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Topic: Learning to cook very well

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Subject: Learning to cook very well
Date Posted: 10/20/2009 4:54 AM ET
Member Since: 7/5/2007
Posts: 1,157
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One of my friends has decided that he wants to be able to cook as well as or better than any fine restaurant chef, at home. He is taking steps in this direction including switching to induction cooking (which, now that I've had the experience, I would say is practically essential) and is working on his technique. His first idea was to cook his way through the "Le Cordon Bleu At Home" book, which is presented as a series of meals, each of which is a lesson. It's very interesting, but he rapidly realized that the recipes aren't authentic and have shortcuts, so he didn't like it. He and I examined "The Professional Chef", the textbook of the Culinary Institute of America, and while it's very thorough, it's also rather difficult to cope with because everything is scaled for very large portions. We next examined "Professional Cooking", another textbook used by many cooking schools, and while it's very interesting and easier to deal with, it's still rather difficult. Finally he acquired "The Fundamental Techniques of Classic Cuisine", which is sort of the text of the French Culinary Institute. (I say sort of because I believe they actually added more material to the book for release to the public because it's intended for people who won't be in their classes.) This book is superb. It's really, really marvelous. Every technique is explored in great detail, there are tons of photos, it's superbly organized, very approachable, and has recipes from chefs like Jacques Pepin and Alice Waters. My friend is now cooking his way through that book and having a marvelous time - I get phone calls enthusing about consomme and pondering the question of whether he should spend the money for a truffle.

This got me thinking that if I was going to do the same thing I would have just started with a Julia Child book, although unlike "Julie & Julia" I would start with "The Way To Cook" instead of "Mastering the Art of French Cooking Volume 1". Meanwhile my aunt, who is the greatest cook I know, swears by Alice Water's "The Art of Simple Food". So I thought it might make for a nice discussion about what books we think are essential to learning great cooking.

One other aspect of it all that interested me was the realization that as I read through the techniques in "The Fundamental Techniques of Classic Cuisine", I saw that really there was nothing in there that scared me, and fairly little that I hadn't already done... in terms of techniques, anyway. (Of course there were recipes I'd never made.) I don't usually cook fancy food, but it made me realize that I am essentially capable of doing so any time I want to, I just choose not to most of the time. It made me wonder how many other people are out there who are quite capable of fine cooking but just don't bother most of the time, or who don't even know they're capable of it despite being so.

Date Posted: 10/20/2009 11:36 AM ET
Member Since: 4/30/2007
Posts: 2,728
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To be honest, I don't think I would be the cook I am today if it was not for my very first basic Betty Crocker cookbook.  I was 20 years old and in my first place of my own, and my parents gave it to me for Christmas.  Previously, I had not cooked much beyond Hamburger Helper or chili with the help of a season packet.  Betty Crocker was real food presented in a non-pretentious way, simple and direct, and I knew I could make anything in the book with success.  I have learned over the years since then that much of cooking (at least cooking well) is confidence, as well as courage to break out of your comfort zone, and I think having those basic Betty Crocker recipes under my belt gave me a foundation upon which to build.  I am by no means a "great" cook, but I am pretty good.  I enjoy trying new recipes, as well as perfecting old ones.  I don't get discouraged when I have a non-success.  I enjoy cooking, and I think that comes through in the results.  I don't know that this is necessarily something that can come directly from a book, but having a cookbook that you can connect with, that speaks to you and gives you the confidence that you can do it, can be the first step to coming into your own as a cook.  Hope that makes sense.

Apart from that, I really enjoy James Beard, because I am a very intuitive cook, and he makes me feel ok about that. :)

I am probably quite capable of cooking "fine food" but rarely do.  Not because I don't want to, but 1 full-time job + 1 middle schooler + 1 elementary schooler + 1 husband who also works = no time for anything that takes more than 30 minutes most of the time.  But I enjoy reading cooking magazines and dreaming about what I'd make if I had time!

