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What 20 dishes should I know how to make without a recipe?

I love to cook. I would much rather make something new than something I've made before. Which leads to my not being super proficient at any one dish. What dishes would you suggest that I begin making over and over (ala Julia Child while drafting The French Chef) to get it just right in taste, texture, appearance, and also make it foolproof? Roast chicken, obviously. What else? (I'm not talking the obscure or arcane, like sea urchin. Just good old comfort food.)

I look forward to your suggestions.

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  1. I'm a believer that everyone should have a dessert under their belt. Mine is chocolate mousse, because it's so much easier than most people know. But anything will work.

    1. Instead of learning 20 recipes, just truly learn and practice basic techniques of cooking (roast, sautee, fry, poach, grill, and braise) If you master each of these techniques you will go a LONG way into being able to replicate almost any dish you have had without needing a recipe.

      So my suggestion is not to learn recipes but to learn techniques instead!

      9 Replies
      1. re: twyst

        I basically agree with this.

        However, I do think people need to know how to prepare eggs. Learn at least four or five. You'll never starve.

        Learn how to make a vinaigrette and at least one other salad dressing. You'll save a bundle every time you don't buy a bottle of the stuff at the grocer.

        Learn how to make the hot beverage of your choice: coffee, tea or cocoa. You'll always have comfort at hand.

        Learn how to make a simple cake and a basic batch of cookies. You will always have friends.

        Learn to do a homey casserole like mac and cheese or a chicken thing that makes you feel good when you eat it.

        Learn how to cook rice.

        Learn how to braise a cut of meat.

        Learn how to grill a cut of meat.

        1. re: sueatmo

          I agree with twyst and sue - techniques definitely but also the chemistry of how ingredients interact and what heat (or lack) and how it's applied affects the texture of a food, how heat changes the structure of a complex carbohydrate (ie why potatoes change drastically when fried twice yet we generally don't fry carrots, but do braise them). understanding why some flesh is low and slow and why some is high and fast.

          but for a few specifics I'd say being able to wing a few versions of a roux and a white sauce, is the basis of so many things (but back to the chemistry, as a f'rinstance a cream of pickle soup or an avegolemono starts off simple but add the pickle or the lemon juice at the wrong point and it curdles); simple breads and hand-rolled/cut pasta can lead you to pastry dough and cakes later;

          my favorite section of the Joy of Cooking was the one called "Know Your Ingredients"

          1. re: hill food

            Cream of pickle soup??? I've never heard of that but it sounds AWESOME.

            1. re: auds

              a Polish thing (and it was a Polish-French restaurant) it takes a really deft hand and timing. we stumbled in to a small place in SD (gone now sadly) it was the owner's b-day and he was feeling pretty happy so it was all chef's choice that night. for the app the bowls were placed and we were dared to guess what it was. I thought mushroom.I tried to re-create later and have found recipes, but it is tricky, just not the same as his.

          2. re: sueatmo

            Great answer Sueatmo!

            Agree on all of those.

            I would add;

            Learn how to make a really good salad (in addition to your own 'house viniagrette/with variations). Properly cleaning, drying, and combining salad greens, addingh a variety of flavor profiles of complimentary ingredients, and tossing the salad with not-too-much dressing. Serving with probably a texture contrast like toasted nuts, croutons, etc.

            Salad is amazing when you take the time to make it properly!

            Learn a really good red sauce, actually - 2; a quick summer fresh saute one, and a long simmer one, such as ragu or bolognese.

            Learn to cook pasta to al-dente, and finish it in your sauce. Mushy pasta ruins the meal.

            1. re: gingershelley

              Agree totally about the salad. I love salad!

            2. re: sueatmo

              No kidding, I can't even eat bottled salad dressing anymore.

              1. re: sueatmo

                I love sueatmo's post. Do that!!

                1. re: sueatmo

                  Agree!

              2. Good advice on techniques, but I think having some basic recipes that you can tweak is also a good idea. Roast chicken is a good one. I'd add:
                Chicken stock--good chicken stock will enhance so many other dishes
                Risotto--much easier than most people think, and adaptable to so many ingredients
                Simple marinara sauce
                Bolognese sauce
                Slow-roasted pork shoulder
                Braised short ribs--another dish you can go so many ways with--French, Asian, Mexican--although I usually use a recipe for these.
                Pasta carbonara
                Pasta w/scampi or clams
                Quesadilla
                A great salad dressing
                Potato-leek soup
                Black bean soup
                Asparagus soup
                Oven- or pan-roasted vegetables
                Roasted potatoes
                Lemon tart
                Tarte tatin

                And you'll get lots of great ideas from others; you'll have lots to work with.

                2 Replies
                1. re: nomadchowwoman

                  I think twyst's advice is spot on, because once you know those techniques, you're golden. I don't think I'm a bad cook, but I've only made half the dishes on your list; but then again I'm Asian and Middle Eastern and prefer to eat those foods, so while I can make kibbeh or pad thai in my sleep, I'd have to look at a recipe to know what potato leek soup even is. On the other hand, having learned how to work with chiles and braise, I made my first pozole this evening that I think was pretty good because I know the techniques (and can eyeball spices from years of working with highly seasoned food). Because I am pretty good with my wok, I think I can make a mean pasta with scampi, even if the flavors will be different. I might need your help, though, to get a lemon tart up to snuff!

                  1. re: JungMann

                    Au contraire, JM, I know you're not a bad cook! My list is purely subjective; I was just trying to respond to the OP and think of things that could be mastered w/out a recipe after a few times and things that you can easily build meals from/around. The reason there's not much Asian (which I love) on my list is b/c I have not mastered Asian cooking myself--and I find I always need a recipe so i couldn't think of anything that fit the OP's query. I still use a lot of recipes, but these are just some of the things I've gotten comfortable with over the years. I wish I could cook with half the spontaneity and expertise that is evident in the meals you post. (And as to the lemon tart, I finally have it down b/c I "mastered" a recipe called "Lazy Mary's Lemon Tart"--the name says it all; it is very easy. Now, a proper fine Tarte au Citron--for that, i need a recipe!)

                2. Read Harold McGee's On Food and Cooking, and you will be a long way to understanding WHAT is happening when you cook; why things go together, chemical reactions that take place in the mixing bowl, saute pan and roasting pan.

                  A great base of knowledge lets you leave the set recipe behind - it allows you to 'see' beyond the recipe to why it has those items in it, how you might change it, what it might taste like when finished.

                  Techniques, background knowledge, experience. These will lead you to confident cooking actually without recipes if you wish. The proverbial ' open the fridge and see what is there and make dinner. The freedom to save money by reading the weekly store circular and being able to purchase what is on sale and in season and cook meals from that, rather than follow a proscribed 'recipe" that has you run out and buy 10 things you don't really understand, and spend $$, and have a bunch of leftovers in the fridge you don't know what to do with:)

                  8 Replies
                  1. re: gingershelley

                    On Food & Cooking - have not read the book so I am asking a dumb question. Will this book teach me to do all the things you have talked about in your post? That would be wonderful. In the mean time, I will go to Amazon & see what else I glean from this book. Thanks.

                    1. re: cstout

                      Cstout;

                      If I was going to recommend one book for a complete neophyte to start with, it would be "Cooking Basics for Dummies". It is one of the few books that starts with descriptions and definitions of the 12 - 15 basic techniques of cooking.

