Learning to cook, from cuts and peasants
by Dale Short
Oct 02, 2013 | 666 views | 0 0 comments | 42 42 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Dale Short
Dale Short
My grandmother started teaching me to cook when I was in elementary school. I remember the little cookbook she bought me, with spiral binding and waterproof cardboard kid-pages, maybe a dozen recipes in all. We took them in order, and the first two were scrambled eggs and chocolate fudge. When I’d mastered them, Grandmother and I both got distracted by life events and the lessons were put on hold. But eggs and fudge are appropriate for so many life situations that it was roughly 20 years before I felt the need to branch out and learn new recipes. I got in the habit of clipping them out of magazines in waiting rooms and bought an occasional cookbook, mostly of the how-to variety. Then came the cable TV revolution, and I discovered an amazing invention: an entire channel devoted 24/7 to programs about food and cooking. One of the cooking-show hosts was a Canadian gentleman named James Barber. He was short and had gray hair, so I bonded with him immediately, even before he got started with the recipe stuff. Plus, James called his show “The Urban Peasant.” At the time, I was living in the bustling metropolis of Birmingham (“urban,” check) and was still paying off a devastating divorce settlement, so my “disposable income” could have fit in the disposal unit a dozen times over with room to spare (“peasant,” check). But, my favorite thing about James’s show was that he demonstrated basic cooking techniques that the fancier chefs assumed everybody knew, already. The first episode I watched, he showed how to chop an onion without cutting your fingers. By this point, I had cut my fingers so often while chopping and slicing stuff in the kitchen that I just figured it was a necessary part of the process. To find out about a better way was a revolutionary moment for me — a sort of bloodless coup, you might say. Unfortunately, I haven’t learned much about cooking from TV shows since James (may he rest in peace) went off the air. This isn’t because I know it all, but because the new shows are either geared around celebrities or reality-style hijinks with the cooks arguing and yelling at one another.

Obviously some viewers find this scenario entertaining. For me, arguing and yelling is too much like a typical day in an office, and one of the reasons I started cooking in the first place was to get away from work-related stress. That said, there are a handful of helpful cooking hints I’ve learned by trial and error in recent years, and I present them here in their entirety:

•There are few things I hate worse than watery food, and most recipes go way too heavy on liquid for me. I reduce the suggested amount of water or broth by at least one-third. When your dish is done, if it seems a tad dry you can always add liquid.

•If you’re cooking something in an oven at a temperature any higher than a warm day at the beach, beware. Period. The chemistry of food behaves differently when the food’s being watched than when it isn’t, as the old proverb about the watched pot instructs us. Timers are all well and good, but the only way to be 100 percent safe and not burn something is to pull up a folding chair by the stove and observe through the oven’s little glass door as the cooking process unfolds. (You can listen to some music on your iPod, if you’re in the mood. “Hot Blooded” by Foreigner is one of my favorites for this, as is “Hot Fun in the Summertime” by Sly and the Family Stone, but your mileage may vary. If you’d like, you can pretend that you’re meditating while you watch the oven because, by the time the food is cooked you may well be in The Zone.)

•Cooking is not for wimps. And if you go through an ingredient list and see that a recipe calls for 1/8th teaspoon of so-and-so (or even worse, 1/16th teaspoon, or a “pinch” or a twinkle or whatever nonsense), you know that whoever wrote the recipe has problems with commitment — to, say, an actual flavor. In my experience, it’s hard to taste less than a quarter teaspoon of anything by the time it gets stirred through an entire recipe, then cooked to boot. So if less than a quarter is called for, I round it up to a quarter. Bingo.

So, that’s about the sum of my self-taught culinary skills. Or as the French say, “Voila!” And “Bon appetit!” which means, be sure to remove the bone from your appetite before proceeding. At least, I think I heard that on one of the cooking shows.

Dale Short is a native of Walker County. His columns, books, photos and radio features are available on his website carrolldaleshort.com. His weekly radio program “Music from Home” airs each Sunday at 6 p.m. on Oldies 101.5 and is archived afterward on his website.