Cooking tips, aka, How to not screw up a recipe

Topic: Inspiration

I was talking to my dear friend Julia today and she was telling me about making scones. She commented that it wasn’t difficult to make, she just thought it would be because she doesn’t bake often. I hear a lot of people say things like, “It seems overwhelming when I look at a recipe. I’m afraid I won’t know how to do something.” Now, there are some recipes out there that make no flipping sense, but for the most part a recipe is nothing more than assembly instructions. And we all know from putting together IKEA furniture, that there is a right and wrong way to assemble something. Here are some tips that will make your cooking experinece so much easier, and hopefully get you spending more time in the kitchen.

Read the recipe from start to finish.

I can’t tell you how many times I have screwed up a recipe because I didn’t read it through. It’s not enough to read the ingredients, sometimes important things are hidden in those awful long-winded instructions. For example, you may get half way through something and realize you need a blender and it’s 2am and you don’t have one. You’re screwed and hungry. Boo.

Rewrite the recipe in a simplified way that makes sense to you.

Recipes tend to be big on instructions. A lot of that stuff will only confuse you and make it harder to remember where you are in a recipe. If you’re brand new you may need most of the info, but as you get more confident you can change: “Now, taking the ground beef, put it in the pot at medium high temp, break up with a spoon and brown for 12-15 minutes” and shorten it to “beef, med-high, brown 15 minutes.” Easier, right?

Prep your ingredients!!

If you look at my videos, all my ingredients are in their own cute little bowls. There are so many reasons to do this. First, if you focus on each item, you’re less likely to mess up the amount. Any professional cook or baker will tell you that this is an indespenisble step. You gotta do it. Secondly, when you begin cooking you’re not going to burn the onions because you forgot to chop the garlic that needs to go in next. Nor will you discover half way through that you don’t have something necessary for the recipe. Finally, it keeps your kitchen so much cleaner! By the time I start cooking my kitchen is clean and I can focus on making the dish correctly, and I can enjoy myself more, which is really the point.

Take notes

I’ve said it before, but if you want to make something good, you need to do it a few times. I have a handful of recipes that I’ve made enough times that I know they are going to be good. It’s nice to build up a collection this way, but if you don’t take notes on what worked or didn’t, you’ll have to start from scratch every time. I like to write notes on the recipe that I rewrote from the original (see above.) Sounds a little time consuming, but you have to do something while the onions brown, so jot things down. It helps, promise.

Become friends with Google

If you get to some part in a recipe and you don’t know what they’re talking about, google that sh*t! No matter what it is, someone has made a video, written an article or has a blog that explains how to do it. You can search on the top right of my website for something, but if it’s not there look it up! (This is another reason reading the entire recipe helps.)

There’s a million more things, but I promise you that these four, simple things will make a huge difference in your next kitchen adventure. Now go have fun! xoxo

The beginning of my garden!

Topic: Inspiration














But I don’t wanna cook today!

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So Spring is currently taking over East Tennessee. It is so effing beautiful and addicting, it’s almost painful to be inside. If you live in a mild climate it may be hard to understand what it feels like to wake up and not have to scrape ice off your car with a Tom Waits CD while your toes go numb. This has been my reality for months, and I really started to believe it was never going to be warm again. Which would explain why I’ve spent all winter in my cozy kitchen making warm comfort foods. Either that or sitting on my computer, trying to warm my feet on my computer tower while writing about yummy warm food.

Now though, all I want to do is get off work, change into a tank top and drive to a park to lay on the grass and sun myself like a lizard. Being in my kitchen does not seem comforting, it seems stifling. Even sitting on the computer to Facebook stalk or look at pictures of cute freakish animals has lost it’s appeal.