                      However, I don't think you are a neophyte. Reading about those techniques would still be very helpful for you. But with your experience, I think you could just research the terms on the web. Go to this link http://www.reluctantgourmet.com/techn...
                      and read all the articles on techniques... even better... read them 2 or 3 times until you have got it. You will know anything you need to know to follow any recipe and know by the description what techniques the recipe is talking about.

                      1. re: Hank Hanover

                        Cooking Basics for Dummies....I just fell down on the floor in humiliation!!!!! Hank, I thought you were every body's friend. Just leave me alone for right now, I don't want to go to any link, not now or ever!

                        OK, I pulled myself up & will go to wherever it is that a chowhound wants me to go.

                        I have Ruhlman's Twenty & have learned much from there.....see, I am NOT a dummy!!

                        1. re: cstout

                          Hank did allow "I don't think you are a neophyte"

                          and personally I prefer the basics.

                          1. re: cstout

                            LOL ..

                            A. I didn't recommend it for you. I recommended it for a "complete neophyte" which I said you were not.

                            B. I own "Cooking Basics for Dummies" as well as several other "Dummies" series books and I don't consider myself a dummie (IQ of 138). I find they have a very simple and straight forward approach.

                            I have several very basic cookbooks because I am looking for the best and fastest way to teach neophytes how to cook.

                            C. I don't think everyone considers me to be their friend. I think I have ruffled the feathers of many a snobbish cook on Chowhound.

                            1. re: Hank Hanover

                              A. Truthfully, I have learned quite a bit from the Dummy Series of books, just have not purchased the cookbook one.

                              B. No matter about IQ, the approach to teaching something is very important & these books are great.

                              C. As for the ruffled feathers on some of those folks...they look better that way, with their feathers all sticking up everywhere...sorta like they have been into a little mischief or something!

                              D. (my addition)...no need to ever explain any of your comments..I like to have a little fun with some of you folks...at least the ones with a sense of humor. (like you). I am just here for the food & fun.

                              1. re: cstout

                                well see? there's no room for humor and fun in the world of food. it's a cold, grim and serious place.

                      2. re: gingershelley

                        Gingersheely said it better than I could have. Its better to learn techniques than to try to memorize recipes from repetition. That method will also save your posterior when something goes wrong because if you know what is happening you will also know how to correct for variances in ingredients.

                        I will usually use a recipe the very first time that I make a dish just to get a baseline and after that I tend to customize it for my taste.

                      3. Adding to the previous posts - an omelet, a stew, a roast meat, sautéing a piece of fish or chicken, gravy, pesto, learning how to use wines and vinegars in your cooking and learning how to cook vegetables correctly…

                        1. Along with your roasted chicken idea, I make these without recipes.

                          Roasted vegetables, like broccoli, asparagus, carrots, brussel sprouts.

                          Mashed and baked potatoes.

                          Beef and chicken/turkey gravy.

                          White or brown rice.

                          Beef Stew.

                          Grilled Pork Tenderloin (I love these)

                          Roast Beef.

                          Spaghetti sauce.

                          Lasagna.

                          Breakfast, like pancakes, eggs and bacon.

                          www.saffron215.blogspot.com

                          1. There's a good book on amazon called "Ratio" http://www.amazon.com/Ratio-Simple-Be... it teaches you how to start cooking with ratio in mind so that you're not chained to recipes every single time. Worth looking!

                            1 Reply
                            1. re: vircabutar

                              Right along those lines by the same author is the book "Twenty" http://www.amazon.com/Ruhlmans-Twenty...

                              It showcases the top 20 techniques every cook should know. It has recipes along with great explanations.

                              Ratio & Twenty both have a place of honor on my counter at all times. Michael Ruhlman is a fabulous author & blogger. He's also one of the few people who will actually tweet you back on twitter if you leave him a comment or ask a question.

                            2. I'm on the technique train here too, but..

                              - Roast root vegetables
                              - Chicken stock
                              - Poached eggs
                              - Red sauce, like for pasta
                              - Polenta, both soft and baked/fried
                              - A rice pilaf
                              - A basic cookie, like peanut butter or chocolate chip or oatmeal
                              - A creamy soup
                              - A brothy soup
                              - An Asian vegetable stir-fry
                              - A mousse or pudding (rice pudding is dead easy)
                              - Chili

                              1 Reply
                              1. re: megjp

                                This is a great list.
                                I use chicken stock in almost everything.

                                I love poached eggs, try the swirl method with a little vinegar added.

                                Everyone needs to make a good meat sauce. I use pork sausage and ground beef. Tomatoes, onion, bell peppers and mushrooms.

                                Rice of any kind isn't easy to master, but once you do, there are so many possibilities.

                                About creamy soups: being from NewEngland, if you can make a good Clam Chowder, you'll have many friends and people will love to come for dinner. I also make, Brocolli Cheddar soup, Corn chowder, Ham and potato soup. Basically any vegetable in a creamy soup works, just add, fish, chicken, scallops, shrimp. lobster....

                                I've tried making Asian stirfrys, many, many times. It's not as easy as it sounds, keep trying different combinations.

                                Beef Stroganoff will always impress most people. It's really easy!

                                A great cookie is always good, I've found the dough is the easy part, it's taking them out of the oven at the exact, correct moment. Test your oven, it's very important that the temperature be calibrated. My oven,which is only a couple of years old, is off by almost 7 degrees.

                                Definately, a good pasta dish, with cheese.

                                A great grilled steak. Medium Rare,

                                I could go on, but there's many already covered, just take it one day at a time.

                              2. I'm going to assume you know how to cook.

                                Here is a list of 20. If there is something on there, you don't like then replace it.

                                Swiss Steak
                                Breaded Pork chops and mashed potatoes
                                Oven bbqed Pork Tenderloin
                                Pulled pork
                                Spaghetti and whatever (meatballs, meat ragu, vegetables, etc)
                                stock
                                Rice pilaf (plain or with meats. Once you make one, You can make 100)
                                Risotto (same as rice pilaf. Very flexible.)
                                Stirfry (once you make one you can make a dozen)
                                An egg breakfast I like sausage and eggs scrambled with some starch.
                                Shrimp scampi That's about as easy as it gets
                                Saute a salmon filet or steak
                                Some kind of hamburger and rice casserole Actually find the "Make-Your-Own" casserole basic recipe out there. You will instantly know dozens.
                                Skillet Lasagne
                                Meatloaf
                                Pot Roast
                                Cabbage rolls
                                Country Fried steak (same as breaded porks only with cube steaks)
                                Glazed Ham
                                Chicken Marsala
                                Chicken Piccata
                                Salisbury Steak with mushroom gravy
                                Steak and baked potato
                                Ham Hocks and Beans
                                Roasted Chicken Leg quarters
                                Roast a turkey ( I like to use the Weber grill)

                                That's like 25 so you can throw out what you don't like. By the time you know 20 dishes without looking at a recipe, you will know 60 dishes because of the natural variations.

                                By the way... your wording looks strangely familiar. :-)

                                Keep experimenting with your successful meals to perfect them for you. One of my goto dishes is bbqed pork tenderloins. Right from the first, it was great but then I heard about brining so I tried it. That was even better. Then I heard you should remove the silverskin. That worked even better. Then I heard you should sear it before baking it. Why that was even better still. Then I started thinking that if I could brine with salt, I could brine with soy sauce. That flavored the tenderloins even better. I finally settled with that let me tell you, the original recipe was very good. After the improvements, they are even better.

