Anyhow, random things I have learned from cooking...
I've really only been cooking since December, and last month I didn't cook anything because I was moving and my kitchen was in boxes. So this is going to have a lot of stupid epiphanies in it.
- If you don't know what to do with it, sprinkle on salt and pepper and shove it under the broiler. Though if you're cooking Chinese food, dash on oyster sauce and soy sauce and stir fry the thing.
- Cumin and cinnamon together are wonderful!
- Chocolate and cinnamon and cayenne pepper also go together! (ok, I learned this more by eating than by cooking)
- Fresh is almost always better, unless it's cheese. I have no idea how I lived off Safeway produce before, and prior to that, how I ate so much frozen stuff.
- Whole grains are the best thing ever. Second to fresh fruits and vegetables. Maybe third to fresh seafood.
- Onions, carrots and celery go together like... uh... onions, carrots and celery. Also, if you don't have one, you can usually stick in the other.
- Despite my love of fresh produce, I relentlessly stockpile diced unsalted canned tomatoes and canned chickpeas. You may not go for the chickpeas if you're not as addicted to hummus and/or Middle Eastern food as I am, but the tomatoes are a lifesaver.
- Apparently, commonly required ingredients for baking are: all purpose flour, baking soda, baking powder, cinnamon, vanilla, cocoa powder, sugar, brown sugar, eggs, butter (I use vegetable oil instead because it doesn't spoil as quickly), milk (I use water instead because it doesn't spoil as quickly), and dark or semi-sweet chocolate. Once I figured this out and stocked up, life was much easier.
- I have found that I will almost invariably need the following: yams (I tend to substitute them for potatoes to get more vitamins), tomatoes, onions, carrots, celery, and garlic (add ginger and scallions if I'm making Chinese food). Add beans or tofu for protein. I've also found that even if I don't know what I'm going to do with them, I can generally toss them together in something and it'll end up working.
- In general, you can substitute oil for butter, water for milk, soy milk for milk, brown sugar for sugar and vice versa, onions and carrots and celery for onions and carrots and celery (interchange at will!), and assorted other things that I have yet to discover. Obviously, if you're supposed to be cutting the butter into dough, oil won't substitute as well as it would for melted butter, and if you're supposed to make whipped cream, obviously water is not a good bet. And since I learned from Good Eats that the hydroscopic nature of brown sugar and sugar are different, you should either add water to sugar if you use it as a substitute for brown sugar and vice versa. Or something. Also, be prepared for very wonky outcomes.
- Spices and herbs are really freaking expensive. Whole spices are somewhat cheaper and stay fresher for longer; the only downside is waking up the neighbors or your roommate or your rats by attempting to hammer allspice in a plastic baggie without cracking your kitchen counters. I have now decided I need to move into the stone age and get a mortar and pestle.
- On the other hand, once I stocked up, I could make anything! Or so it felt. Spice and herb staples in my kitchen are: cumin cumin cumin (I had no idea I used so much until I found out yesterday that I'm nearly out already), cinnamon, dried parsley (I know fresh is better, but it was a free dried herb set), cayenne pepper, paprika, cloves/allspice/mace (for granola! And much baking), and did I mention cumin? And, of course, salt and pepper.
- I need to get actual peppercorns and an actual peppercorn grinder.
- I succumbed to Alton Brown's wiles and switched over to kosher salt, which for some reason tastes less salty and is easier to sprinkle on things because it's in flakes instead of grains.
- You'll always need a larger soup pot than you're using (usually, this is discovered when your soup/beans/whatnot boils over and makes a mess).
- I love silicone spatulas! I would get them in every color if I could to make my kitchen happy, but I suspect I don't need ten spatulas. I discovered the joys of silicone after melting my Rubbermaid spatula.
- My favorite kitchen tools are my knife, my flexible cutting boards (easier to dump veggies in soup pots), and my cheap plastic and metal bowls that hold ingredients. And my pots. And my blender. And my food processor. Um, obviously I should never be allowed into any sort of kitchen-ware store by myself.
