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On cooking

Saturday, 28 January, 2012

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I realised something the other day about why I have issues with cooking and why I think I suck at it: it's because I don't understand the principles behind each recipe. (People think I'm a foodie because I take so many pictures of food, and therefore assume that I can cook and cook well. Not so: I love eating food; I hate cooking, and if I had enough money, I would totally hire a personal chef.)

What do I mean by “principles”? Take quiche, for example: quiche was the first dish I ever learned how to make. People are surprised when I tell them that but that's because they think quiche is hard. I say to them, “It's not hard; I can make it!” But I can say that because I've made it so many times, I understand the principles behind quiche. Here's the recipe I use for quiche. I can't remember where I got it from, so apologies if I am violating someone's copyright:

Ham, mushroom and corn quiche

Ingredients

Method

  1. Preheat oven to 180°C (200°C if your oven isn’t very strong).
  2. Grease quiche dish with margarine/butter and line with puff pastry (make sure it's defrosted first. You can cut off the corners that stick out and use them to patch up other areas).
  3. Cover the base with grated cheese.
  4. Fry ham, corn and mushrooms in margarine/butter and then spread evenly on top of the cheese.
  5. Combine eggs, milk, basil and pepper, and pour on top of everything else in the quiche dish.
  6. Bake in oven for about 50 mins.

You can even modify the recipe to make mini quiches in muffin tins if you want:

DSC00215

Now, this is what I mean about the principles behind quiche: this is what you need to know about the way quiche cooks if you ever want to modify the recipe:

Most recipes don't explain that. I guess someone decreed long ago they don't need to since whenever I read recipes these days, they're often stripped down to the bare essentials. But then because they don't explain why the instructions say to do this or do that, I end up stuffing it up because I don't understand, or sometimes I substitute something for something and then it all goes wrong and I don't understand why.

For example, take this Taste.com.au recipe for chicken pasta bake: step four reads:

Melt butter in a saucepan over medium heat until foaming. Add flour. Cook, stirring with a wooden spoon, for 1 to 2 minutes or until mixture bubbles. Remove from heat. Stir in milk until smooth. Return to heat. Cook, stirring, for 4 to 5 minutes or until mixture boils and thickens. Stir in tasty cheese. Season with salt and pepper.

It's the part where you make the cheese sauce. When I first made this recipe, I didn't have any flour (because I don't bake). But for some reason, I had cornflour so I thought why not use that? (See, this is why I suck at cooking.) But I didn't understand why it said to melt the butter and mix it with flour before stirring in the milk: why not mix it all in together? My friends had to explain to me it was because the flour would get all clumpy in the milk, and that these instructions were standard when you were making white sauce. Well, there you go! I didn't know that. No cookbook has ever explained that to me. Where would I have even learned that? Certainly not high school Home Economics.

Even so, knowing that hasn't helped me to master pasta bake; I thought I would make one that had a tomato-based sauce and it was a total disaster.

Risotto, on the other hand, I can do—but only through the cheating method where you use a rice cooker instead of standing at the stove for hours, stirring and pouring, stirring and pouring. Somehow I understand the principles of risotto—namely:

Do you understand what I mean? (*Sigh*. Maybe I need a special cookbook written just for me.)

Anyway, that revelation has helped me have more confidence in cooking, I think. Recently I decided to try a new recipe because I wanted to make shepherd's pie but realised we had no potatoes. (Potatoes are not a standard root vegetable at our house.) We did, however, have sweet potatoes, so I wondered if there happened to be a recipe for shepherd's pie with sweet potato. Turns out there is. The thing is, it had all sorts of weird ingredients in it, like hemp milk (but fortunately the recipe said you could use normal milk), artichoke hearts (which I assumed were just a kind of filling that could be substituted for something else), raw organic agave nectar (which I ignored, but then learned that it was basically to make it sweet so then the second time I made this dish I used honey instead) and fruity olive oil (didn't have any so used normal olive oil). Oh, and the first time I made the dish, I had no nutmeg so used Moroccan seasoning instead. (I'm sure if my grandmother had made this sort of food, she'd be rolling in her grave, but both my grandmothers were Chinese and pretty much just made Chinese food.) Oh, and I didn't have those sort of tomatoes so just used normal tinned ones.

Anyway, it could have been another culinary disaster, but it wasn't. I think it was because I sort of understand the principles underlying shepherd's pie though—namely:

So while I certainly don't claim to be a Masterchef and even though I think I still have stacks and stacks to learn about cooking (e.g. I cannot do roasts. And I cannot make a soft-boiled egg to save my life), I feel like I'm starting to get somewhere. I still don't enjoy cooking. But I like to think that I have a bit more of an inkling about what I'm doing.

Now if I could only understand the principles behind exercise …

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