                                My email is in my profile. If you contact me, I can send you all those recipes.

                                5 Replies
                                1. re: Hank Hanover

                                  You've intrigued me. What do you mean by "your wording looks strangely familiar?"

                                  1. re: Siouxchef

                                    I have suggested people learning 20 goto dishes several times on various chowhound threads. In fact, I suspect I am fairly well known for this.

                                    I had suspected you had gotten the idea from me which explains my comment about the wording being very familiar.

                                    I have a question for you. Were you looking for dishes or were you looking for suggestions on how to cook? It appears a lot of people are suggesting learning techniques which is good and I wholeheartedly endorse doing so, but I had the impression that you know how to cook. I assume you wanted a list of dishes to learn.

                                    1. re: Hank Hanover

                                      I am a fairly accomplished home cook, although not much of a baker since I have an excess of avoirdupois already. My posting was originally to receive answers just as those that were posted here. I want to get back to the basics -- to be able to turn out really terrific classics without clutching a recipe. I want them suitable for company. Thanks, Hank.

                                      1. re: Siouxchef

                                        Avoirdupois, amazing word! :)

                                        PS you can use recipes; I sometimes do too.

                                  2. re: Hank Hanover

                                    You don't have to start with 20 go to recipes although that is an excellent goal.

                                    Start with 3 recipes... then go to 5 or 6 and then 10 and so on.

                                  3. 1) Pasta with tomato-meat sauce

                                    2) Meat and Vegetable Stir Fry

                                    3) Beef Stew

                                    4) Rice Pilaf

                                    5) Chicken Tikka Masala (or other curry of your choice)

                                    6) Roast Chicken

                                    7) Pan fried or grilled steak

                                    10) Salmon filet or steak, baked or pan-fried

                                    11) Risotto

                                    12) Pureed vegetable soup

                                    13) Chicken Vegetable Soup

                                    14) Filled Omelette

                                    15) Poached Eggs

                                    16) Scrambled Eggs

                                    17) Fresh Salsa

                                    18) Basic Gravy

                                    19) Vinaigrette Salad Dressing

                                    20) Cheese Sauce

                                    -----

                                    These are all good foundation recipes that can be adapted for the ingredients you have available, and in many cases can be made simple or fancy.

                                    1. You should be able to cook everything without a recipe.

                                      If you *have* to use a recipe, then you are not really cooking.

                                      9 Replies
                                      1. re: ipsedixit

                                        I find your reply to be ludicrous and condescending to the OP. Everyone needs to start somewhere. Siouxchef was basically just asking where to start and this is certainly the best place to ask that question. To completely rule out the use of recipes in your kitchen is to ignore the accumulated wisdom of thousands of years of real cooks.

                                        1. re: AmyH

                                          Thanks for your spirited defense, Amy. I am a very methodical, uncreative cook who is unsure of her own capabilities. I need recipes to keep me on the right path.

                                          1. re: Siouxchef

                                            There is nothing wrong with using a recipe. Most of us are not trying to be gourmet cooks, chefs or the "end all" to cooking. We are just trying to get dinner on the table. That requires developing certain skills and if you need a recipe to get the job done, most people won't look down on you.

                                            1. re: Hank Hanover

                                              Amen! Following a recipe to turn fresh ingredients into a homecooked meal is most definitely cooking. Often recipes have ideas, techniques and combinations you may not have thought of. That adds variety to your meals and happiness to your household.
                                              On the other hand, opening a bag of frozen stuff and warming it up is not cooking, it's heating. But we've all had crazy nights when that's the best we can do. And we don't have to apologize for that, either!

                                              1. re: AmyH

                                                Ipse has contributed to Chowhound for years. I don't think he/she meant to be condescending which is why I didn't say anything last week when the post first showed. I try to cook without a recipe and most of the time, I do fine. However, I have been known to forget something so I usually review my recipe. I usually have it nearby. Sometimes I have to look at it and sometimes I don't.

                                                Certainly, I would like to think that I can look at a recipe, see the techniques that are being used, review the ingredients and have a pretty good idea how to cook it and I automatically think about variations. That's cooking and every home cook should strive to reach that level of competency.

                                                1. re: Hank Hanover

                                                  You have to learn *how* to cook somewhere. Randomly throwing foods into a pot to see if it makes something that tastes good is an extremely inefficient way of learning to cook. I've met people who cook by that method - they think they're wonderfully creative, but in reality they are just bad cooks.

                                                  There are two main ways you can learn how to cook without a recipe and still get tasty food. One is to have someone teach you - like learning as you helped your parents as a kid. You aren't using a textbook, but you have a personal tutor leading you through it instead.

                                                  The other is to use recipes. After you've cooked for a while and can follow the recipe exactly you can start varying it and modifying it. After doing that for a variety of dishes and cooking techniques you can start working without recipes. But it takes time and practice.

                                                  I rarely use recipes. But I will when I want to make a specific dish I haven't made before, and I usually do for baking and other more chemistry sensitive cooking techniques (candy, jam, etc).

                                                  1. re: tastesgoodwhatisit

                                                    There are many paths to being a good cook. I do agree that one needs to learn *how* to do things. ( See my post upthread) But, I personally know someone who produces amazing food who started by throwing things together. But i agree that recipes are totally helpful, especially if they are good recipes.

                                                    For me, the overriding factor is, whether the cook likes food well enough to learn how to produce a good dish. When we learn piano, we learn pieces. Some of the pieces we learn are a bit hard, and stretch us. We might not really master what we are doing except by practice. Even though the piece is technically beyond our ability, we can practice it till we can do it. That's sort of like every day cooking, I think.

                                                    Eventually, as cooks, we encounter a description of a technique and realize, "Oh that's what I was doing/trying to do with that dish!"

                                                    How we learn is not a simple, one track process for any of us.

                                        2. re: ipsedixit

                                          disagree totally that if you have to use a recipe you are not cooking.

                                          1. re: ipsedixit

                                            1. ...i definitely think that there is something to be said for your comment...
                                            2. ...however, there are, IMO, some recipes best worth following [e.g., an authentic German chocolate cake; many "ethnic" foods; some dishes that i've had in restaurants that i want to try to replicate]...
                                            3. ...cooking "everything without a recipe" generally (IMO) leads to one's individualized style [the way that i, personally prefer to cook]; however, sometimes i want to honor a "classic" (e.g., oysters Rockefeller) or "authentic" (e.g., southern "spoon bread") way of doing things...
                                            4. ...i think quite a few of the suggestions are teriffic ones; however, i think, also, that many commenters are simply choosing dishes that they, themselves, prefer...
                                            5. ...i am inclined to think that those emphasizing the importance of knowing classic techniques are "on the mark" for anyone wanting to cook "without a recipe"...
                                            6. ...i think noone can be called a serious cook unless (s)he can make great scrambled eggs...
                                            7. ...finally, related, imo, one needs to know what is & what is not a good wine and, also, how to assess the best wine to pair with a dish [a skill that can be individualized]...

