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Old 06-27-2006, 10:05 PM   #1
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Need the science behind it all...

I'm attemping to learn how to make a decent meal that involves something more complicated than hamburger and helper (I'm single and actually had the idea of doing some compare and contrast of savings in making my own food, and it was pretty extreme:). To that end, I figured the best bet was to grab some recommended newbie reciepes online and get to it.

I've been working my way along with that method for about a month now and I've encountered a serious problem - I can't stand it and am going out of my mind. I've actually found I like cooking, although the cleanup is a pain, but working off of a reciepe is making me counter-productive.

My primary problem is I see a lot of reciepes with odd ingredients I've never been exposed too, and can't understand their use. When growing up with my mom, dinner was a fairly simple affair: seasoned steak/chicken on the grill, a boxed or mashed potatoe dish, and canned vegetable was the common meal of the day. Nothing wrong with that, but there isn't any fun in that, so I look for reciepes that give me some freedom from that "box". In turn I see a lot of ingredients that just cause me to go "Huh" (usually spices I've never heard of). When I get to that point, my practical nature kicks in and I have to wonder what is the purpose, yet I've never seen a reciepe site or cook book that gives an explanation. Drives me insane.

To give a full fledged (and simple example), smoothies. I typically buy a smoothie for breakfast every morning (my crack/wake-up call), so that is one of the first things I began looking up. I figured it was a simple matter of fruit + water + ice as nessecary for consistency. Turns out that 90% of the reciepes I can find have a lot of extra ingredients. Milk, milk powder, yogurt, flaxseed (which I don't even know what in the world that is), salt (in a smoothie?!), and so on...

So, is there anywhere out there I can get some kind of science background behind cooking?

My second problem is not visiting the store every night. Pre-planning is not my forte, so dinner is typically a morning or night-before decision. Combine that fact with odd ingredients, and spending at least half an hour every night visiting the store for something I'm missing. Is this is a common problem, or is the common household actually stocking apple cider vinegar and cornichon?

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Old 06-27-2006, 10:23 PM   #2
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Welcome aboard!

From what you said, it sounds like you have to become more familiar with new ingredients and how they impact a dish. Not science so much as broadening horizons.

Do you have a cookbook? If not and if you're interested, see about getting a copy of The New Joy of Cooking. It's a basic cookbook that will help you along. In support of your efforts, we here at DC will always be available to answer questions and help out.

I would recommend selecting a few basic recipes that involve new items and making them to see what the new ingredients bring to the party. Perhaps a dish that adds a herb or spice you've never had before. Then you can build a mental database of food info. that you will be able to apply to other dishes.

As far as having ingredients on hand, You either have to do long-term or short-term planning, there's no escaping it. Select 7 recipes, make a shopping list and buy them when you shop once a week. If that's too much, select one or two or three recipes and shop a couple of times a week. If you don't discipline yourself to do one of these options, you're doomed to be making last minute runs to the market every night.

Once you get into this for a while, you'll find you've accumulated a pantry of stuff that will work for any number of different recipes. If you buy a box of rice or a jar of oregano, you won't use it all in one recipe and it will be there in your pantry. Then you just need to pick up a few fresh ingredients to make a dish.
"If you want to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first create the universe." -Carl Sagan
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Old 06-27-2006, 11:56 PM   #3
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if u want science watch good eats! Its very informative.
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Old 06-28-2006, 05:54 AM   #4
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Alton Brown, the creator (along with his wife) and host of Food Network's Good Eats, also has several books out. One is entitled I'm Just Here for the Food

Another author, Robert L. Wolke, wrote What Einstein Told His Cook. Both these books are great for the science of food.

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Old 06-28-2006, 06:07 AM   #5
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I think I would make a basic list of things to keep on hand which could result in quite a number of dishes and work from there. You can buy spices, etc at places like Penzey's where you buy only the amount you want and not a year's supply that you may or may not use. Remember all the extras are somebody's idea of an improvement or to their own taste and it may or may NOT be to our liking. A few basic supplies can fill the bill for so many different dishes changing perhaps only the seasoning, and if you are cooking mostly for yourself, you have only yourself to please. You may want to keep a notebook of what you make that you truly like or how you would change it. I have a very simple chicken recipe I will post after I get back from my water class, if you like. Very easy and quite elegant.
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Old 06-28-2006, 08:41 AM   #6
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On food and Cooking by Harold McGee it THE kitchen science book. This is where Alton Brown get tons of his stuff for his show. I find it an indespensible item in the kitchen
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Old 06-28-2006, 10:30 AM   #7
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Why don't you try Pam Anderson's book "How to Cook Without A Book" for a start?

