

            2. re: Floridagirl

              "I was recently laid off from my 21 year job that I expected to retire from"

              Sorry, my sympathies, Floridagirl. went through the same thing a few years ago, fortunately before the spit hit the spam here (Detroit) so got another job within a few months.

              Process/grieve for a month or two if you can...cook your brains out! Then start looking in earnest.

              1. re: Floridagirl

                My sympathies as well. My better half (and lone breadwinner) lost his job in the god awful last half of '08. Not only do you have to start being a lot more careful but it can take some time to process the shock.
                That said, I think only us cooks even realize that the ingredients are more thrifty. We were used to eating out a lot, and having me overspend on some fancy ingredients. But when I cut back, my husband and our temporary "daughter",who was a visiting student from Brazil, loved the food I was churning out. I think the whole thing just made me thankful for what we did have and I put a lot more love and care into the food and the whole act of sitting down to dinner.
                And now that it's all behind me, I have a much better sense of what's worth splurging on and what is not.
                As for plating, I do it. I just like things to be attractive. If anyone wants more, the kitchen's that way...

                1. re: alliegator

                  Allie, do you have favorite online sources for learning to plate? I have viewed photos and read basic principles, but I'd like to know more and do more in that area.

                  1. re: Marti3000

                    No, I really don't, Marti3000. I get ideas from cookbooks, and sometimes I just google images of whatever dish I'm making and get ideas from there.
                    I'm sure if someone were to actually judge my plating, I would not come out a shining star :)

                    1. re: alliegator

                      I've been looking at photos of "plating", but DUH, I should be looking at photos of food I'm preparing! Thanks Allie :)

              2. The way I can tell if my food came out good or not...Was it eaten. Whether or not I am a "good" cook or not, if my kids and wife eat it, I'm a good cook. I like to experiment and I don't bake because I can't follow a recipe so I never rely on a cookbook. I have the same 3/4 empty jars sitting in my refrigerator that are way past their date as BTP. But I have come a LOOOOnng way since Kraft mac n cheese!

                Enjoy your cooking!

                1. Somehow, I got a reputation as a 'good cook' from family and friends, church, etc, but it's not true at all. I just so happen to make a few good things. I'm 58, and I've only just recently begun to *enjoy* cooking. All the years of raising a family were about necessity cooking, and now it's pretty fun, most of the time. Because of this history,
                  1) I'm afraid to eat unknown dishes, especially ethnic ones, so I have no knowledge there;
                  2) I live in a rural area, about 70 miles from the closest store that has what you might call 'third tier' non-basic ingredients, so I lack knowledge there;
                  3) I have such a 'make-do' mentality that I make so many substitutions that the original idea usually gets lost [however this also can result in some fabulous but never-to-be-repeated dishes];
                  4) Because of my narrow food experiences I don't know what things should taste like-- I just know if *I* like it or not;
                  5) My palate is unrefined: I can't really tell the difference between coffee brands; I don't know that I'd be able to always tell the difference between bottled or fresh things, depending on how they're used, etc.
                  Having said that, I do have to admit that I am slowly changing, and I guess I REALLY am a better cook (to use your words, Bob) than I was 5 years ago, but just barely.

                  Still, I'm having fun trying out new-to-me things like anchovy paste, Chinese Five Spice, African seasonings, and so on. Great topic, btw!

                  5 Replies
                  1. re: Marti3000

                    Seventy miles from esoteric ingredients? Wow! That can make cooking a challenge. OTOH, I can remember when you couldn't get fresh ginger, swiss chard, habanero peppers, pesto, or a host of other stuff nearly any supermarket sells now. Somehow we managed...I have Mexican cookbooks written in several years BC (Before Cilantro) that have a certain old-fashioned charm. But I think if I lived in a rural setting I'd be doing a lot of expensive mail order—too spoiled!

