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.