                                          2. Just some off the top of my head:
                                            1) how to cook eggs as you like them (poach, scramble, over easy)
                                            2) how to cook rice
                                            3) how to make mashed potatoes
                                            4) how to cook beans
                                            5) how to roast a chicken
                                            6) how to cook a steak in a frying pan
                                            7) how to roast a fish
                                            8) how to roast beef/pork roast
                                            9) how to cook a pork chop
                                            10) how to make a simple vinaigrette
                                            11) how to make potato salad
                                            12) how to make chicken noodle
                                            13) how to make a grilled cheese
                                            14) how to make spaghetti sauce
                                            15) how to make classic Alfredo
                                            16) how to make a basic pound cake
                                            17) how to make whipped cream
                                            18) how to make a chicken/egg/tuna salad
                                            19) how to make lasagna
                                            20) how to stirfry vegetables

                                            Master these, and the rest comes easy

                                            1. What amazing suggestions and thank you all so much. I am pretty comfortable with technique -- have practically worn out my DVD of Jacques Pepin's Techniques, Harold McGee books, Shirley Corriher. Cook's Illustrated books going back to 1993. I also love the Flavor Bible to help me round out menus with dishes that complement one another and to pair the herbs with the protein or vegetable. All of your suggestions below will go straight to the list. Or maybe I could just start with Julia and Jacques Cook at Home and perfect those. And certainly, I need a good dessert. I'm not a sweets person but my guests usually are. My orange Russian cream is my standby. I hope you'll keep posting your ideas!

                                              2 Replies
                                              1. re: Siouxchef

                                                1. ...i, also, am not "a 'sweets' person"; my "go to" "dessert" when i simply cannot bear to think of preparing my 4 or 5 "serious" deserts (e.g., pear tart) is Irish Coffee...
                                                2. ...the cookbook that is my standby since marriage (TMI: now deleriously divorced) is Joy of Cooking, 1960s edition; this treasure's Hot Chocolate Sauce recipe is not only flawless but, also, sublime (i always follow the recipe exactly)...
                                                3. ...the French bread recipe in cookbook above is not authentic (notwithstanding its name) ; but, it a is straightforward, easy-to-make bread that always pleases it's audience...

                                                1. re: Siouxchef

                                                  For desserts, you should have a chocolate recipe and a fruit recipe. I have a fruit crisp recipe that I use all the time because it works with different kinds of fruit (apples or pears in the fall/winter, stone fruit, maybe with some berries thrown in, in the summer), or combinations of fruit, and can be scaled to different numbers of servings.

                                                  But I'm a little confused by your question, as I am every time someone asks what other people think they should cook. What do YOU want to cook/eat/perfect? What kinds of foods do you like? Who are you cooking for and under what circumstances? What kinds of ingredients do you like to use or have access to? I can guarantee you that the 20 recipes I would choose to perfect are different from the 20 you would choose to perfect.

                                                2. Some dishes are all technique, others require an understanding of ratio of ingredients. I've included some of each.
                                                  Roast chicken
                                                  Pasta with tomato sauce
                                                  Mac and cheese
                                                  Risotto
                                                  Enchiladas
                                                  Sauteed bitter greens
                                                  Braised meat
                                                  Caesar salad
                                                  Chicken stock
                                                  Minestrone
                                                  Gratin potatoes/root vegetables
                                                  Scrambled and poached eggs
                                                  Grilled cheese sandwich
                                                  Hamburger
                                                  Vegetarian main course
                                                  Lasagna/moussaka
                                                  Vinaigrette
                                                  Sauteed meat with pan sauce

                                                  4 Replies
                                                  1. re: escondido123

                                                    ...yes, enchiladas, definitely (long story); easy & quick to throw together, everybody, including kids, love them, easy to individualize, also [IF one knows the basic "rules"...for this dish, i would not say "techniques"]...a friend of mine from TX taught me how to do it; i prefer chicken or vegetarian and always use corn tortillas...usually red chile sauce from a can, but, sometimes, green...

                                                    1. re: cbjones1943

                                                      Basic rules for enchiladas - am curious what those "rules" are. Please share with us.

                                                      1. re: cbjones1943

                                                        I really do have to wonder, CB. I have looked at all of your posts on this topic and time after time you have stressed the difficulty, if not impossibility, of getting various classics right. I'm not going to cite all the instances --anyone reviewing this thread will sense the same thing. Glad i'm not in your cooking school.

                                                        1. re: Siouxchef

                                                          Hahahahahaah. I have to say it is rather humorous to look over the thread now. Although the conversation took place over the course of weeks, when you look at it all at once it looks like he just went through the thread and copy pasted "____________ is extremely difficult to master"

                                                    2. I agree with learning technique and ratios. But having mainly a savory tooth rather than a sweet tooth, I wanted to learn one sweet and I believe I found one very quick, easy, and variable item that easily impresses non-cooks: crepes!

                                                      You can fill them with anything and everything, they can be rich or light, they are quick, they are elegant, they can be savory or sweet, and non-cooks always go "wow, crepes!"

                                                      3 Replies
                                                      1. re: seamunky

                                                        ...as a cook whose "go to" appetizer is Coquilles St. Jacques, good [i prefer very good] crepes are delicious and nice to know how to do well, but VERY difficult to master...btw...i prepare crepes without a recipe...but might be torture [i.e., not at all fun] for many to master...

                                                        1. re: seamunky

                                                          Have been trying to make crepes off & on for years. Great way to do a sweet or savory type food & then pour on a sauce.

                                                          Please share your recipe/technique. Thanks.

                                                          1. re: cstout

                                                            I keep in mind that whenever I see [serious] chefs on TV making crepes, they'll always throw away some for a variety of reasons...I make mine [with regular flour] without a recipe now...I prefer an eggy batter, very thin; I add a BIT of H2O & a VERY small amount of baking soda...I understand that this is totally un-cool...for some, totally unacceptable; however, I do NOT cook with salt unless I am following someone else's recipe strictly...BTW, both of us failed to mention that a Bechamel can be turned into Mornay by adding a good cheese [I and probably many cooks add a bit of Dijon...there are many variations...it is common at first to add too much cheese; however, these sauces are so forgiving by adding extra milk]...Try making a "Bechamel" with liquids other than milk...it's fun & sometimes delicious...

                                                        2. I have only 2 to suggest, and they may sound odd: biscuits and pie crust. Both are a conundrum to many folks, yet when well done, you'll get tons of kudos. Maybe my choices are 'cause I can turn out both with minimum of fuss, and yet people go nuts over well prepared biscuits and crusts. If pressed for a 3rd idea, it would be yeast breads, which I find easy peasy.

                                                          2 Replies
                                                          1. re: pine time

                                                            a good biscuit made off-the-cuff is indeed an achievement

                                                            1. re: pine time

                                                              Biscuits, bread & pie crust, if you can master those, you will always make someone happy!. Absolutely should be on OP's list of things to master.

                                                              Lots of theads out here to get a good foundation.