Date Posted: 10/23/2009 4:20 PM ET
Member Since: 1/8/2007
Posts: 78
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I have a degree in Home Economics, so I took cooking classes in college. I didn't really learn anything that I couldn't have done at home. However it made me try things I never would have tried a home. I made a ground heart meatloaf ( I don't really know what we were suppose to learn from that!) I also completely deboned a whole chicken and made sweetbreads. It sounds like your friend will be sucessful on his own. We have a culinary school a couple of miles from us and the tuition is $30,000!  So your friend will be saving big money. Regarding the truffle, I recently read From Here You Can't See Paris which has several chapters about truffles. It was very interesting and really made me want to experience the taste of truffles.

Date Posted: 10/28/2009 1:50 AM ET
Member Since: 1/30/2009
Posts: 5,696
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I used to pore over my Mother's Larousse when I was growing up.  I think it's at least a good place to start.

Alice Waters is an absolute genius and her book is wonderful and I had one of the best meals I've ever had at Chez Panisse - but the one thing I would personally recommend as a life long foodie is to eat.  Eat a lot of really varied food at a lot of really good restaurants.  Develop your palate!  Make sure your ingredients are fresh and the best quality you can afford.

I think books are helpful, but as Lesley said above, I really think eating and doing are key.

ETA - Escoffier is also pretty indispensable.  I wish I had more time to cook and a better kitchen (mine is teeny).



Last Edited on: 10/28/09 2:47 AM ET - Total times edited: 1
Date Posted: 10/29/2009 7:06 PM ET
Member Since: 10/17/2006
Posts: 1,427
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A couple of things that were helpful when I had left home and began cooking were (1) having watched Grandma when I was a little girl being brought op by her, and (2) the motivation of not wanting to eat the awful messes my two housemates made when it was their "turn" to cook, and (3) after I was married, the way hubby would say "Thank you, that was good" after a meal.  Grandma sometimes consulted her White House Cookbook. with the glossy, full-length photograph of Grace Coolidge (?) in the front.  It told EVERYTHING, including how to cure some foods and to cook various game animals and fish, and make your own cosmetics and medicinal remedies.  Now there was a cookbook!

Being a home cook, one has to set a workable standard as high as is feasible, for meals day after day after day.  If you set it just TOO high, you'll wear yourself out unnecessarily, with cooking, cooking, cooking.  I do think that reading cookbooks etc., and dining at interesting places (especially in ethnic restaurants or foreign countries) adds to your "repertoire". 



Last Edited on: 12/20/09 8:15 PM ET - Total times edited: 4
Date Posted: 10/31/2009 3:38 AM ET
Member Since: 7/5/2007
Posts: 1,157
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Yesterday I was given a copy of "Ad Hoc At Home", by Thomas Keller. You may know him as the finest chef in the United States, or as the head chef of The French Laundry and also Bouchon. (I've eaten at Bouchon, it was fabulous.) His previous cookbooks are extremely sophisticated and not, in my opinion, for the average home cook; I think most people would consider them overly difficult. This new book is supposed to be aimed at the home cook, at everyday cooking, at simpler cooking. He promises, no immersion circulator required.

It's interesting. It has recipes for things like hamburgers, grilled cheese sandwiches, fried chicken, salads. Sounds accessible, right? How about when I tell you that for the hamburgers you're expected to buy three different cuts of beef and grind it yourself at home? That for the grilled cheese sandwiches, you use gruyere cheese and you have to make the bread? For the fried chicken you need to find a special small size of chicken, buy it whole, and butcher it at home? That for the salads, you're expected to make your own crutons... and of course, for the crutons, you're expected to have made the bread.

And yet, I want to tell you that you must have this book. Keller is clearly a genius, and distills his extraordinary food knowledge into recipes that are straightforward, clear, and simple if you put aside the fact that you may have to make several things to get the end result. Everything is very obviously based on sound scientific knowledge of food, is tested, and should work perfectly. And the food, while it is basic everyday dishes, will be sophisticated anyway due to its precision take on how to make it.

My friends think I should start a blog on which I would document the process of me cooking all the recipes from the book in my apartment kitchen in one year. We could call it "Tom & Thomas"...

Date Posted: 12/7/2009 10:33 AM ET
Member Since: 2/25/2007
Posts: 13,991
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Keller IS a genius...and I've read several reviews cautioning people about the new book; that even tho it says it's easier, it still takes a LOT of time and ingredients and effort....!

