We could not have been luckier to find Ali, our current babysitter who comes twice a week in the afternoons while I attempt to piece together a freelance career. Beyond the fact that Ali has a clean driving record, always shows up on time, texts me with we’re-at-piano status updates all day long (no such thing as TMI in my house), and is generally great with the girls, she is from a family of professional educators and she herself is a student, getting her masters in special education. If homework hour with her at the helm is any indication, she is well on her way to graduating summa cum laude.
But here’s where my luck is ratcheted up to I-won-the-lottery levels: She is in her 20s and wants to learn how to cook! Well, at least I think she wants to learn how to cook. It’s also entirely possible that she doesn’t want to have anything to do with cooking and is merely humoring me because what choice does she have when her new employer a) leaves the Jim Lahey pizza crust recipe for her to assemble on her first day of work b) gives her a box set of Barefoot Contessa cookbooks for a holiday gift and c) thrusts a Dinner: A Love Story galley in her backpack with the instructions that I need her feedback — good and bad — immediately.
Whether she wants to learn or not, she’s proving to be as good a student as she is a homework tutor. She mastered that life-changing Lahey crust on her first try. After the holiday she reported back with praise for Ina Garten, in particular the super simple zucchini with Parmesan recipe in Barefoot Contessa: Family Style. And — always the hallmark of a star student — she asks a lot of questions. Like: Is it OK to use parsley in guacamole instead of cilantro since they look so similar? (Not OK) Or: If I want to make sugar cookies, do I just leave out the chocolate chips in my chocolate chip cookie recipe? (No.) And, perhaps my favorite, the answer to which she figured out on her own: Is it OK if I use an American oven instead of a Dutch Oven called for in so many of the recipes in the DALS book?
I can write this without feeling mean because all of these questions are exactly the kind of questions I asked when I was her age, when I wouldn’t have ever been able to identify a Dutch Oven; when I bypassed recipes in my Silver Palate because they called for an exotic ingredient called chicken stock; When I went to Chanterelle in downtown Manhattan and almost ordered sweetbreads thinking they were some form of glazed pastries.
My Uncle Mike, a loyal reader of this blog (as well as a recipient of a 2011 Dolly Award), emailed Andy and me last week to tell us a story about how, back in the early 80s, when he was teaching himself how to cook, he decided to make a whole fish with coriander from his brand new Time-Life Middle Eastern cookbook. For a dinner party. “Of course, I had no idea that there was such a thing as fresh coriander/cilantro,” he wrote. “Not even sure I could have found it then, but the recipe called for a cup of coriander. So I went out and bought three bottles of dried coriander leaves and used it on top of the fish while it cooked.” No one at the dinner party commented. ”Maybe they didn’t know better, and since the fish was not skinned, you could kinda push the mass away with the skin, but still a frightening memory.”
I could hear stories about these frightening memories all day long, and in the interest of teaching Ali the most important lesson — that you can only learn how to cook by actually cooking, even if it means you feel lost or screw up every now and then — how about you guys share a few?
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I wasn’t sure I heard her right.
“Excuse me?” I asked.
“What’s up with the flat bags?”
I heard her right. The question came from the photographer’s assistant during the DALS Book photo shoot a few weeks ago. She was in her twenties, hailed from Williamsburg. I didn’t get a peek at her iPod, but I feel certain it would be loaded with songs by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and the New Pornographers. In other words, bands I’d never heard before. She was referring to the bags of chilis and soups in my freezer — I always freeze dinners in flattened Ziplocs. When you do it that way, you save time (by thawing whatever is frozen under running water for 60 seconds) and you save space. (After your soup or stew is frozen, you can file the bag in your freezer like a book in a bookshelf.) How did she not know this?
Most likely because she hadn’t spent six years of her life at Real Simple or four years editing the food pages of Cookie. I need to remember that not everyone is a former magazine editor walking around with a mental catalog of time-saving, money-saving, energy-saving, sanity-saving, life-saving, surefire, guilt-free, guaranteed fool-proof, plan-ahead, stress-free, problem-solving shortcuts, tips and tricks. (And yes, in case you are wondering, all those words consistently scored the highest with the focus groups.) I need to remember that not everyone out there feels comfortable with recipe-writing language that calls for a “handful of beans” or a “pinch of cayenne.” (Don’t literally pinch cayenne, especially if you are using those same pinchers to remove contact lenses an hour later.) I need to remember that calling for lemongrass in a recipe is a potential deal-breaker and that calling for a ”large” can of whole tomatoes is going to elicit this comment from my book editor, Lee: “Ounces please! Lord, define large!” This is why she is so awesome. Not only because I can hear her southern drawl through the most miniscule of notes, but because she yells at me now so you won’t have to later.