                                                            2. very interesting question and responses

                                                              meatoaf
                                                              mashed potatoes
                                                              white sauce
                                                              macaroni and cheese
                                                              meatsauce or meatballs and red sauce
                                                              gravy
                                                              a (signature) green salad and dressing
                                                              ham glaze
                                                              fried eggs
                                                              omelet
                                                              egg salad
                                                              deviled eggs
                                                              sauteed chicken w/sauce
                                                              BBQ chicken
                                                              Turkey dressing
                                                              A chicken salad
                                                              A tuna salad
                                                              A beef stew
                                                              A fruit and cheese plate
                                                              A vegetable and dip platter
                                                              A (signature) vegetable soup i.e. roasted carrot or red pepper, or split pea, or minestrone
                                                              A (signature) main dish soup i.e. chicken soup, barley and mushroom, Italian Wedding, etc.
                                                              A fruit based dessert; could be as simple as strawberries w/sour cream and brown sugar

                                                              9 Replies
                                                              1. re: laliz

                                                                ...how could one forget Bechamel...definitely, definitely...i learned to make this from my Mother...in general a truly horrible cook except for a few delicious dishes [most without recipe]...btw...a really good tuna fish is very difficult to master...i follow [or try to follow] what i know from NJ/NY Jewish delis...however i use light rather than white canned tuna fish because it is healthier...as most of you know, tuna salad made with sushi-grade tuna can be sublime...beef stew is, also, very difficult to master...as is a great brisket...~1997 the NYTimes Magazine published a "pot roast" recipe [the type that a Jewish Grandmother who is a great cook would prepare] that, imo, cooked flawlessly & was exquisitely good...a terrific vegetable or chicken soup is also, imho, very difficult to master [e.g., try minestrone--i still cannot reliably turn out a very good one]...creamed soups are much easier to do well...fruit-based dessert is a great idea...but, with a good plain cookie, imo [i often stoop to Pepperidge Farms]...

                                                                1. re: cbjones1943

                                                                  Tuna salad, I am still trying to find one I really like. Also, a good potato salad.

                                                                  A few good sauces like the Bechamel sauce mentioned by cbjones1943. A good sauce can cover a multitude of things from eggs to veggies, cooked meats & poultry like roast turkey slices.

                                                                  1. re: cstout

                                                                    I have made very good tuna salad in past; have never, ever made a "classic" potato salad to my own satisfaction; used to resort to variations such as smashed red, skin-on, potatoes, tarragon, mayo, bit of mustard, etc., etc...but couldn't "get" a terrific USA picnic-type potato salad...I would guess that Ina Garten has a great one...I do not make or eat either of these any longer for health reasons...I make other salads such as Nicoise that is great to play with...deviating from the classic French one [my daughter's mother-in-law would find this a totally unacceptable travesty]...but I'm working class, she's not...thus, I'm not so stuck on convention MOST of the time...by the way [most readers will be horrified], I found a red-skin, mayo-based potato salad at Food Lion a decade or so ago that I thought was truly delicious...I could have eaten it every day...however, Food Lion stopped carrying that brand and, as most readers will agree, most pre-packaged potato salads found in markets are insipid...I've tasted the basic potato salad sold by Whole Foods & it is adequate; the fancy one with bacon looks good; but isn't something I would eat for health reasons [by choice, not imposed by a doctor or poor health]...Whole Foods' tuna fish is rated #2 on Chowhound, if I remember correctly...I admit I occasionally purchase & eat it; however, I think it's only OK...

                                                                    1. re: cbjones1943

                                                                      My grocery store makes a potato salad but it is way too soupy. Just too much dressing and there is no egg.

                                                                      When I am lazy I will buy it, add some cubed potatoes and some chopped hard boiled eggs and it's not bad.

                                                                      1. re: Hank Hanover

                                                                        Hank - but at that point why not just do it all? (I know, "when I am lazy"...)

                                                                        1. re: hill food

                                                                          When I am being lazy... I am fully committed to it. If it saves me 15 minutes then i'm there.

                                                                          The good news is I am not always in that mindset.

                                                                          1. re: Hank Hanover

                                                                            some don't understand the effort involved in getting a 'lazy' dish out good. there's no shame. pax vobiscum.

                                                                            1. re: hill food

                                                                              pax vobiscum. I had to look it up.

                                                                              1. re: Hank Hanover

                                                                                I hope I used that right, my church Latin isn't what it once was. (like it ever amounted to anything!)

                                                              2. For starters........

                                                                Pecan Pie.........
                                                                Biscuits.............
                                                                Cornbread........
                                                                Fried Chicken.........
                                                                Peach Cobbler.......
                                                                Chocolate Pie.....
                                                                Buttermilk Pie.......
                                                                BBQ Spare Ribs......
                                                                Potato Salad....
                                                                BBQ Pork Butt.......
                                                                Banana Pudding.......
                                                                Hushpuppies.....
                                                                BBQ Chicken........
                                                                Red Beans & Rice......
                                                                Jambalaya.......
                                                                Fried Fish.......

                                                                7 Replies
                                                                1. re: Uncle Bob

                                                                  Amen, Uncle Bob Nice list ! Your not from the South are you? Wink. Wink

                                                                  1. re: horseshoe

                                                                    He may be but .....every southerner I know pronounces and writes it 'nana pudding or nana puddin.

                                                                    :-)

                                                                    1. re: Hank Hanover

                                                                      Yep, yer right Hank...However it seems some Artsy Fartsy, Hoity Toity, Pretentious Snobs, frown on such speak, and writing... even when done so in fun, tongue-in-cheek, etc. ~ I started to type Kone Braid, Nanna puddin, Tator Salat, and Puh-Con Pie, but resisted the temptation.....

                                                                      An American by Birth....A Southerner By the Grace of God!!

                                                                      1. re: Uncle Bob

                                                                        Alright....! Puh-Con pie. I agree with that pronunciation. Even in the the south we have people pronouncing it Pee-Can pie. That is what you keep next to the bed at night when all you have is an outhouse.

                                                                        The South will rise again! (Faces Jeff Davis's grave with hand over heart)

                                                                        1. re: Uncle Bob

                                                                          An American by Birth....A Southerner By the Grace of God!!

                                                                          AMEN!!!!

                                                                    2. re: Uncle Bob

                                                                      You forgot gumbo.

                                                                      1. re: Uncle Bob

                                                                        ...most of these are very, very difficult to master &/or do well...even if one is not attempting to replicate originals...imho, virtually all attempts at these dishes by home cooks are truly awful...Dr. Bob's suggestions require a serious cook to be serious dishes...

                                                                      2. While I agree that knowing these techniques will make you a better cook, I don't get the disdain for using recipes. I am more than willing to admit my memory is not what it used to be and I sometimes have trouble remembering all the ingredients and sometimes the order that items should be added. Especially for things I don't make on a regular basis.

                                                                        Perhaps I'm not really cooking. Hmm, well at least it still tastes good.

                                                                        jb

                                                                        2 Replies
                                                                        1. re: JuniorBalloon

                                                                          Fairly often when I am cooking one of my "goto" dishes, I will forget an ingredient or at least remember it 5 minutes after it is supposed to be in the pot. Even if I know thw recipe, I usually print it out and read through the recipe so I can get my mise en place set up.

                                                                          1. re: JuniorBalloon

                                                                            but sometimes recipes are wrong or have typos and w/o an idea of the mechanics one is left wondering "where did I go wrong" case in point - the 1975 edition of the Joy of Cooking's recipe for pasta dough IIRC called for something like 1 cup of flour and 3 eggs.

                                                                          2. I believe you should know enough that when a recipe is wrong, you know how to adjust it instead of making it and regretting it and when you have a concept you can more or less carry it off on the first try. Master the mother sauces and all of the basic techniques. Use cookbooks for ideas and entertainment. I loved Escoffier as a way learn using different techniques in combination to generate dishes.

                                                                            1. I don't think Siouxchef is looking for technique suggestions. I think he/she has and is still learning techniques. I think he/she is looking for exactly what he/she asked for... a list of main dishes to concentrate on ... to develop to perfection at least as far as the family is concerned.