I'm reminded of meeting one celeb chef, of "Olives" in Boston ,incredibly good-looking---Todd English.

I had just gotten his new cookbook (this was maybe 6-8 years ago) and said I liked it a lot but it was challenging. He basically gave a speech about how people who think they can replicate restaurant food in their homes are delusional. It was the first time I'd had a chef cookbook writer say that so straightforwardly! But there's a lot to it.

Still fun to try.

Bobby Flay's cookbooks are my best source---very tasty and still do-able at home.

Date Posted: 12/9/2009 3:35 PM ET
Member Since: 1/30/2009
Posts: 5,696
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Don't mock the grilled cheese!  It's shockingly difficult to find an even edible one out. 

For a while I was living on the grilled cheese sandwiches from 'wichcraft.  Gruyere and caramalized onions on rye for $5.  Go Colicchio!

Bobby Flay's cookbooks are my best source---very tasty and still do-able at home.

I love his cookbooks and love Mesa Grill, but - my family had Thanksgiving dinner at Bar Americain and I was sadly a little underwhelmed.

Date Posted: 12/10/2009 1:10 AM ET
Member Since: 8/29/2007
Posts: 12
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I have a huge collection of cookbooks.  I mainly cook  Asian and Mexican based dishes. The most used cookbook in my kitchen is The China Moon cookbook by Barbara Tropp, I'm on my 3rd copy. It's a bit like Keller's in that you need to make a whole pantry of ingredients before you can make most of the recipes, which are not traditional . A lot of work, but so worth the end result.  She also wrote a great book on traditional Chinese Cooking book that I also use regularly . I love Rick Bayless and Diana Kennedy  for Mexican.  Two books my mother used are now my go tos for basics and baking are James Beard's Fireside cookbook and the Fannie Farmer cookbook. 

Date Posted: 12/12/2009 12:19 AM ET
Member Since: 6/29/2009
Posts: 53
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Easy to make your own bread; I had to "experiment" but refused to give up years ago;  I cannot make white bread well; so I make wheat & white mixed; love to try various recipes; today my daughter got me a pretzel at the mall: watched the lady make them; she doesn't make her own bread; and I am going to try making them at home!

I LOVE Farm Journal's cookbooks; tho I have many others; making own soups, stews, etc, using spices; even when single working mom, I cooked & froze food; made own "basic mixes" and a neighbor & I would spend a day making all kinds of foods to freeze; cook once eat for a month concept; could not stand eating out as most food is far less appealing and appetizing than what you can easily make at home; used to make spagetti all day long: easy to do in crockpots; and had to use 2 as teens would come to inhale;

With spices, etc: I cannot fathom not living like a queen, eating fabulous food; didn't even know I liked hamburgers til my grandson made some one day putting bell peppers and onions and seasonings on it; & cooking on the George Foreman;  he promised me I would like it; amazingly I did! It takes LITTLE to make mashed potatoes garlic, or add sour crean, bacon bits, cheese and/or onions; I do it that way now rather than double bake them; baked yams are heavenly; making your own applesauce is so wonderful, why does anyone bother to buy it?

I love the idea of great cooking; it's easy to find so many recipes on line but I confess: once you get tips & great ideas: do put them in a recipe card as tried and true;  and don't be afraid to try experimenting with spices; and other things; to find out what works well for you; why buy bar b qu sauce when you can make your own from what   you have? You can make everything delicious:why settle for less?

Date Posted: 12/12/2009 1:34 PM ET
Member Since: 4/4/2009
Posts: 9,450
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I don't know how well it fits on this thread, but it seems to be getting read a lot, so I will put it in here. A long time ago, my wife and I subcribed to a Time-Life series called Foods of The World. American Cooking, Russian Cooking, Middle-Eastern Cooking, etc. I have about 20. They sent a large hardcover that showed the people preparing the stuff; it was a pretty good look at the country itself. Then there was a smaller wire-bound book of recipes, many of which had been shown in all their glory in the hardbound. One thing my wife did notice right off was that they presented a lot of dishes that were no doubt hearty fare for the people who cooked it and who no doubt used primarily what they had available. The recipes for said stuff is very meticulous and precise, needlessly so. However, I mention these cookbooks for all the chefs on PBS. Look for them posted. I sure have worn out Russia,, Italy, America, and Germany. (nobody but me would touch India or Middle Eastern). And I guarantee anyone who likes to cook will enjoy them greatly.

