Sunday, March 9, 2008

Day 4: Rice Pilaf

Ok, so it's just baby steps. We're starting from zero, after all. Rice Pilaf: The French Vanilla of rice. I think I nailed this one, I really do. Did I mention that this chapter of Dummies is all about how to boil water and what to do with it once you've managed that? Not thrilling, but something every dummy should know. Lots of pictures this time (still bad cell phone shots because our old and crappy point and shoot doesn't like anything but bright lighting and because our less crappy but even older SLR only uses this stuff called "film"). Hopefully they're instructive anyway. Also, I've given up on avoiding lawsuits, so here is the recipe for Rice Pilaf:

Basic Rice Pilaf:

1 tbsp olive oil
1/2 medium onion, minced
1/2 red bell pepper, minced
1 tsp cumin powder
1/2 tsp salt
1 cup white rice
2 1/4 cups chicken broth
1/2 cup chopped almonds (optional)
1/4 cup raisins or currants (optional)
Black pepper

In a medium saucepan, heat olive oil over medium heat. Add onion, pepper, cumin powder and salt. Sauté until the onion starts to soften, about 5 minutes

Add rice and cook, stirring, until the rice is coated, about 3 minutes. Pour in chicken broth and bring to a boil. Stir and cover.

Reduce heat to low and simmer for 20 minutes

Remove from heat and let stand, covered, about 5 minutes or until all the liquid is absorbed. Stir in almonds and/or raisins, if desired. Black pepper to taste. Eat.

There are no almonds in my picture. Our kids are deathly allergic, so we try to avoid bringing them in the house. I know I should sacrifice for my art, but it seemed a little drastic to my wife.

First things first: Chopping onions and red peppers. I've known how to do onions for a while now, so here is my illustrated guide to onion dicing:

Cut the onion in half, from pole to pole (not through the fat middle).

In the picture you can see what I mean.

Take one of the halves and cut off one of the tips. I do this to make peeling a little easier (if you look closely, you'll see the skin is still on my onions). I usually cut off the the 'hairy' end, just because it's a little messier and I like to get it out of the way.

Once that's done and the onion is peeled, take the half you're working with and put it flat-side down on the cutting board. Cut the onion parallel to the cutting board 3 or 4 times, depending on how thick it is. But don't cut all the way through. You want to keep the onion in one piece but have these cuts running through it. That's why I only cut off one of the ends. I leave the other one there to help keep the thing together..

Next, cut in the opposite direction 5 or 6 times. Start about 1/4 inch from the end you didn't chop off, and cut through to the flat end.

Now, cut across the onion, all the way through, starting from the flat end (the point you cut off) and work your way back up to the other end. If you've done it right, each time you make a cut, you'll get a little pile of diced onions.

Now, chop up the red pepper. First, cut a hole in the top around the stem and pull it out.

Then, cut it in half, from top to bottom. You'll see the seeds and the white stuff the seeds are attached to. Rinse out the seeds and as much of the white stuff as comes off. Cut the rest of the white stuff out and toss it.

Put the pepper flat-side down on the cutting board, and slice lengthwise 10 times or so, and then crosswise 7 or 8 times to make little cubes.

Seriously, the chopping is the most time-consuming part of this. Chopping the pepper is pretty obvious, but someone showed me the onion trick, and I never would have thought of it myself. It really makes it much faster. It also works on tomatoes, but it's a little more messy.

So, chop it up, throw it in the sauce pan. I measured the tablespoon of olive oil, because that's just how I roll, but I don't think it's necessary. For sautéing like this, I think the rule of thumb is to use just enough to coat the bottom of the pan.

Also, I don't think it's important to use olive oil. By the time you get done cooking it and mixing it in with everything else, I think you'd be hard pressed to tell the difference between it and whatever vegetable oil you have around, or even butter for that matter.

(Update: Some kind soul emailed me to let me know that the issue with butter is that it burns at a lower temperature than oil, and gets scorched. I've done that before, and it's not a disaster, but it definitely doesn't taste great. It probably wouldn't be an issue here, the temperature for cooking the onions along with the fact that you should be stirring them quite a bit as they cook means that butter would probably be fine. Not true for things that require higher temps. Lesson learned. Thanks to the self-described anal retentive reader, too shy or embarrassed to admit it comments. My first email about the blog.
Nice to know someone's reading- maybe I should print it out and frame it like stores do with their first dollar bill.)