If you go into amazon.com and read the blurbs and reviews about it, you'll see it comes pretty highly recommended for one, and, her general philosophy and reasons for writing the book sound very similar to your needs: simplicity, variety, flexibility, and not an endless need for exotic ingredients.

I think (but am not 100% sure) that it was her book as well that pointed out that most dishes are a variation on a central theme -- learn some of those basic themes (an omelette, for instance) and the most common methods of cooking (boiling, braising, frying ...) and dare to experiment a bit. Meanwhile, just stay very open to all sorts of food-related experiences -- eating, talking about cooking, reading recipes, learning about ingredients, etc. -- and give yourself time to put it all together.

And, as for those exotic ingredients? Sometimes they're justified, and sometimes they're just marketing nonsense -- somebody trying to make a recipe sound important (IMHO). So many very, very wonderful things are made from the most basic ingredients around, but put together with some thought and some care. Some of our very favorite dishes make for very dull reading as a recipe (like "pork with celery") but all the "wow factor" they lack in that sense is made up for when you taste them. So I'd say approach all those weird ingredients with some skepticism, at least.

And, lastly? The salt in the smoothie is probably just to heighten the flavor. Most sweet things taste oddly 'flat' if there's absolutely no salt in them. Try making one with and one without and see for yourself!

Good luck. Come back here often as part of your education!
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Old 06-28-2006, 10:45 AM   #8
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Just to add to your confusion..... Shirley Corriher's wonderful book, "Cookwise" provides tons of information about food science while also giving recipes. It's more detailed than Alton Brown's and Wolke and McGee's don't have recipes.

I've read 'em all.

Also, the book "How to Read a French Fry" is also a great science book with some (not many) recipes.
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Old 06-28-2006, 11:01 AM   #9
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I am with Andy here.

I don't think you are asking about the science of cooking, although it is a lot of fun, but more the art of cooking. That is what spice goes with what sort of dish, or what the heck is that ingredient doing in that recipe.

Cooking is not a subject to be learned in a day, it is a process.

When I first started cooking would cut up onions, carrots, and celery and toss them in to cook following the directions. Then I learned the combination is called a mire poix (meer pwah, I guess is as close as I can come), and learned why it is there.

Would learn that tossing flour into the pan with some oil in it, even if I cooked some stuff in it first, would tend to make a roux, the basis for thickening, or of a sauce.

Or recognized that the recipe calls for a basic batter.

Then after a while you will start to learn that there are basic recipe themes that often recur in slightly different forms. And you will get to be able to read a recipe and say, Oh yeah, that is just a variant of that dish (we are no longer talking recipes) and understand what the differences are.

And then, as I undetstand it, you will get to the point where the differences on the themes of the recipes will become important and one can create many superb dishes.

And the people who can do that become great chefs.

Are we there? Heck no, and probably never will be.

But we all gotta start somewhere.

Agree that you should start with a few simple recipes, Joy is a great book.

TV cooking shows are a good way to learn.

Success will build confidence at trying something a bit more complicated.

And don't feel too sorry about a few disasters, we have all had more than we wish to admit.

As Andy said, everyone is here to help you.

Good luck and take care.
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Old 06-28-2006, 03:09 PM   #10
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Bienvenue, nessin. Great advice given above. Let me just add a couple of other pointers:

You're cooking/eating for one? Go ahead and make that recipe that serves four (or six) and freeze what you don't eat for another meal or two.

Strapped for time? Do your experimenting on the weekends, when you have more time to read, shop, slice & dice, and savor your food. Heck, I have to do that now myself.

Everyone here is very happy to answer questions, relate their mistakes and successes, and offer new ideas. You are in good company!
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Old 06-29-2006, 02:12 AM   #11
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Another book I just remembered -- "How To Cook" by Delia Smith.

I'm guessing you're writing from the States, Nessin, so you might or might not be familiar with Delia who's an institution in England. I got familiar with her watching her show on BBC Prime which we get here in Greece.

The reason I'm suggesting her is not only that this book is really aimed at people like you -- just learning about cooking -- but also because it sounds like her taste in cooking fits with you. She often cooks what I'd call "comfort food with flair" -- very basic stuff we all really love and sounds like you grew up with, but she adds in some unusual tastes which modernize things a bit (she likes Thai influences, for instance). I suppose that sounds like what I'm critical of in my first post, i.e. people adding in funky ingredients just for the show-off value, but I guess I feel she's one of those cooks who really know what those tastes are all about and blends the traditional with the unusual with a great deal of talent.

She's almost the opposite of Jamie Oliver, by the way, who you probably do know -- she's conservative and reserved and traditional. But she's a **** of a cook too. You could truly do worse than to put yourself in her hands initially.

Here's the link to her book. Of course you can probably just hop out to a bookstore and see it (unlike some of us!) which is even better, although maybe the reviews will be of interest?

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