All this is meant to explain why I haven’t posted anything in ages. I feel like I’m putting The Hedonist Cook on the back burner (get it, back-burner?!) and that scares me because I’ve put so much work into getting this going! So today I decided to sit down and edit a video, which I’ll post on Thursday. It’s for Chicken and Dumplings, and it’s so yummy! But I can’t seem to force myself into the kitchen right now, so I’m going to settle for some great food writing to inspire me. I got some new books at the library this week, and I’m looking forward to getting into them and seeing what new info I can learn and share with you. Who knows, maybe I’ll do some videos where I review a food book like on Reading Rainbow. Remember those?

Today I’m starting Animal, Vegetable,  Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver. I’m liking it so far, and I just read a quote that summed up one of my main beliefs about food:

Food culture in the United States has long been cast as the property of a privileged class. It is nothing of the kind. Culture is the property of a species.

I could go off on a huge tangent about this, but I think it speaks for itself. So today I’m challenging myself, as well as you. What can you do to take food culture out of your Bon Appetit magazine and bring it into your day to day life? One of my favorite things to do is ask people about their favorite food growing up. I usually hear a story that makes the articles in my fancy food magazines seem totally weak. It’s a way to make a connection with another human being, and it uses our shared food culture to do it. How freaking cool is that?

So hooray for Spring, books, food and the people in our lives. I’m pretty happy with life, what about you?

The keys to becoming a great cook…

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So if you’re like me, you’ve probably seen  someone in the kitchen whipping up something awesome, and it seems like they’re not even trying. You see it all the time on those cooking show. Chefs are busting out these crazy dishes and they still have time to push their new line of aprons or saucepans. They never get flustered and everything turns out great.   Then there is the rest of us.  Going in a million directions at once, forgetting ingredients, making a huge mess and stressing ourselves out. So what does that chef on TV  have that most of us don’t? Experience and preparation.

For the most part, cooks make the same food day in and out. It becomes second nature, so it’s possible to have 4 things going on saute at once and still have time to make fun of the servers. (Sorry to any servers out there, but it’s true.) When you watch it happen it seems like chaos, but really it’s just a routine they have down. If you want to be able to make a great dish at short notice, you’re going to need to get good at it. When I want to master a recipe, this is how I go about it.

  1. The first time I make it I follow the recipe exactly, and I never make it for a dinner party. If anything I’ll invite Julia over or I’ll take some to my folks. Those are the three people that love me no matter what, so I’m not stressing out about trying to impress them. When I’m done I write down what worked, what didn’t, and any modifications I think would be good.
  2. Then I make it a second time, within a week or two. This time I invite a couple close friends over and I try it with the changes.
  3. Third time I make it is again within a few weeks. This time I have it down and I can try making it for more people and see how it comes out when I’m under pressure.

You need to do a recipe at least 3 times, in a short period of time, if you want to be comfortable with it. Then you can tuck it away in your mental recipe box as something you know is great and you feel good cooking. No one, not even a professional cook, makes a great dish the first time they do it. Repetition is the key to mastering a craft, especially cooking.

The second part of being a good cook comes from being prepared. In a restaurant there is a whole crew of people that show up at 8am to prep everything. That way, when the cooks come in at 4pm, they have everything they need for the whole dinner shift. If you want to be a great cook you cannot underestimate the importance of prep. Nothing will screw you up more than realizing half way through a recipe that you forgot to measure something, or that you don’t have a necessary spice. This is especially true for those of us who live in apartments and are limited on space.

Contrary to popular belief, it isn’t the $300 mixer, fifty different cookbooks and magazine subscriptions or the organic bamboo spatula that makes a good cook. It’s the willingness to put in the time and effort to understand what you’re doing.  It may sound like a lot of work, but being a good cook is a craft, like fixing cars or knitting. No one is good at it when they first start, and it takes time and effort to understand it. Just don’t be too hard on yourself and don’t give up! Practice, screw up, have fun and keep trying. You are totally capable of being a bad ass cook, I promise.