One thing I've noticed before and saw here, is that when you start cooking the onions, they seem to soak up whatever liquid is in the pan. If you pay attention, you can see them swell up a little. If you keep cooking them, they release the liquid back into the pan and start to shrink. I don't know what good this knowledge is, but there you go. For this recipe, add the rice before the onions start giving the liquid back. When I added it, there was basically none in the pan.

After that, it's pretty straightforward. Like a dork, I measured out a half teaspoon of salt, but before I put it in, I put it in my hand and took a picture. Now I know what half a teaspoon of kosher salt looks like, and so do you. Next time I might wing it. Who am I kidding?

Also, not like I know what I'm talking about, but I think golden raisins would have gone better than the black ones I used. I think they're a little less sweet.

This recipe is definitely a keeper. Not enough to make a meal of it's own, but very simple, hard to screw up too badly, and it will impress your date much more than Uncle Ben's (and that's what this is all about, isn't it?)

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Day 3: Rice

I almost skipped this one too. Plain rice. How hard can it be?

We actually own a rice cooker, which I actually know how to operate. So I can cook rice. My wife laughed at me again on this one. We eat tons of rice, but I stuck to my guns, and made the rice.

Nothing particularly spectacular in the book about how to cook rice. Basically, one cup of rice, two cups of water. Boil water, add rice, and let it simmer for about 30 minutes.

Depending on what kind of rice you use, you need to add a little more or a little less water. We tend to use jasmine rice a lot, and 2:1 works pretty well. It could go as low as 1 3/4 cups water per cup of rice even. For something like basmati, it's even lower. The problem is that it actually depends not only on the variety of rice, but also the brand. Some brands of jasmine we've bought need as little as 1 1/2 cups of water per cup of rice, but that's rare.

If I were you, I'd start with 2:1 and see how you like it.

Dummies also suggests using something other than water, or along with water, like chicken, beef, or vegetable broth. It says to replace some or all of the water with the broth. I went with chicken broth and picked up a can at the store. The label said 14oz, which is just a little less than 2 cups, so I went with the whole can and no water.

No pictures this time, my camera wouldn't cooperate, but the rice came out slightly brown or beige because of the broth. I found this a little ironic, because if you see any Indian advertising for rice, one of the big selling points is how eye-piercing white their particular brand is.

Anyway, it wouldn't do for high class Indian dignitaries, but it tasted pretty good. Not fancy by any stretch, and you obviously want to serve it with something, but I won't be buying the Uncle Ben's wild rice mix anymore, I think.

Quick, simple, and easy. Works for me.

Basic Rice:

1 cup rice

1 can (14 oz) Chicken, Beef, or Vegetable broth, or
2 cups water,
or cups of any combination of water and broth

Bring water/broth to a boil in a medium saucepan (ours is 3 liters, as printed on the bottom).
Pour in rice, and mix.
Bring it back to a boil.
Reduce heat to low/medium-low (just enough to keep it simmering).
Simmer for 30 minutes, or until all the water is gone.

I've always been told not to stir rice when it's cooking, though I've never been told why, so don't.

Fluff it with a fork and serve.

Serves 4 or so as a side dish.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Day 2: Tuscan Bread Salad (Panzanella)

This actually turned out better than I thought it would. It reminded me of Gazpacho (Spanish cold tomato soup) which I like a lot. Both would be nice on a warm summer day, though not the same summer day. They taste too much alike. I’m be tempted to try this one without the tuna, my wife (who hates tuna) suggested chicken instead. I’d actually go without any meat at all.

So it turned out alright in the end, but holy crap, what an ordeal. This is exactly the kind of thing that drives me nuts about cookbooks. Salad. Should be simple. No cooking involved, throw some ingredients in a bowl, add dressing, serve, eat. Right? Wrong.

The idea is pretty simple: Some day old bread soaked in a weak red-wine vinegar mix, add some tomatoes, cucumbers, fresh basil, spices, chopped green or yellow peppers, and the tuna. Toss with vinaigrette, eat.

