The Canadian Writers' Collective

Writing, and writerly tangents

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Basic Ingredients

by Jennifer McDougall

I’ve decided to learn to cook. I don’t expect to become a gourmet, or a person creating new exotic recipes, or even, a lover of cooking. I just want to be a common sense cook in my own home.

This has been one of the things on my To Do Someday list, the list comprised of those over-the-top adventures I dream about, great habits I hope to adopt, hobbies and experiences I haven’t had the resources to explore yet, whether they be time, money or courage. In the case of cooking, it’s been patience I’ve been lacking.

Of course I can cook, a bit. After all, I feed a family of six three times a day (at least). I can scramble eggs, mix up tuna salad and prepare any other grocery item that can become a meal in one step, like toast or bacon or sandwiches. I also know how to make lasagna and chili. I can even cook a roaster chicken. I clean it, put an onion in the cavity, sprinkle salt and pepper over top, and bake it for an hour. We eat that a lot around the McDougall household.

This is where the home cooking ends. I know the frozen food aisle well. And the cake mix section. Have you seen what they’ve done with dessert mixes? Forget the same old confetti angel food cake you grew up with, now there’s Carmel Lava Cake, Lemon Poppy Seed Streusel Coffee Cake, and Orange Dreamsicle Cake.

I panic when faced with a fridge full of basic ingredients that I have to somehow fit together to make a meal. It’s beginning to feel like such a cop out to grab for my fast food coupons or visit the grocer’s prepared food section (again). So far the kids aren’t complaining, but I wonder how long I can get away with serving Subway for dinner.

The result when I do tackle a new recipe is almost always disastrous because of my urge to be efficient with time, with dishes. I combine steps to cut down on dirtying another pot or mixing bowl or wooden spoon, I experiment with ingredient substitutes to avoid a last minute trip to the store.

When cooking from a recipe I need to study it over and over again to get it to stick in my brain. So often I forget the name or measurement of the ingredient by the time I cover the space between the cookbook on the counter and the pantry door. I have to retrace my steps, finger the place where I left off and reread.

I haven’t a pinch of common sense when it comes to putting spices with meats, or sauces with veggies. I’ve been told many times how to make basic buns, or gravy, or roasts but I can’t keep the processes straight. I don’t think the flour gets sprinkled directly into the pan, it should be mixed first. With water. Hot or cold? And roasts! All the cuts sound the same to me although I know there are huge quality differences, outside, inside, round flank…

It’s time I figured out what goes on in the minds of regular cooking parents across Canada. I really do not want to turn forty next year, and be a mother who is still afraid of basic ingredients.

One cookbook I received as a wedding shower gift that has been useful over the years is The Bride’s Choice Cook Book by Canadian, Emma Sanders. It boasts great advice and recipes for all the basics including chocolate pudding and chicken soup.

I needed a fresh start though so off I went to pick up a new cookbook. I chose Simple Suppers by Alberta’s own sensible chef Jean Pare.

For six days last week, I cooked from a recipe. I took my time, visited the grocer every single day, paid close attention to each step.

As a kid I spent no time in the kitchen, my sainted mother requiring us girls to do little more than pick our own wet towels off the bathroom floor, so this attention to detail was new to me. I’d never had any practice with recipes and I can see now, that practice is what it’s going to take.

I want to be the kind of cook who can read through the instructions once and retain most of it, to know from across the kitchen that the little recipe card probably wants a teaspoon of salt, not a tablespoon, to deduce whether the dish should be covered or uncovered in the oven without having to reread.

I want to be relaxed around basic ingredients.

I indulged a bit and bought a few metal skewers, a better cheese grater, and a new bottle of cumin, but I’ve been careful not to get ahead of myself, to spend a bunch of money on tools the cook I want to be should have. For now, I’m taking it one step at a time, keeping things as simple as possible. It’ll be some time before I can justify a fancy food processor . I did discover one free tool that has already saved me this week. The cook’s thesaurus helped me clear up a misunderstanding involving white wine vinegar and rice vinegar.