                                                                              1. I honestly don't have many

                                                                                1. Red Sauce

                                                                                2. Pie dough

                                                                                3. Pasta dough

                                                                                4. Pizza dough

                                                                                5. A basic side dish like a salad, or vegetables

                                                                                6. Hummus

                                                                                7. An appetizer, mine is a baked brie.

                                                                                8. Eggs, all styles.

                                                                                I also know how to make a cold sesame noodle recipe by heart. Obviously it's a hit in my house.

                                                                                1 Reply
                                                                                1. re: LN2008

                                                                                  ...i'm [not Italian] from NJ raised in a working-class Italian neighborhood..."red sauce" is very, very difficult to do well...even if one is not attempting to be authentically Italian about it...Ina Garten has a good, easy one...imho baked brie is a terrific idea...as is hummus...i really, really have fun with H + my blender...i use olive oil instead of tahini, gobs of garlic [try roasted garlic], & [not too much] lemon zest...try [not too much] harissa, also...possibilities are endless...Ina Garten's cold sesame noodle recipe is to die for as is her curried chicken salad...i don't bother making pizza dough...simply purchase @a pizza shop...

                                                                                2. Wthout reading what other people have said (because I want to see if any of mine are original) -

                                                                                  Basic red sauce
                                                                                  roast chicken
                                                                                  pot roast/pork roast with carrots, onions and potatoes (pick a basic recipe and make it your own)
                                                                                  baked salmon
                                                                                  basic no-knead bread dough (so many uses!)
                                                                                  a green salad with a nice homemade dressing
                                                                                  a fritatta
                                                                                  muffns
                                                                                  mac and cheese (my favorite is the martha stewart recipe, but I change it up)
                                                                                  basic roasted mixed vegetables
                                                                                  pulled pork (if not in a smoker, at least a slow roast oven recipe - real crowd pleaser)
                                                                                  one cookie recipe
                                                                                  risotto
                                                                                  cheese grits
                                                                                  a vegetable or bean based soup (pasta fagiole or minestrone)
                                                                                  eggs benedict with homemade hollandaise

                                                                                  1 Reply
                                                                                  1. re: jeanmarieok

                                                                                    ...agree strongly re: baked salmon...poached, maybe even better...i won't go on & on, but would suggest trying fish other than salmon also [e.g., stuffed bluefish]...Ina Garten's mac&cheese with truffles is to die for...i've tried m&c [gouda] + [not too much] caviar, also...have wanted to do m&c with escargot, but can't convince me that it wouldn't be a huge waste of $$..."basic roasted vegetables" easy, endless, always special...currently my favorite is to use [not too much] sesame oil + sesame seeds...risotto: some of the boxed sides are really delicious & much easier than scratch...emulsions [e.g., Hollandaise, mayonnaise] are very difficult to master...

                                                                                  2. My list will probably venn diagram others, but here are my thoughts:

                                                                                    Roast chicken (as mentioned)
                                                                                    Roast Pork
                                                                                    Chicken stock
                                                                                    Grilled fish
                                                                                    Grilled steak
                                                                                    Roux
                                                                                    Bechamel
                                                                                    Mayonnaise
                                                                                    Soft cooked eggs
                                                                                    Tomato sauce
                                                                                    Bean soup
                                                                                    Short Ribs/Oxtail
                                                                                    Apple Pie
                                                                                    Gravy from roasted meat
                                                                                    Biscuits

                                                                                    1. Back in my activist days when the sisters would get together for strategizing, I would produce my standard go-to specialty. A big pot of chile con carne, with fresh hand-made tortillas from a mercado in the Mexican neighborhood and accompanied by a bowl of guacamole with veggie scoopers (including, of course, jicama). If it were summer or fall, I would bring out melon for dessert. In winter or spring, folks got apples, pears or oranges.

                                                                                      1 Reply
                                                                                      1. re: Sharuf

                                                                                        ...YUMMY...& very realistic for a not-yet-expert home cook...

                                                                                      2. If your background is northern european, you MUST MUST MUST know how to throw together a pot of split pea soup. And have some kind of interesting bread / toast / cracker type of thing to go with it.

                                                                                        Here's an off-the-shelf accompaniment for your pea soup - brewski muffins. Take 3 cups buttermilk bisquick mix and one can of beer. Mix it up and bake in a muffin tin pan.

                                                                                        1. Technique on cutting fresh fruit seems to stymie folks. Mangos, pineapples come to mind.

                                                                                          Preparing fish which all too often are over cooked; takes practice especially whole fish. Shellfish is made in minutes!

                                                                                          Using a crockpot correctly; often way too much liquid or rushing the process.

                                                                                          Standbys like a really nice tomato sauce, cheese sauce or broth you can use in a variety of ways to have on hand. They freeze beautifully!

                                                                                          Spices, buy whole, toast, grind yourself and use them!

                                                                                          Vanilla bean, so affordable (really gets a bad rap on price) and a zillion uses. Make your own vanilla extract, sugar, syrup.

                                                                                          Pantry-stock in with special items and buys and you'll be a gourmand every day.
                                                                                          Lastly, invest in ice cube trays for keeping all sorts of quickie frozen items (ginger, herbs, fruit, zest, lemongrass, broth) that you only need a bit of in recipes

                                                                                          1. Surely the OP asks a question that's impossible for we perfect strangers to even attempt an answer. We do not know her/his likes, dislikes, dietary constraints, availability of ingredients, location in the world, etc. Therefore, I go along with suggestions to learn techniques , not recipes.

                                                                                            1 Reply
                                                                                            1. re: Harters

                                                                                              ...sorry, can't agree...chefs would not have difficulty answering the original question...quite simply: there are accepted, conventional basics [scrambled eggs, poached fish, only two...]...

                                                                                            2. Well, it obviously depends on your dietary preferences. My most essential dishes are:

                                                                                              Curried red lentils
                                                                                              Curry chicken
                                                                                              Basmati rice pilaf
                                                                                              Risotto
                                                                                              Polenta
                                                                                              Pasta with tomato sauces
                                                                                              Spaghetti aglio e olio
                                                                                              Pasta with butter, parmesan, and (sometimes) cream
                                                                                              Pasta with onion sauce
                                                                                              Spaghetti with bottarga (sorry, but this is good old comfort food for me)
                                                                                              Scones
                                                                                              Dan dan noodles
                                                                                              Kung pao chicken
                                                                                              Pad thai
                                                                                              Pan sauteed chicken breasts
                                                                                              Pan sauteed fish

                                                                                              2 Replies
                                                                                              1. re: AlkieGourmand

                                                                                                Love this thread!

                                                                                                1. re: AlkieGourmand

                                                                                                  ...not classics, but so many of these great suggestions for a not-yet-expert-home-cook; "bottarga" sounds familiar but i can't place what it is [cheese comes vaguely to mind]...anyway, so many of these favorite "go tos" & so fun to individualize, so difficult to fail [curried lentils, curried chicken, polenta, spaghetti+olive oil+garlic+italian parsley, especially, in my kitchen]; btw, i often cook veggies [spinach, broccoli, especially, w/garlic+olive oil--almost a meal]...

                                                                                                2. As far as desserts go, I usually do simple ones.

                                                                                                  I do chocolate truffles which have a huge impact but they are really simple. They were the first things I ever learned how to cook.