                    1. re: BobtheBigPig

                      Thankfully, good food is possible without lots of esoteric ingredients as you say, and when I find myself in a city I take the time to visit ethnic markets, and in grocery stores I'm like the proverbial kid in a candy shop because of the wonderful selections not available to me at home. And to the degree my budget permits, I do mail order as well. I guess the main thing is that the Love of Cooking switch has been turned on!

                    2. re: Marti3000

                      I think no 4 is a biggy -not knowing how something was intended to taste bugs me a lot if I'm making something new. I have no problem changing it up once I know, but I like tasting something the 'proper' way once at least so I know what to aim at, or not, depending.
                      It does make eating out kinda fun though, because it turns into research - tracking down & sampling an unknown :)

                      1. re: thatchick

                        Agreed, Chick. It was only last year that I first tried kalamari and sushi for the first time in my life! But in my small town the restaurants are mainly chains, and 'famous' dishes are highly suspect to me because I expect they are 'dumbed down' for the regional palate. I may be wrong on that, but it would be hard for me to say I like a new thing when I've only tasted it locally. I need to get out more! :-)

                        1. re: Marti3000

                          Exactly! At least here it's getting easier and easier to find the real deal - global village here we come (hopefully). Otherwise, it's not a bad excuse to travel :)

                    3. I really like your post. I can relate, especially to numbers 1), 2), and the condiments thing in 6). I don't really consider biting off more than I can chew a thing that makes me a bad cook though... I do think I benefit, even from the failures, but I do feel a little guilty about how many condiments or other specialty ingredients I've bought and only used once or twice. I like to take on completely new dishes when I go for a big whole-afternoon cook rather than a quick weeknight dinner (I'm making my first black mole this weekend!).

                      For my own list I would add that I am too slow. I am slow at chopping, slow at measuring, slow at everything. I am not a very coordinated person! This leads to timing issues, and sometimes when I think I can do something in the time it takes something to come to a boil on the stove, I have to turn off the burner and re-heat because I'm still not finished whatever it was I needed to do for the next step. This has gotten a little better now that I try to prep as much as possible before I start... but possibly the fact that I am always doing way unfamiliar things is impeding my progress here.

                      I think another thing that makes me a bad cook is that I am too nervous about food safety. Although I am generally familiar with how to be safe, I still tend to cook meat more than is necessary because I don't trust that it was well taken care of before or after I bought it, even if I'm going to a trustworthy place and being told that something is fresh that day (see your #1). I would rather err on the side of caution but I can't stop worrying unnecessarily about this, so things like seared tuna are a problem for me.

                      1. My main cooking problem is a really poor sense of time passing. I have a drawer full of kitchen timers because I used to think I could remember what time I started cooking something, but I tend to get easily distracted and come back to overly dry chicken or rice welded to the bottom of the pan. The timers plus a notebook in the kitchen help a lot - it took a long time to swallow my pride enough to admit I needed them.

                        1 Reply
                        1. re: DunkTheBiscuit

                          I don't care for the demonization of Sriracha. People who like food like Sriracha, and I'm constantly having to tell people about it or explain how delicious it is. I don't put it on everything, in fact I mainly just use it on scrambled eggs. But it is one of those things that anyone who cares about food should have - not the other way around.

                          And seriously, don't cook your steak well done. I never say anything to people who do, but I cry a little inside when I hear it.

                        2. I also really don't use sriracha other than on eggs, but Sunday night I decided to make a stir fry with some sirloin steak, yellow squash that badly needed to be used up and broccoli. I used just butter, salt and pepper at first but when I was going in the fridge for something else I saw the sriracha bottle, said "what the hell" and squirted some in. It came out great--even my spice-phobic husband liked the little bit of heat.

                          I can agree with a lot on the list. I consider myself a good plain cook, but go much beyond that and ... well, sometimes my ambition exceeds my capability. I haven't had complete disasters but there's been times where it seems like I've spent way too much time on something which didn't blow my mind. Add in a husband who's a pretty nonadventurous eater and food's pretty simple at the Palais de Mandalay.