My plan is to move through Mrs. Pare’s recipes for a few weeks and then go back and make the good dishes again. Practice, practice, practice.

Hey, I’m making beef dishes this week. Got any common sense to share?

10 Comments:

Blogger Anne C. said...

Soups are very forgiving. I don't know about roasts.

Tue Mar 20, 07:37:00 am GMT-4  
Blogger Andrew Tibbetts said...

That photo looks delicious!

I don't cook at all. I even find microwaving frozen dinners too much trouble. It's terrible. I admire your willingness to change. Maybe you'll inspire me.

Tue Mar 20, 09:38:00 am GMT-4  
Blogger J.A. McDougall said...

Aha! I am not alone! How do you eat Andrew?

Yes, Anne, soups...I must give them a shot. Years ago I made some that turned out like hot water - I felt guilty adding all the necessary salt.

Tue Mar 20, 04:51:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger tamara said...

Good for you! I haven't had meat in nearly 20 years (except fish), so I can't suggest much for you there, but as a foodie who seldom spends more than 30 minutes on preparing a meal, here are some of my suggestions:
*packaged foods contain a load of salt, so the kiddies may complain your food is bland at first; try using seasalt, it has more flavour for the shake (get the seasalt grinder from Costco; it's great)
*stir-fry: get the older kids to help you wash and chop
*blenders are god-senders: throw pine-nuts, fresh basil and parmasen and some olive oil in there and whirl away (while the pasta's cooking; it's the 10 minute meal)
*soups: my favourite meal, hands-down. no need to make a 'proper' broth, just throw everything in, add some spices (i smell each spice to see if it feels like it should go in there) or in a pinch use 'better than boullion' (it truly is: organic and tasty and fast). my 3 minute soup: boil water; add a bit of boullion; throw in udon noodles (buckwheat is healthier and tastier); add protein (me, tofu; you; leftower chicken or beef); and some chopped quick-cooking veggies (mushrooms; zukes; broc tops). cook 3 min and eat.
*your spice problems, i understand completely. vegetarians are good sources b/c we need to get flavour from them; check out a veggie cookbook, there's usually a detailed explanation in the good ones
*epicurious.com has a great recipe index: you punch in the ingredients you have and it tells you what you can make with it

Phew, this was a long response. Hope it's useful. And good luck!

Tue Mar 20, 04:58:00 pm GMT-4  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Jen, now I'm to go and cook - you've inspired me for at least dinner tonight.

I've wanted to take a cooking class for a long time - may be I'll sign up for one at Cooks on Grand.

Diane Smith,
The Maple Room

Tue Mar 20, 05:09:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger Anne C. said...

Me, again.

You might want to read the introduction to In the Sweet Kitchen, a baking book by Canadian Regan Daley. It's a kind of treatise on the importance of being anal. After I read it, all of my cooking improved (although it also made me much less fun to cook with, unfortunately).

And The Joy of Cooking is great, because the recipes have been tested by so many people over such a long time. Fewer errors, you know? (On the same note, beware of Internet recipes of questionable origin. It's bloody hard to write out a recipe. Not many people can do it well.)

Tue Mar 20, 05:24:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger J.A. McDougall said...

Tamara, thank you for sharing your wealth of cooking knowledge! And that link is just what I've been wishing for now that I bought a whole jar of red curry paste for a recipe that calls for just 1 tsp. Can I follow up with you in another week?? :)

Tue Mar 20, 08:59:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger J.A. McDougall said...

Diane, thank you for visiting - have a wonderful evening!

Tue Mar 20, 09:00:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger J.A. McDougall said...

Great suggestions Anne. I really do need permission to be anal about this and not feel silly about it. You make an excellent point about internet recipes - I was 'this' close to searching some 'free' recipes.

Tue Mar 20, 09:02:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger Steve Gajadhar said...

Cooking, ugh...

I'm the worst. I can barely BBQ at steak. Good luck with this.

Wed Mar 21, 06:21:00 pm GMT-4  

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