- Apparently, commonly required hardware for cooking includes: a gigantic stock pot, a not-so-gigantic soup pot, a good frying pan/wok, a flippy thing (spatula? uh... I forgot what they're called, but you use them when you fry things and I have four because I get them dirty so quickly), chopsticks (for me... I like them better than a whisk or tongs), assorted random metal and plastic bowls for holding ingredients, a good cutting board (flexible! Cheap and color-coded!), a ladle, measuring cups, measuring spoons, the really nifty Oxo measuring cup that is awesome for measuring liquid things, little containers with flippy tops for salt (and corn starch and sugar for Chinese food), ziploc bags to freeze things in and keep that half an onion you didn't use, and a chef's knife. A tomato knife is also a great double for a bread knife. When in doubt, buy something larger than you need, because while you can cook for one in a huge pot, you can't cook for eight in a small one.
- Other commonly required but not absolutely necessary hardware for cooking seems to include: a blender (ok, you can't really get around this, but usually you can not blend things), a food processor (knife skills! Unless you're making hummus, in which case...), a mixer (can generally be gotten around, though it means your hand might fall off from all the stirring and whisking), a rice cooker (I personally think this is a necessity, but I think that's only if you eat insane amounts of rice), a hot water thing (saves time, yay), a mortar and pestle for spices (I am about to give in and get one, since the hammer method is getting old), parchment paper (saves on clean up!), and probably a lot of other stuff I can't think of. Oh, and a laptop, since I get all my recipes online, heh.
- Things that I desperately want but don't really, absolutely need: a pink KitchenAid stand mixer (I want to make bread!), souffle dishes, lots of colorful silicone spatulas, a real, non-dinky food processor, a blowtorch (what? Creme brulee! No, this has nothing to do with my desire for a chainsaw or a nailgun, really!), an electric skillet, a digital kitchen scale, a waffle iron, a stick blender, and assorted other specialized things that will probably just clog up my kitchen.
- On the other hand, I can never have too many containers! Ziploc baggies, metal cannisters with airtight seals for grains, assorted random tupperware for leftovers and ingredients and anything else that fits when the sugar bag starts leaking, and all that good stuff.
Recipes and techniques
- Alton Brown and Cook's Illustrated seem to agree on many things. I bow down to them.
- I don't know how things work unless I futz around with them. Aka, recipes are a guideline, not a rule.
- On the other hand, baking recipes are a rule unto themselves. But I futz around anyway.
- Soups are great because they're not so much recipes as chucking in a lot of stuff with some seasoning and stirring.
- Amazingly, things actually change colors when they cook, and this change is often a better guide to doneness than the recipe's recommended time. Ditto with texture.
- Also, if you actually follow the recipe's suggestion for heat levels, things tend to work out better. (aka, sometimes when I get impatient, things go terribly wrong)
- Measuring out vegetable oil in your measuring cup before measuring out molasses or honey or some other sticky thing saves a whole lot of time. Also, it's just satisfying to watch the sticky substance pour out at a pace faster than Heinz ketchup.
- Always read recipes the entire way through so you don't discover halfway through the cooking process that you need a double boiler or an egg or something the recipe writer assumes you have and that you invariably are missing.
- Necessity is the mother of invention. In other words: since I discovered the above about recipes the hard way, I had to make do with some very random substitutions, since giving up halfway through the recipe would have made me tear out my hair.
- No one ever cooks anything the same way, so really, all recipes should be heavily annotated. Since most of mine are off the internet, I copy them down into a binder and do the annotating myself.
- If you start cooking one type of cuisine, there's a great incentive to keep cooking it, since you'll have most of the basics in your kitchen already (aka, I need to cook more Chinese, and then it'll be a snowball effect!).
- Sometimes my favorite recipes aren't really cooking at all (aka, yogurt sauce, which largely involves mixing garlic, yogurt, dill and cucumber and letting it chill, or caprese salad).
- I eat what my flist eats.
- Cooking makes me think about things like texture and color and plating, not just flavor.
- I still need to cook more Asian food.
- I seem to gravitate toward Middle Eastern recipes, for some odd reason.
- Having homemade whipped cream is sufficient reason to buy a hand mixer. Actually, it's sufficient reason to buy a stand mixer as well, it's that good.
- I now no longer trust anything with an ingredient that I can't pronounce, but that's because I'm snobby and would rather make it myself.
- Now when I eat out, I keep trying to figure out if I can backwards engineer something or not. I think it's somewhat related to staring at assorted knitted items and lying to myself and saying, "I could do that!"
- Washing dishes apparently sparks my desire to cook, as does the magic time of ten at night.
- When in doubt, freeze. Nowadays, I buy a loaf of bread, tear it into chunks and freeze all but one immediately. It doesn't take long to defrost, and it still tastes pretty good! I also freeze beans, egg whites, and chipotle peppers.