Anyway, in honor of all of you out there who don’t know to store your folded garbage bags inside the garbage can (so you can conveniently grab a replacement as soon as you discard the full one –classic Real Simple tip ) or that adding skim milk to boiling liquid is going to result in curdling (classic Jenny screw-up), here are a list of things I wish someone told me fifteen years ago, when I was the one with the loaded iPod (Sony Walkman?) who did not understand the kind of happiness that a quick-thaw might someday bring me.
1. Don’t ever make recipes (or trust cookbooks) that have overly cutesy recipe titles like “Struttin’ Chicken.” These kinds of dishes rarely have the kind of staying power that a good simple Roast Chicken will. (Grilled Chicken for People Who Hate Grilled Chicken is the obvious exception.)
2. Buy yourself a pair of kitchen scissors. You will use them to snip herbs. You will use them to chop canned whole peeled tomatoes that have been dumped and contained in a 4-cup Pyrex. You will use them to snip spinach right in the skillet as the spinach wilts. Spinach! As long as we’re on the subject: always make more of it than you think you need. This way you will not find yourself in the position of having one cupcake-sized mound of sesame spinach for your whole family of four to share.
3. Some Type-A behaviors worth stealing: Do everything you can in advance when you are having people over for dinner. No matter how easy and tossed-off the task may be. No matter how many times your partner-in-crime says, Why don’t we just do that later? Filling a sippy cup takes 30 seconds! If you forgo this advice and do nothing in advance, at least make sure you start off the evening with an empty dishwasher. You will thank yourself a few hours and a few cocktails later when staring at the mountain of greasy plates in the sink. Lastly, if at all possible, go to sleep with a fresh trash bag in the kitchen garbage can. I find it somewhat soul-crushing to see last night’s dinner scraps piled up before I’ve had my morning coffee. And I sleep better when I know it’s empty. (See: Type A.)
4. Brushing dough with a quick egg-wash is the secret to getting that shiny, lacquered, I’m-worth-something-after-all glow to your pies, breads, and cherry galettes (pictured above). This comes in especially handy when trying to pass off storebought crust as homemade. Whisk one egg with a fork, then use a pastry brush to cover every inch of the exposed crust before baking.
5. Meat will never brown properly if you add it to the pan when it’s freezing cold and wet. (And browning properly is where you’re going to get most of your flavor.) It should be patted dry and room temperature. Unless you have just walked in the door, it’s 7:30, the kids are screaming and the instruction to “bring it to room temperature” is the instruction that will make you swear off family dinner forever.
6. Add acid. A drizzle of vinegar, a spoonful of tangy buttermilk, a simple squeeze of lemon or lime will always add brightness to an otherwise boring and flat dish. I’ll never forget an interview I read with Mario Batali that reconfirmed this: He said the easiest way to pretend you know what you’re doing in the kitchen is to talk about the “acidity” level of a dish.
7. Never use the phrase “pun intended” or “no pun intended.” Oh sorry! That’s from my “Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I Started Writing” list.
8. Learn the correct way to slice and dice an avocado. You will not only save time, energy, sanity [insert up to 4 more Real Simple focus group words here] by doing this, but you will find yourself giving tutorials to awed, in-the-dark observers every time you make guacamole in front of them.
9. Ice in the cocktails, people. Don’t be stingy. Nothing worse than a lukewarm Gin and Tonic.
10. You won’t get arrested if you leave out an ingredient or replace it with something that’s not called for. That doesn’t mean leave the shrimp out of the shrimp and grits, but if you don’t have scallions for the chopped salad, or if you don’t have red wine called for in the braised pork, take a look around and see what else might stand in for what’s missing. Every time you do this and it works, you’ll be a little more confident in the kitchen. And every time you do this and it doesn’t work, you have one more good story to tell.
Flattened freezer bag photo by Jennifer Causey for DALS.
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