I should have known there would be trouble right from the start. The recipe says to use “a baguette and a half or a country loaf.” That’s a lot of bread. I don’t even know what a country loaf is, but if it's about as big as a baguette and a half, it’s a lot of freaking bread. But, continuing with my policy of following recipes to the letter, I used a baguette and a half, cut it up and left it out overnight.

I came back the next night and read the second step, and found more trouble: Soak the bread in 1/4th cup of red wine vinegar mixed with “enough water to soak it through.” How much is that? Did I not mention that I don’t know how to cook? Oh, wait, the book is Cooking for Dummies! How could I possibly expect them to guess that? Not even a clue. Another quarter cup? 2 cups? I get the idea: just enough to get the bread good and damp, but not soaking. But I have zero experience with this. HOW MUCH WATER IS THAT? I had to guess, and I hate guessing, because I have no point of reference.

So I started with equal parts vinegar and water and poured it over the bread, and added about another cup of water, a quarter cup at a time. It probably wasn’t quite enough.

Actually, I didn’t do that. Not exactly. I actually poured half of the vinegar/water (1/8th of a cup of each) over about half the bread in one bowl, and the other half over the rest in another bowl, because, did I mention? A baguette and a half is a lot of freaking bread! I don’t own a bowl big enough to hold all the tomatoes, cucumbers, and green onions I chopped up and put into it and then tried to put the bread on top of.

You don’t either. No one does.

So where do you put the bread while you’re trying to soak it with the vinegar and water? In a second bowl, and (if you’re me) in a large tupperware as well, because your second bowl is overflowing as well. Once I split the tomatoes etc. into two separate bowls, there was still not enough room left in the two bowls for all the bread. Here’s a picture of the mess. You probably can’t see all the tiny, soaked bread crumbs all over the counter. My wife could. From the next room.

If I ever make this again, I think I'll cut the recipe in half. It says it makes 4 servings, but I think it's much closer to 8. Maybe it's 4 entreé servings or 8 side servings. Otherwise, I'd probably put the bread into 2 separate bowls before putting in any of the other stuff. The bread tends to get a little smaller after you soak it with the water/vinegar (and press it in a towel to get rid of the excess). At that point, I think you could add the vegetables and have two full bowls without overflowing.

I’m still not sure if it’s cool to reproduce the recipes here, so here are a couple of links to other Panzanella recipes on the internets. It’s a nice summery dish, it has a nice combination of tart from the vinegar and sweetness from the tomatoes, cucumbers, and basil. I think I’ve heard that combining opposite flavors like that is a good thing to do. Unless you do it wrong, in which case it’s not good. The whole point of this was to learn for myself when it works and when it doesn’t (before I make a mess of the kitchen). No help there yet. Keep your fingers crossed.

Panzanella (epicurious)

Panzanella (

(PS: Sorry for the quality of the photos. My digital camera is acting up, so I took these with my phone and it needs more light than this, so they came out a little blurry. It was actually quite tasty. Much better than it looks here).

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Day 1: Scrambled Eggs

I almost skipped this one. Way to get off to a good start, right? But who doesn't know how to scramble an egg? I've been doing it for a couple of decades off and on, and I think I've got the hang of it.

As fate would have it, my wife was feeling a little under the weather just as I finished the first chapter of Dummies (which is mostly: This is a sink. This is a stove. Say hello. Don't hurt anyone.), and she asked me if I could put something together for dinner. Knowing my cooking prowess, she said "Maybe just some scrambled eggs or something?"

It was a sign.

So I ran to get the book and followed the recipe. For scrambled eggs. What a dork. She actually said that.

Basically scrambled eggs goes like this: Heat butter in a pan, crack some eggs, stir them up, and drag a spatula back and forth. Enjoy. Done it a million times? Me too.

But not exactly. The recipe in Dummies says (for 8 eggs) add a quarter cup of water, half and half, or whole milk. I've always heard that you should put water in scrambled eggs, and I always wondered why it didn't just water it down. Apparently, the water makes the egg mixture froth up just a bit and makes them fluffier and cook up a little more. Good to know.

The book was paying off already.