Nostalgia and Food…

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The worst thing a cook can hear is “My Grandma used to make this recipe, can you make it like that?” I heard this truism last week from my boss. And why is this a bad thing to hear? Because no matter how great you make that caramel cake, or tamale or whatever, it will never make that person happy. Because they’re not looking for something that tastes like their Grandma’s cooking. They’re looking for the feelings associated with the situation they ate that food in.

People do it all the time. We think we miss an ex, we pine for them and think of all the things that make them wonderful. Then we see them and realize they aren’t anything we want. What we miss is feeling loved, or important or something else that relationship brought. Our brains aren’t built to make that distinction though, and so our emotions become totally entwined with the object, and we can’t separate it.

Nothing has a stronger memory than our senses. And since eating is a sensory experience,  it makes sense that we associate a lot of feelings with food. I know this is true for me. When I think about sopapillas, I’m not craving some fried bread with honey. I’m craving the feeling of having a special night with my family as a child. The rare Friday or Saturday night when we stayed up late, Mom cooked (after she had cleaned the whole kitchen from dinner) and we covered the table in sticky honey.  There is not a fried pastry in the world that could match up to that memory.  I made sopapillas for some friends a few weeks back and I was shocked that they didn’t do back-flips as they ate them. They had one or two and were done. It was like we were actually tasting different things.

I think that’s why I love trying new foods. You don’t know what to expect, and it’s all fresh. After that first time, you’ll always have something to reference it to, compare it with. The first time is pure, and you’re tasting it without judgment or expectation. I also love comfort food for the opposite reason. I love having the chance to travel back in time and remember something from the past. It feels magical that the taste of toasted sourdough with butter  takes me back to my grandparents kitchen. I can feel the table, see my Grandma’s delicate hands and smell the dish soap she always used.  My Grandparents have passed away, but because of my memory they’re never gone. And food is one of the ways I keep a link to them.

Maybe this will give some insight to people that don’t get why I talk about food all the time. I’m not talking about food, not really. I’m talking about comfort, and memory, and people and love. It’s a tool that works for me to connect with the world and people in it. If I’ve ever cooked for you, it’s because I care about you. Because I want to make a connection or create a memory with you.  That’s why giving Julia chocolate cake, making lasagna for Thomas or seeing my Mom’s face when she tastes potato soup I made makes me feel so content and happy. It reminds me of one of my favorite quotes:

Sharing food with another human being is an intimate act that should not be indulged in lightly.
M. F. K. Fisher

Mae West… on Hedonism

Topic: Inspiration | Related topics: , ,

When caught between two evils I generally pick the one I’ve never tried before.”

-Mae West

Why American cheese is evil

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Real, yummy cheddar cheese

When I was growing up, the only cheese we had was your standard block of mild cheddar cheese. You know, real cheese. I would go to friends houses and they would have this weird and gross impostor cheese that was individually wrapped. (I think this contributed to my refusal to spend the night at friends houses. The risk for “fake cheese” as I called it was too high.) I never asked about it, probably because I grew up with some manners and didn’t want to be rude. (Thanks Mom!)

Fast forward to my early twenties and I am ordering a hamburger. I politely ask if they use “real” cheese, which  seems like a very straightforward question to me. They say yes, and then my burger comes out with fake cheese! This goes on for over a year before my then boyfriend explained that the “fake cheese” had a name. American cheese. All these years I had been asking if they used fake cheese, and no one bothered to tell me it had a flipping name! But at least I had a title for my nemesis.

I really, really hate American cheese. The smell makes me nauseous, the texture is awful, I could go on and on. The only good thing American cheese has done for me was to initiate a needed break up. It was our first trip to the store together, and he bought American cheese. I went home and really accessed the relationship. Upon reflection the guy was a raging alcoholic and kind of an asshole, but it could have taken years for me to notice that had it not been for the American cheese incident.