My wife says other than Good Housekeeping and Fannie Farmer it is all nedless repetition. She is right, of course. Irritating habit that wives have.

Subject: re time life books
Date Posted: 12/12/2009 6:56 PM ET
Member Since: 8/29/2007
Posts: 12
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 My mom had the Time Life books!  I inherited  some, (she split them amongst my brothers and I according to our personal preferences. )    I have slowly been  filling in the collection  with finds at yard sales and thrift stores. Even though they are dated they still have a wealth of useful information  for the curious cook.  I really don't think they were ever meant to be traditional  cook books but more books about "foods of the world".

They  really are so much more than cook books, they tell the story of  how each country or regions cuisine came to be through it climate, culture and history. You learn not only about the food but the people. I loved  reading them and looking at the pictures when I was younger.  The  photographs are spectacular . I still use several  regularly ,  my worn out copies are  French Provincial ,Latin America and  India.  I have seen the spiral bound ones listed here (with just the recipes) . I would love to find a master list  so I can collect the whole set.

Date Posted: 12/12/2009 8:16 PM ET
Member Since: 4/4/2009
Posts: 9,450
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Thanks for a better description of the books than I did, Karen. I count 14 wirebound recipe books, but I am sure there are more than that. I had a lady from Bangladesh help me with some of the Indian stuff, but I never figured out how they planned on me stir-frying stuff in a very hot pan with very little grease without it sticking a whole lot. And I never could get the knack of making ghee.

Date Posted: 12/13/2009 3:16 PM ET
Member Since: 8/29/2007
Posts: 12
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John, That sounds close to the right number . I know there was also a second series that  featured regions in the US, I think it had 6 books.

 You are lucky to have had an Indian coach.  I have the same problem with ghee myself. I think it helps when you make it in large quantities but I am the only lover of Indian cuisine in my family so   I use butter that is ( sort of )  clarified or a high heat oil like corn or peanut ( which is getting harder to find in my area .  As for the stir fry I know  part of their secret is a very well seasoned pan , kind of like the way we use a well seasoned cast iron pan. But theirs are much lighter weight .  I have a  well seasoned wok and I still have problems with  food sticking. I follow the" hot pan ,cold oil, food won't stick" rule but even so,  that only works with small amounts of foods that are dry  or not too starchy .

Date Posted: 12/19/2009 7:07 PM ET
Member Since: 6/15/2006
Posts: 6,060
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My mom, an incredible cook, swore by the Antoinette Pope School Cookbook.  Antoinette Pope ran a cooking school in Chicago back in the day, and had her first TV show in 1951, 12 years before Julia Child.   Mom loves Julia too, but when she needed a recipe for something, the Antoinette Pope book was always the first place she looked.  The original cookbook came out in 1949 (I have hers), but it's her much-loved "New Antoinette Pope School Cookbook", copyright 1973, that is battered and falling apart from too much use.   The book is out of print now, but available on Amazon and ebay for a price. 

Date Posted: 1/7/2010 1:00 AM ET
Member Since: 7/5/2007
Posts: 1,157
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Betty:

 

I'm reminded of meeting one celeb chef, of "Olives" in Boston ,incredibly good-looking---Todd English.

I had just gotten his new cookbook (this was maybe 6-8 years ago) and said I liked it a lot but it was challenging. He basically gave a speech about how people who think they can replicate restaurant food in their homes are delusional. It was the first time I'd had a chef cookbook writer say that so straightforwardly! But there's a lot to it.

Well, my friend about whom I started this thread is now a good enough home cook that he can not only replicate restaurant cooking, he can out-cook most restaurants, so I don't agree with Todd English, although I acknowledge that he's a superb chef. I've eaten at Olives (oddly, at the Bellagio in Las Vegas, despite that I actually live in Boston) and they can just bring me a large bucket of his tomato soup every day, thank you very much.

