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At the end of my rope -- please help

Dearest Chowhounders,

I have often referenced this discussion for cooking assistance, but I finally decided to join and ask for help after my nth failure in the kitchen last night. I am at the end of my rope.

Let me preface this by saying that I grew up under a single mother working outside of the home full time. Dinner preparation was a drive-through. Gourmet was brand name jar sauce over angel hair pasta steeped in water so long the pasta fell apart. Every day we ate Taco Bell or McDonalds, or, after a tax refund, shit on a shingle. My mother, panicking to check for doneness, would cut into a pork chop so many times that it dried out in the five minutes it was in the skillet. I grew up on tofu masquerading as meat and meat burnt to charcoal.

Thankfully I was introduced to good food in college after forming friendships with professors. Their dinner parties revealed that they were part time master chefs, I guess made possible by their research agendas abroad. This is how I met my husband who was no different. After many year-long stays in the foodie giants, nations with deep and ancient cultures, he too became a phenomenal cook with a very sophisticated palate. And when we got engaged, I knew I was in trouble. So I hit the books and websites and have been in the kitchen ever since, nearly three years now, and still I plate horrible food five times a week, feeling that I have learned nothing.

I started at the bottom with Rachel Ray and quickly moved on to other network stars: Flay, Garten, Giada. When they proved inconsistent, I took a giant leap to Gordon Ramsay and more adventurous, niche cookbooks but quickly fell back to FineCooking and LeitesCulinaria. Recently I returned to the classics: Mastering French Cooking, Marcella Hazan's collections, and Test Kitchen, and still I disappoint nearly every night at 6pm. We have on average two decent meals a week, my pan seared rib eye steak with lemon pecorino risotto and herbs de Provence chicken with hollandaise and roasted carrots, two dishes I have perfected through trial and error for well over a year. You might think that someone who could cook those things would be a great cook, but last night I made the worst meal, and I cried at the table. I made Julia Child's hamburger with red wine pan sauce and French bistro salad. Both were awful. The tasteless burgers fell apart in the skillet, and the vinaigrette was so potently overpowering that one bite sent it to the garbage pale. My husband, in his admirable charity, never complains, only encourages. But I know I fail him when he gets in the fridge after dinner, eating the cured meets I stock as a back-up plan to my cooking, even though he tries to hide it from me to save my feelings.

I married a king whom I love and adore, and all I want is to serve him good, simple food. I dropped all of my hobbies to be a great cook for him, but I still cannot make an edible hamburger. I want to live out those feast films together, and I want the dinner table to be the hearth of our family. I have the patience and the will to learn and will try anything. I enjoy being in the kitchen. I make time even with a colicky newborn. I keep going, despite my countless failures, despite the tone of hopelessness in this post. Please help me. Any suggestions on consistent cookbooks or chefs, any tips on spotting a bad recipe will help me so very much. Anything at all. Please help.

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  1. I find when I try TOO hard, I usually fail. Are you making things YOU like to eat? Do you ever cook WITH your husband? Mine only knew two things when I met him, his uncle taught him how to make great grilled cheese, and great frittatas. I sort of started there myself. Then you'll learn as you go along, as with all things.

    But you've got to get your mojo going first! Find a couple of easy things that you can do very well, besides your two proven ones, rather than fancy cookbook recipes. Hamburger is a good place to start, tell us how you are doing it right now. Recipes should be guides, they are not always written in stone......

    4 Replies
    1. re: coll

      Yes! As I stated in my other post, I tried way too hard last night. I was also in a hurry because my young children need to eat by 6:30.

      1. re: rudeboy

        Fellow parent of young children here - we frequently have separate meals - I feed the kids early and then we eat late. It takes some of the rush off.

      2. re: coll

        When you're feeling bummed finding a place where you can see success can be so important. If you can make one good risotto - then why not try another risotto recipe? You make a good hollandaise - find another recipe that uses a hollandaise. Lots of people can't make a decent risotto or hollandaise. The fact that you can do those well should be items to feel good about.

        I think another thing to keep in mind that if you're cooking ~5 meals a week and trying lots of new recipes, then having a dubious success rate isn't really that bad. New recipes can require repetition and at times tweaking to get right.

        I would also avoid cook books specifically for the moment and instead focus on food websites that have recipes where people comment heavily on recipes. I really like Food52, and the most popular recipes often will have lots of comments - either asking for verification on a confusing step or tested modifications. This can also be helpful in just searching something like 'hollandaise' or 'risotto' and getting loads of recipes that can potentially help push your boundaries while still utilizing what you're good at.