I have a new friend that doesn’t know anything about food, and it’s been really fun to feed him new food and expose him to stuff he’s never tried before. When we first started hanging out he told me that he didn’t really see the difference between American cheese and “real” cheese. He had grown up with American and it seemed natural to eat it. I bit my tongue and hoped that given enough time he would come around.

So last night we were having dinner and he said that he understood “the cheese thing.” He said that it drove him crazy how people mindlessly listen to the radio, when the music is terrible! Being a musician this is something that strikes a chord with him.  (See what I did there, musician, chord…!) Anyway, he said that people listen to the radio because they don’t know what great music is out there, and they have always just listened to top 40. He realized that it is the same with cheese, and food in general.

We do things the way we were raised and most of us never think about it. I know this was the case with me. The only reason I ever tried new food was because I wanted to impress a guy! Up until my early twenties I thought butter was only for Christmas and Thanksgiving, I only ate ranch dressing etc… It never occurred to me to wander in the supermarket and try couscous or an artichoke. It took an outside force to get me to loosen up and take a risk.

It may sound weird, but I am soooo proud that I helped someone come to a realization like that. It sounds small, but who knows what other areas that idea will manifest itself in! (I mean, he could one day claim something other than pizza as his favorite food. Crazy.) And even if that’s all that comes of it, if one less person eats “fake” cheese, I’m a happy girl.

The Quest for Sourdough in East Tennessee

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As most of you know, I’m from Northern California, and now live in Knoxville Tennessee. Since I’ve moved here I’ve been really bothered by the lack of quality sourdough bread. I went through all the stages of grief.

  • Denial: I’m sure it’s here, I just haven’t been to the right store yet.
  • Anger: How the hell can a town of this size not have a single loaf of good sourdough?!?! No wonder the south lost the Civil War!
  • Bargaining: I mean, if I have to go to another town, that would be ok. There has to be some in East Tennessee somewhere, right?
  • Depression: What does it matter… I may as well start buying Sara Lee bread, life sucks anyway.
  • Acceptance: I guess it only makes sense that there is a cost to getting to eat hush puppies and fried green tomatoes. Sourdough bread must be that cost…

Then on Saturday at work, I finally learned the truth. It isn’t that Knoxvillians are just evil and refuse to make me the sourdough bread of my youth. They can’t. San Francisco style sourdough bread can only be made in SF. The yeast in the air is different, and with sourdough bread, the yeast in the air will make or break your dough.

I feel more at peace now that I know what’s really going on. Thank you to my boss, Vanessa, for letting me know. SF sourdough, like the sight of the Golden Gate bridge in the fog, or large groups of leather daddies singing show tunes can only be had in San Francisco. And maybe that’s what makes those things so special….

For more info on magical sourdough, check out this article from The Science of Cooking.

Grilled Cheese Hamburger?!?!

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A friend of a friend told me about something he made the other day at work: A grilled cheese burger. What is that you ask? Well, it is two grilled cheese sandwiches that are used as the buns for a hamburger.

I know, right? Doesn’t that make you want to cry it sounds so totally over the top and wonderful? I understand that it is pushing the envelope, but to each his own. Personally, I have every intention of trying it at some point. I don’t think I could handle it on a regular basis, but I cannot live without having carnal knowledge of that meal.

Just sit and think about it for a little bit…. And if you live near me, and are man enough, lets plans a cookout in early spring and make this happen.

P.S. My friend John just told me about this burger that takes it even a step further at Vortex in Atlanta:

Twice as big as the Coronary Bypass (which is a half pound!) Topped with
two fried eggs, six slices of American cheese, and
eight slices of bacon, all served between the two
grilled cheese sandwiches that we use in place of
the regular hamburger buns.

(Thanks Eric for the original inspiration. You are a true hedonist.)

Great Food Blog – Kiss my Spatula

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I bow down to this gorgeous food blog

Thanks to amazing Ellyn for this link. Sometimes I just want to kiss you on the mouth for all the wonderful things you post. So effing inspiring!