                                                                                                  Especially in season, I like to do fruit desserts and even then I keep it simple. A slice of pound cake (I like Lemon) a scoop of ice cream and some macerated strawberries (I put a little Grand Marnier in mine) over all of it. You could do the same thing with cream or a custard sauce. You can do basically this same thing with blueberries, blackberries, boysenberries or peaches. If I do peaches, I usually use frozen unless I can buy them at an orchard. You could cook the fruit down a little and make a warm chunky sauce.

                                                                                                  My other standby is key lime pie made with 1/2 cup key lime juice (yes, I use the bottled stuff), 4 egg yolks and 1 can of sweetened condensed milk. Mix it all and pour into a graham cracker crust and bake for 15 minutes....that's it. I usually have a raspberry sauce to serve with it but even if you don't, it is still great. You can do the same thing with lemon or regular lime juice.

                                                                                                  A simple cake doesn't take much effort either.

                                                                                                  1. Maybe I missed it but it seems no one have said bearnaise sauce? Where I live, (sweden), bearnaise is very popular so while I haven't mastered it yet, my opinion is that bearnaise and hollandaise sauces are two must-know recipes I need to master. Is Bearnaise sauce not as popular in US, since no one have mentioned it yet? Over here, people friggin' eat that stuff to everything! Ok maybe not everything but it's like a "general sauce" that is often used to complement many dishes/food!

                                                                                                    4 Replies
                                                                                                    1. re: lottobear

                                                                                                      My best friends husband (who is Swedish) will eat it on everything and introduced me to using it on pizza. Outstanding!!!

                                                                                                      1. re: weezieduzzit

                                                                                                        +1. My old local pizza joint used to make an outstanding veggie and roasted chicken pizza with bearnaise sauce -- I never had it except minus the sauce, but people just raved.

                                                                                                      2. re: lottobear

                                                                                                        ...Bernaise sauce is not uncommon with steak; however, tarragon is not as popular or well-known in states as it is in w europe...with B sauce, of course, one runs into the emulsion problem again [v difficult to master]...

                                                                                                        1. re: cbjones1943

                                                                                                          Not difficult, nor is many of the suggestions that you deem "difficult."
                                                                                                          Egg yolks go in the blender, along with the lemon juice (like hollandaise) and the tarragon, then with the blender running, pour in hot, melted butter. easy peasy.

                                                                                                      3. Great topic!

                                                                                                        An omelet
                                                                                                        scrambled eggs
                                                                                                        Poached eggs
                                                                                                        Fried eggs...over easy, sunny side up, etc.
                                                                                                        white sauce
                                                                                                        gravy
                                                                                                        pan fried steak med rare
                                                                                                        BLT
                                                                                                        Veggie soup (could add beef, chicken, etc.)
                                                                                                        a good olive oil based salad dressing...and don't overdress the salad!
                                                                                                        Rice
                                                                                                        Meatloaf
                                                                                                        Mac N Cheese
                                                                                                        French Toast
                                                                                                        Pancakes
                                                                                                        Marinara Sauce
                                                                                                        Carbanara
                                                                                                        Al dente pasta
                                                                                                        fried chicken
                                                                                                        mashed potatoes
                                                                                                        English Peas :)
                                                                                                        Roasted veggies..all kinds
                                                                                                        Roast Chicken
                                                                                                        Oatmeal
                                                                                                        Choc Chip Cookies
                                                                                                        Pot Roast with veggies
                                                                                                        dried beans
                                                                                                        Chicken Soup
                                                                                                        Coffee
                                                                                                        Pan fried fish or baked fish

                                                                                                        1 Reply
                                                                                                        1. re: melly

                                                                                                          ...yes, meatloaf a great idea...but most home cooks don't master browning it &/or avoiding soggy &/or greasy product...fun to individualize...be creative with, though...pancakes very difficult to do well...peas...canned le seur work for me, though frozen tiny peas great--i like better than peas from my garden...for great, simple pea [& other] recipes, see old Vermont Life mags...gosh, yes--oatmeal, choc chip cookies...how about brownies?...i used to make navy beans or lima beans from scratch--great, fun to do--but now i just use my favored canned beans & play w/variations...agree--knowing how to make great cuppa a must...

                                                                                                        2. A well balanced light pasta dish (cheese, oil, meat/veg)
                                                                                                          Gazpacho
                                                                                                          Meatballs- master recipe for beef, veal and pork
                                                                                                          Cream of ______ soup
                                                                                                          Pizza
                                                                                                          Sugar cookies
                                                                                                          Hummus
                                                                                                          A well structured demi-glace
                                                                                                          Salsa varieties
                                                                                                          Grilled fish
                                                                                                          Basic Muffins
                                                                                                          perfect poached eggs
                                                                                                          Polenta
                                                                                                          A favorite salad dressing
                                                                                                          Shellfish with wine broth
                                                                                                          A balanced Stir fry
                                                                                                          Oso bucco
                                                                                                          A berry pie
                                                                                                          A Julia Child's egg recipe
                                                                                                          and
                                                                                                          an Old Fashioned
                                                                                                          a Bloody Mary
                                                                                                          a Martini
                                                                                                          :)

                                                                                                          1 Reply
                                                                                                          1. re: sedimental

                                                                                                            ...gosh...how could one not think of Bloody Marys...especially on Sunday morning on the couch with a Sunday NYTimes...

                                                                                                          2. Based on my own personal usage, assuming frequency of use is a good predictor of importance:
                                                                                                            1- an Old Fashioned 2- a real martini 3 - cottage fried potatoes 4 -- mayonnaise 5 - a quick Bolognese substitute, 6. -- steak au poivre 7 -- chicken piccata 8 -- anything puttanesca, 9 -- pizza 10 -- saltimbocca, 11- repeat number one nine times.

                                                                                                            1 Reply
                                                                                                            1. re: tim irvine

                                                                                                              ...Veal Florentine...

                                                                                                            2. In terms of techniques to be comfortable with without relying on a recipe, I always recommend knowing how to caramelize various foods and then deglaze afterwards for pan sauce; it leads one to so many wonderful places...

                                                                                                              1. I didn't learn cooking in any kind of systematic way so my list is probably not very helpful. Anyway here are the things I do not need a recipe to make:

                                                                                                                Hot and sour soup
                                                                                                                Sweet and sour fish
                                                                                                                Ants climbing tree (rice vermicelli in spicy pork sauce)
                                                                                                                Ma Po Tofu
                                                                                                                Greens stir-fried with garlic
                                                                                                                Pork dumplings
                                                                                                                Fried rice
                                                                                                                Chili
                                                                                                                Gumbo
                                                                                                                Beef stew
                                                                                                                Chicken stock
                                                                                                                Tomato vegetable soup
                                                                                                                Basic tomato sauce
                                                                                                                Fried/mashed/roast/hashed potatoes
                                                                                                                A loaf of bread
                                                                                                                Fried chicken
                                                                                                                Roast pork shoulder

                                                                                                                1. Thank you all so very much. I made a list of your suggestons (almost zero outlandish) . Tomorrow i'm on a road trip and during that i am going to take that list and draw up a recipe for each. This will test how much i know by heart and which needs serious practice before i can saw the dish is "under my belt." love you guys. What a community I have found. Feels like nurturing arms enveloping me.