        Basically, set yourself up for some slam dunks and understand that trying lots of new recipes with many new techniques will increase the difficulty level. You're not necessarily failing because you're a bad cook, but because the difficulty level has been placed really high.

      3. Nothing beats learning techniques first and meals second. Stop trying to be fancy and trying to impress and just learn the basics first. A simple, well executed meal outshines a fancy failure any day. Also, learn about the ingredients (tasteless burgers that fall apart= fat content too low.)

        1 Reply
        1. re: weezieduzzit

          This. Start with the basics. Master them. Then and only then venture into more complex stuff.

          Consider taking a beginners cooking course. If you have someone there, teaching you and guiding you every step of the way, you might just have an easier time of learning things.

        2. First of all, take it easier on yourself. Some dishes just fail. That's ok. It's a failed dish, not a failure of you as a human being or even as a cook.

          My suggestion to you is to go simple. Really good food doesn't have to be fancy or hard. Pick something you enjoy making and enjoy eating and play with it. Stay away from recipes. Even the classics, including Julia Child.

          Maybe it's chicken breasts that you season simply with salt and pepper and then saute (with or without a little flour coating) in some olive oil or butter. Get a little color on it. Add things as they appeal to you. Some fresh mushrooms. Or tomatoes. A splash of white wine. A squeeze of lemon juice. Maybe some capers.

          Serve with a little white rice cooked in broth and simple steamed broccoli.

          Keep it simple. Get comfortable with what you are doing, then branch out a little. Use pasta instead of rice; spinach instead of broccoli.

          Don't try to make every meal gourmet or restaurant quality.

          Nothing wrong with a little linguine with a simple white clam sauce. It only a takes a few minutes. Saute a little garlic in olive oil (don't let it get brown). Add chopped parsley and thyme or rosemary. Dried is fine. Add a few tablespoons of flour and let it cook for a minute or two, then add the drained juice from your can of clams (whole or chopped). Let it thicken up. Add the clams at the last minute when you linguine is cooked.

          Oh, and the best advice I ever got about salads from a friend was to make dressing 3 parts oil (and/or mayo) to 1 part acid (vinegar or lemon juice). It's never failed me and I rarely buy salad dressings

          It's the technique that you will gain in practice that you can apply later to the fancier stuff.

          Good luck.

          1. I would encourage you to take a cooking class or invite a good cook (friend) over and make hamburgers or something simple.

            I say this because of your statement about not being to make an "edible hamburger". At it's most tasty basic, a hamburger is quality ground beef, salt, pepper, pan fry until done to your liking. If you are having a hard time with that, then maybe someone cooking *with* you can point out your errors. I suspect you cannot see your errors occurring -so you continue to make the same mistakes with a variety of recipes. It is not the recipe :(

            Learn with someone to fry, sauté, taste and make basic adjustments (like adding a little water to a vinaigrette that is too strong) instead of throwing it all away. Once you have the basics, your recipes will work....it sounds like you are choosing decent recipes from vetted cooks.

            3 Replies
              1. re: LaLa

                Me too, and it's really FUN this way!

              2. re: sedimental

                Yes, a class is what you need. You could be interpreting the recipes incorrectly if you don't know the correct techniques. Take a basic cooking class at a local adult education facility. Once you've mastered the basics branch out and try something more challenging that interests you.

              3. I wonder about your burger last night. Looking at the recipe, I see it calls for lfinely minced onion. I know back in the day when my family put onion in burger (I don't anymore) they were nowhere *near* finely minced; and yes, those burgers had a tendency to fall apart.

                Have you taken a knife skills class? That certainly might help. I also wonder how often you are being interrupted while cooking. Having a colicky baby is something outside of my experience, but even experienced, confident home cooks can have their kitchen efforts thrown off when interrupted.

                I think coll has a good idea about cooking with your husband. There is no substitute for learning things one-on-one.

                Having flown through the cooking stratosphere and then wound up in tears at your own dinner table, you might want to consider falling back to regroup. Go back to basics, and climb up again gradually. I offer this link in all kindness; it has basic, step-by-step instructions, recipes, and videos illustrating the how's and whys.
                http://www.dummies.com/how-to/food-dr...

                Glad you joined us; you can learn a lot here. Good luck.