Adding milk or half and half is supposed to make the eggs a little denser and, well, creamier. I've used water before (following someone else's advice without knowing why. A specialty of mine.), so this time I decided to go with half and half (we didn't have any whole milk around).

Turns out we didn't have any half and half either, but we did have some heavy cream (apparently the same thing as whipping cream: the book has almost paid for itself by now). So I did a roughly 50-50 mix of the cream and the lowfat milk from the fridge, and made my own half and half.

I put the eggs in a bowl, and beat it lightly with the half and half. Just enough to make a consistent mix.

Then, I put 2 tablespoons of butter in the pan (the book said to use a 10 inch pan, but I don't think we have one, so I used a 12 inch "sauté pan" – I had to look that up in the book too. It's basically a big pan with deep sides) and melted it over medium heat. When it was melted I poured in the egg mixture and started to cook.

Now, I'm the type of person who would like to believe in a higher power. That somehow, following these official instructions just right (or nearly just right) would somehow turn plain old scrambled eggs into something much better. As I was cooking, though, they I just couldn't bring myself to believe it. They looked just like plain old scrambled eggs. Look at the "recipe." No secret formula or chef's trick hidden in there. Oh well, lesson learned. There's no such thing as magic.

I tried the eggs when they were ready, and they were good. Actually much better than my usual eggs. Probably a result of the cream and milk (they were richer than I usually make). Obvious, perhaps, but maybe it really is the "right" way just because it was in a book. Maybe a little bit of magic?

My wife asked for a little bit of cheese and tomatoes with hers. We didn't have any regular tomatoes, so I sliced up some large-ish cherry tomatoes while the eggs were cooking, just in case you though those were hot peppers or something. Breakfast for dinner. She was actually impressed with the results.

She still thinks I'm a dork, though.

Basic Scrambled Eggs:

8 Eggs
1/4 cup of water, milk, or half and half
2 Tablespoons butter

Mix the eggs and water/milk/half and half until it's a consistent mixture.
Melt the butter in a 10 inch pan (or 12 inch sauté pan) over medium heat.
Pour in the egg mixture.
When the eggs start to thicken, drag a spatula across the bottom of the pan repeatedly, scraping the eggs off the bottom as the firm up. Cook them until they're as dry as you like.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

And we're off

I always wanted to learn how to cook, but I’ve never been able to do more than try a few recipes with the occasional disaster, but mostly mediocre results.

I didn’t want to just try different cookbooks, looking for a handful of recipes in each that I could make consistently well. Actually, I didn’t want to keep trying that. It's what I've been doing. It’s tedious as hell, and it can get pretty expensive. So I looked for books that would try to teach how to cook, rather than just collection of recipes. After an afternoon in a bookstore, I found 2 that I thought might do the trick.

What’s a Cook to Do by James Peterson is a collection of nearly 500 basic tips and techniques for working with different ingredients, pans, knives, etc. There are a few recipes in there and some of it is common sense, but for the most part, it goes along way toward demystifying a lot of what goes on in the kitchen, and shows you some stuff that real cooks learn from years of experience.

The other book is (don’t laugh) Cooking Basics for Dummies. Yes part of the Dummies series. I have to admit to being embarrassed by owning the book, but more than any of the dozens of others I looked at, it explains why you’re supposed to do what you’re doing. It also has about 150 recipes in there, but I think they’re meant to demonstrate the stuff you’re reading in the text. It doesn’t always work out, and it's far from perfect, but like I said, it’s better than regular cookbooks which are just recipe after recipe, disaster lurking in each one.

So, between the two of these, I figured I could put together a reasonable guide to teach myself to cook. I decided to read the books more or less simultaneously, reading the tips in What’s a Cook to Do and using it as a reference and working through Dummies front to back. It became pretty clear that the best way to learn the stuff was to read the text and then try out the recipes, so I committed myself to trying each one along the way. At least for now. Who knows if I can get through all 150.

After I decided to do that, making a blog out of it seemed like the natural thing to do. I have no idea if I can stick to it (I have a life to tend to every now and then). Either it will be fun for me to try or it will be fun for you to watch me go mad. A win-win proposition.

With any kind of luck, I’ll teach myself to cook, maybe by learning from my mistakes you might be able to teach yourself to cook too.