                                                                                                                  1. What's your purpose? If it's just about putting food on your table that tastes good, that's what recipes are for. And if you really prefer making something new instead of repeating yourself, go to it! Becoming super-proficient at a limited number of dishes is for cookbook authors and professional line cooks in restaurants.

                                                                                                                    If you want to feel more masterful and confident in the kitchen, twyst is right, learn the basic techniques inside out. Jacques Pepin's "La Technique" is the classic textbook. just knowing how to cut up vegetables and meat can make a big difference. Or you can pick up a good deal of it by watching his many TV shows.

                                                                                                                    gingershelley's advice is also good: "Read Harold McGee's On Food and Cooking, and you will be a long way to understanding WHAT is happening when you cook; why things go together, chemical reactions that take place in the mixing bowl, saute pan and roasting pan."

                                                                                                                    I'd add only that knowing what things taste like is basic information that you can only pick up by, well, tasting things. If you just add tarragon because the recipe says to, the result may be fine but you haven't learned to judge how much or how little tarragon tastes best, or whether substituting oregano might improve the dish or make it different in a tasty and interesting way.

                                                                                                                    Have you considered a cooking school? Not institutions that train people to work in professional kitchens and award degrees in culinary arts, but courses for home cooks. And not necessarily schools that carry the names of celebrity chefs. These tend to be local, though Viking, maker of stoves and such, has a dozen schools across the nation. The description of their Culinary Basics course:

                                                                                                                    "Designed for both the novice cook and seasoned home chef, Viking’s signature Culinary Basics workshops will empower you to cook with confidence. These technique-driven hands-on cooking classes focus on classical culinary skills that are relevant to the home cook today. Classes range from 3-hour workshops to a 6-week series to accommodate a wide range of interests and schedules. (We recommend you begin with our Basic Knife Skills class to prepare you for the wide range of techniques you will learn in our comprehensive Culinary Basics workshops.)"

                                                                                                                    The point is not just to learn the techniques but practice them with professional instructors to observe what you're doing and show you how to do it better.

                                                                                                                    1. I agree that learning techniques and understanding the theory behind the interplay of components of flavor is more important than memorizing recipes. That said, I wish I had more of my favorite recipes memorized. It's not that I'm really concerned with being able to cook a lot of things at home without referring to the recipe, I don't mind doing that. I would however love it if I had a better ability to know exactly what I need to buy when at the farmer's market, butcher, fishmonger and/or grocery store to be able to prepare more of my favorite meals/dishes without having a recipe/ingredient list at my fingertips.

                                                                                                                      2 Replies
                                                                                                                      1. re: bg90027

                                                                                                                        Even when I know a recipe by heart, I can't count on remembering all the ingredients and quantities off the top of my head when at the market, and remembering which I already have enough of at home. Seems like I always forget something, or get something slightly wrong. Maybe it's just me, but making a shopping list even for thrice-familiar recipes is just part of the routine.

                                                                                                                        1. re: John Francis

                                                                                                                          Well if I'm shopping with the intention of making a certain meal, I'd do that too. I strive to do as much of my shopping at the farmer's market as possible though which I only go to once a week. I rarely have a menu planned for the whole week before going. To the extent that I'm inspired to make a dish by seeing an ingredient, it would be great to be able to remember all of the others.

                                                                                                                      2. Most people have a set number of goto dishes they rely on. These dishes make up 80% of their cooking. They might try a new dish they have never tried every 2 - 3 weeks.

                                                                                                                        It makes sense to have a set of dependable dishes that you have maximized for your family.

                                                                                                                        I wouldn't even contemplate serving some of my dishes any other way. There must be hundreds of ways to roast a pork tenderloin but when it comes down to it, I only do it one way. Any other way would not be as good so I don't change it. I did several changes while developing my recipe but now that is how I roast a tenderloin. Don't misunderstand. I will cut a pork tenderloin up and use it for one of several dishes but I only roast it one way.

                                                                                                                        I like pork chops breaded and fried and served with mashed potatoes and white gravy. I know how to smother pork chops or grill them. I just don't.

                                                                                                                        I know as much about techniques as anyone. I am as passionate about cooking as anyone, but I have no desire to try a new dish every night. My family would complain if I did.

                                                                                                                        1 Reply
                                                                                                                        1. re: Hank Hanover

                                                                                                                          I'm sure that I'm the anomaly, but I'm close to the exact opposite of this. I probably make something familiar enough that I could cook it in my sleep once every two weeks. I carry out or eat out 20-30% of my meals The rest are pretty evenly split between things I've made before but not enough to come close to be a standard, dependable dish and things that are completely new to me. My girlfriend and I are both nightowls and we don't have children so we do things that wouldn't be an option for most people on tight schedules and probably wouldn't be desirable for others even if it were an option.

                                                                                                                        2. Alice Waters' In The Green Kitchen covers a lot of these bases. It's definitely a handbook for me.

                                                                                                                          1. I wouldn't go about it this way, exactly. Pay attention to what you like that other people make, and ask for recipes, or look them up online by the name of the dish. And COOK. There's nothing wrong with using a recipe, as you already know. As you make a dish over and over, you will find with your own tweaking, that you've come to be able to make it without a recipe. This is why I never use recipes for:

                                                                                                                            roast chicken
                                                                                                                            pot roast
                                                                                                                            soups
                                                                                                                            stews
                                                                                                                            spaghetti sauce(s)
                                                                                                                            marinades
                                                                                                                            salad dressings
                                                                                                                            most salads

                                                                                                                            etc., etc., etc. I've made them so many times, I don't need a recipe NOW. I did when I was trying to figure it out along the way. In fact, sometimes I will read a new recipe for one of the above-listed dishes and I KNOW it will not work (for me) because they'll say something stupid like "sautee the garlic on medium heat". Bullsh**!!! You and I both know we'll brown the garlic and ruin the dish from the start.

                                                                                                                            It sounds like you already have a feel for cooking and a desire to make it the best way you can. I had tried every chicken roasting recipe in the world (oil/butter; no oil/no butter, herbs/ no herbs; trussed/not trussed, liquid/ dry heat, slow-roasted on lower heat/faster on high, etc., etc.,-- and you know which one finally came out the best FOR ME? Salt and twine and a hotter oven. Period. That's it! This was after YEARS of trying every which way from every different country and culinary tradition. I had to figure it out myself which one I liked the best. So will you. There's no magic 20.

                                                                                                                            I wouldn't worry so much about getting things like Bechamel down. I mean, really, how often do you make/need Bechamel/Bearnaise, etc.? The first time I made a Bechamel sauce, I followed the directions and it came out perfect. I didn't make it again for three years--until I wanted to make a real lasagna Bolognese. And, again, it came out right--but I used a recipe both times. Why do I need to commit something to memory that I'm only going to use twice in three years?

                                                                                                                            The first time I made a roux to make gumbo, I researched and read 10 different recipes and researched some more... and botched it in the first 5 minutes--but I knew that because I read about the mistakes I might encounter. I started over and an hour later I had the perfect roux--and I made a gumbo that was better than anything I had while I was in New Orleans for four days. NOW I could do it without looking at a recipe.

                                                                                                                            That's how you'll come up with 20 dishes without a recipe, which will be based on your taste and your successes--and maybe a few failures.

                                                                                                                            Also, if you cook for other people, and there is something of yours that they like and request again and again... THAT will build your profieciency of particular dishes as well.

                                                                                                                            1. the 20 things you most like to eat.