I think the real questions are, is it worth the time and effort and money to replicate restaurant cooking at home? And, is it desirable? I think the time question is important: I know I can cook superbly at home, but I also know what sort of time investment it takes, and that's why I'll much more often make a chicken sandwich than chicken cordon bleu. Also, a lot of things many restaurants (not top restaurants, but normal ones) do are done not because it's the optimal method, but because it's easiest given that they have to prepare things fast, in quantity, with minimal equipment, and they have to clean everything as they go along. So, if you want to do it right, there may well be a better way than the restaurant way.

Betty:

 

Bobby Flay's cookbooks are my best source---very tasty and still do-able at home.

Caviglia:

I love his cookbooks and love Mesa Grill, but - my family had Thanksgiving dinner at Bar Americain and I was sadly a little underwhelmed.

I haven't gotten there yet... I think they just opened one at Mohegan Sun, I'll probably go there sometime in the next few months and have a meal. I don't think thanksgiving is really representative of a restaurant however, they're sort of in panic mode that day.

Karen:

I have the same problem with ghee myself. I think it helps when you make it in large quantities but I am the only lover of Indian cuisine in my family so   I use butter that is ( sort of )  clarified or a high heat oil like corn or peanut ( which is getting harder to find in my area .

I just buy jars of ghee. It really is just clarified butter though, so if you clarify your own butter, you're using the same thing.

I use it in the opposite manner, actually: I buy jars of ghee so I don't have to clarify butter to make things like hollandaise sauce.

I got the Bouchon cookbook (another from Thomas Keller) for christmas from my friend the home chef. He and I ate at Bouchon in Vegas last year. It was heavenly. My friend made the leek and potato soup from the Bouchon cookbook for me, and interestingly, it was actually even better at home than at the restaurant. The cookbook is gorgeous, the recipes are glorious. It's a must-have reference on french bistro cooking.

Subject: ghee
Date Posted: 1/7/2010 10:21 AM ET
Member Since: 8/29/2007
Posts: 12
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Tom,  Where do you buy ghee? Is it refrigerated?  I am in metro west Boston, there is an Indian grocery in Waltham  I've been meaning to stop in to.   Last week I had lunch at India Quality in Kenmore square and I've been wanting to try and replicate one of their dishes. (Madras lamb) The lamb is gone but I brought the remaining sauce home.  None of my  Indiancookbooks have a similar sounding sauce so I'm going to the library later today to see if I can find a recipe.

I absolutely think you can replicate restaurant dishes at home , it just takes time, patience and money .  I grew up on the west coast and spent most of my adult life in Hawaii . When I moved to Hawaii I lived in the country and the only choice of restaurants were high end tourist spots or hole in the wall ethnic foods.   I started buying  cookbooks from my favourite California chefs  to have my favourite dishes at home. Now that I'm here in MA  I collect the cookbooks from my favourite Hawaiian chefs.  I can't really afford to eat in many of the  top restaurants here in Boston so the chefs cookbooks and web sites let me sample their dishes at home,. They may not be anything like the ones they serve but they sure taste good to me!

 Not all  chefs are  good at writing recipes or teaching techniques. Many of the cookbooks I own are used more for inspiration than recipes.



Last Edited on: 1/7/10 10:22 AM ET - Total times edited: 1
Date Posted: 1/8/2010 4:29 AM ET
Member Since: 7/5/2007
Posts: 1,157
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Karen, ghee is sold not refrigerated - it doesn't have to be refrigerated until opened, and some people claim not even then.

I presently buy my ghee at an indian grocery in Framingham, because I'm often there while visiting a friend. There's a fantastic ukrainian produce mart right next door to it, I think they're both on route 9. I can't recall what either of them are called... if you need to know drop me a PM and I'll find out for you.

However, I suspect you could find it in the indian grocery in central square as well. They're pretty well stocked as I recall. There are also some indian groceries near Union Square in Somerville I think, but I haven't been in them.

Date Posted: 2/1/2010 4:52 PM ET
Member Since: 11/13/2008
Posts: 1,312
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Last Edited on: 12/10/10 3:06 PM ET - Total times edited: 1