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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!