General comments on food, cooking, and recipes.



I like to eat. Early on (sophomore year in college, to be exact), I figured out that, if I wanted to eat well, I had three choices: I could marry a good cook, I could eat a lot in expensive restaurants, or I could learn to cook. The first two were not options; the first due to social ineptitude and the second due to poverty.

The Cooking Mavens

Now, the Cooking Mavens tend to write books like The Art of French Cooking, all full of wonderful sounding things and all assuming that you're going to devote your life to cooking. Note, for example, how many cooking show hosts and cookbook authors are professional chefs. If you realize that they assume you're going to spend your life in the kitchen, the recipes aren't bad — no problem stirring the sauce every five minutes for twelve hours; you're gonna be standing next to the stove anyway so you might as well stir.

Needless to say, most of us have no desire to spend a career in front of a stove. If you let the Cooking Mavens convince you that the only real food involves twelve hours of preparation and ingredients available only in New York City, you're gonna end up living on Kraft Macaroni & Cheese Dinners.

The recipes here are the kind of thing you can do when you just got home from a bad day at work and you're too tired to go out.

Now, the Cooking Mavens have some good ideas. Of course, if you can devite the time and resources, you really can do Julia Child's recipe for French onion soup. I did once; it was wonderful. Took all day. There are also some useful techniques; my mother used to fret about lumpy gravy; using the CM techniques for roux- based sauces, I've only had trouble when I've done something really stupid. Once you know that a lot of the CM techniques are overly fussy about certain things, you can make allowances.

The Food Nazis

Like I said, I like to eat. Unfortuately, there are people out there who are offended by this. Puritans. If it gives you pleasure, it must be bad. (If it gives them pleasure, that's a different story!) Now, the food we eat has obvious health implications — eat too much and you'll get fat. Don't eat the right foods and you'll get deficincy diseases like scurvy or pellagra. This is obvious. But the Food Nazis will take a statement like Americans should eat less fat (which is a perfectly reasonable statement) and turn it into a Crusade against any fat at all. They'll specify a diet that contains stuff that most people hate (liver, cottage cheese) and tell you that You Will Die if you don't eat it.

This leads to what I call the McDonald's Diet, which is a diet that assumes that, at least once a day, you'll sneak out for a Big Mac, large fries, chocolate shake, and apple pie.

Notes on Recipes

There are two important things to remember about recipes:

  1. Quantities are usually not critical
  2. Recipes are merely guidelines

The first means that you don't have to be fanatical about qualtities. Some people measure every little thing to a fraction; I tend to just dump things in. Most recipes have just one ingredient that needs measuring. When making bread, for example, you need only really measure the liquid and everything else will be determined by that measure. Some recipes like biscuits have two ingredients (the flour and the liquid), but that's a lot less common. Unfortunately, recipes seldom tell you what's important. You just have to keep trying. Unless you do something really horrible like burning it or spilling the salt, the result will usually be edible if not tasty.

You can usually tell a mediocre cook if they follow the recipe exactly, measuring every little thing, counting strokes when mixing, etc. More experienced cooks generally know what they can get away with. The problem that experienced cooks usually have is that they overdo this. As a result, everything they cook tends to taste the same, as they correct recipes to fit what they already know.

The way I treat a new recipe is to do it as near to the recipe as possible — the first time. After that, I know what it is supposed to taste like and can play around from that basis.

Cooking Hints

Most of these are pretty trivial, but don't seem to be common knowledge.




The difference between bad coffee and OK coffee is a clean pot.

The difference between OK coffee and good coffee is to make sure the water is at the correct temperture. In general, this means as hot as possible. I've gotten into arguments with Coffee Mavens over this. They insist that you have to control the temperature more accurately than as hot as possible, claiming that Nasty Things will happen if the water is too hot. As far as I'm concerned, you can't get the water too hot. If somehow you did, you'd just have expresso instead of regular coffee.

The difference between good coffee and really good coffee is to grind your own high- quality beans and use a French press coffeemaker instead of the ubiquitous drip pot.

The difference between really good coffee and excellent coffee? For that, you'll have to talk to the Coffee Mavens, who'll talk about things like roasting your own beans.


Copyright © 2004, 2005, 2007 Stephen G. Smith. See the Legal Stuff for details.

Last updated: 2007-10-01 04:47:04Z