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A CULINARY JOURNEY: Learning by Trial and Error

Updated: May 11, 2023

My sister gave me a copy of The Betty Crocker Cookbook for Boys and Girls for my fifth birthday. Along with a recipe, each page featured an illustration of a dapper young boy and a pony-tailed girl who, despite their age, seemed to be accomplished chefs. I spent countless hours lying on our shag carpet, flipping through the cookbook. I imagined my family’s delight as I presented a lettuce-lined platter holding a gravity-defying pear, magically suspended in lime jello. I marveled at the creative ingenuity of using licorice whips for whiskers on a cake decorated to look like a lion. I loved the idea of cooking, but I spent my childhood days running wild through the neighborhood or sitting in my bedroom surrounded by Barbies.

As the baby of the family, my sisters did the hard labor around the house, leaving me in my imaginary world. Occasionally, my mother felt sorry for me and gave me simple chores. However, we all knew I had a short attention span, and most tasks were beyond my limited skill set. Often, I was given a dust rag and told to make myself useful. A kinder way to say, “you’re getting in my hair.”

Many hours were spent at the kitchen table, the heart of our home. Given that my mother is an excellent cook, perhaps something rubbed off on me. The games may have changed as I grew older, but self-preoccupation still dictated my world. When dinnertime came, all I had to do was pull myself from the bathroom mirror or the telephone. However, I did attempt cooking on my own a few times.

One summer day, when I was twelve or thirteen, I was home alone and looking for something "fun" to do. Before the internet, our mothers and grandmothers wrote and exchanged recipes on index cards they would keep in small boxes. I still had a curious interest in recipes and casually browsed through my mother’s recipe box. I pulled out a stained and tattered recipe for Easy Chocolate Fudge. As I soon discovered, the title was highly deceptive. I overheated the chocolate, turning it so hard that I had to throw the pan out. Knowing no one would suspect “Little Nancy” of actually cooking, I feigned stupidity for weeks while my mother puzzled over her missing saucepan. A few years later, I prepared a Russian meal for much-needed extra credit in World Cultures. The meal was better than the fudge but was not worth enduring my brother’s subsequent flatulence. Who knew you could do so much with cabbage?

When I became engaged after college, my mother gave me a subscription to Bon Appétit magazine as a shower gift. The monthly subscription rekindled my childhood interest in browsing through recipes.

Once settled in my new married life, I could no longer be passive in my culinary interests. Just as in childhood, I fancied making recipes and the accolades I would receive. I had high expectations with admittedly low ability. For my first attempt, I decided to have a picnic dinner in a park near our apartment. Inspired by novels set in the English countryside, I envisioned strangers walking past, envious of our blanket spread with epicurean delights. I attempted to make a gourmet sandwich layered with meats and cheeses, then sprinkled with alcohol. The loaf was wrapped in tin foil, weighted with a brick, and placed in the refrigerator overnight. Yes, this was an actual recipe I found in a 1986 Bon Appétit. I figured if a bit of alcohol was required, a little more couldn’t hurt. As you can imagine, it was a soggy mess of fillings and brandy. We tried to feed it to a dog roaming through the park, be even he turned away.

Since then, I’ve grown in technique and have come to enjoy the process of cooking, smiling through the mishaps- Why on earth are internal organs hidden deep into the nether regions of turkeys?!? Through trial and error, I have picked up a few rules or hints others may find helpful.

*No matter how good a recipe is, your results will only be as good as the quality of your ingredients.

*Use good quality unsalted European or French butter, and salt to taste. Taste a few and see which you prefer; the flavor will depend on the type of cream used. American butter will have a lower fat content with a higher content of water. Fresh churned and rolled Amish butter is very good, but for baking, I prefer Plugrá.

*Recipes are not always accurate. Many recipes found in magazines and on the internet have never been kitchen-tested.

*Read through the entire recipe before you begin. Follow instructions even if they don’t make sense or you think you can do it another way. Often it comes down to a science, as is the case with baking.

*It may take a little extra time at the start but prep before cooking. Measuring, chopping then placing ingredients in little bowls will give you a cleaner workspace, and mistakes are less likely to happen.

*Taste as you move through a recipe.

*Not all bottled spices and herbs are of the same quality and strength. Adjust the measurement; freshness and potency diminish over time.

*Use fresh herbs whenever possible; anything with high water content, such as basil, will lose aromatic oils quickly.

*Add fresh herbs at the end of cooking; extended heat will evaporate the natural oils.

*Add dry herbs early; heat will allow dry herbs to open up, gradually intensifying as it cooks.

*Olive oil bottles look great on your counter but store them in a dark cupboard; over time, they can lose intensity or turn rancid.

*Some recipes have complex flavor profiles that build and complement each other, but sometimes less is more. Instead, use seasonings to support a star player.

*Flavors need a counterbalance. Spice and salt need sweetness; fats need acid.

*When entertaining, prepare as much as you can ahead of time. Despite all the magazine spreads featuring a chef casually working in the kitchen while everyone stands around with a glass of wine “helping,” no one wants to work for their meal. Conversely, guests can be uncomfortable if you keep disappearing to the kitchen while they are left sipping a drink.

*Most importantly, do not fret over every detail. Our most memorable meals are more about the people we are with than the food.

Check back for our next article on Elevating Your Cooking : Hmm... Something is Missing

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