One key to cooking success is to make use of down time during the preparation of a dish to get a head start on other tasks. For example, preparatory work for a side dish or a preliminary scrub of the counter can be done while your meal simmers or roasts or boils. This saves the cook valuable time, so he or she is not sitting down at the table at 9 p.m. and washing dishes past 11.
In that spirit, several weeks ago I set a Dutch oven of homemade marinara sauce and a pot of noodles on the stove and took out the trash. My feeling of self-satisfied efficiency was soon dashed by my failure to observe a more elemental key to cooking success: Do not lock yourself out of your apartment while your meal is sitting on an open flame.
I contacted my absent roommates from the doorstep, conscious for the first time of a sense of communal responsibility for the two dozen or so tenants in my apartment block. The slapstick sounds of a cartoon television show echoed up the stairwell. Oh good, I thought, there are children in the building. My eyes drifted to the crack under the door, where I expected wisps of black smoke to appear any minute.
This story, I am happy to report, did not end in disaster. One of my roommates dropped what he was doing and Ubered home, saving our apartment from conflagration and me from significant moral and legal liability. The sauce was bubbling merrily away when I barged back into the kitchen, thickened near the bottom but not burned.
Cooking is fraught with small hazards, particularly for people like me: young, impatient, ill-equipped, and cavalier about such things as measurements and cooking times. For people like me, a botched meal can ruin a week in a hurry. If the enchiladas go up in smoke, so does a week’s worth of groceries, leaving me with only peanut butter and canned tuna, because there isn’t much in reserve. The budget for takeout must be revised upward; the budget for going out (viz., alcohol and taxis) must be revised downward. In either case, the fun quota is revised irrevocably downward. The burnt smell—the scent of shame—lingers in the kitchen for days.
Given these hazards and the recent flowering of good restaurants across the country, it is understandable that Americans are dining out more. The amount of money Americans spent at restaurants surpassed the amount they spent in grocery stores for the first time ever last year. Young Americans in particular are eating out more than their older cohorts despite having less discretionary income.
This trend is surely influenced by many factors, but I could hazard a guess at a few important ones. First there is the matter of kitchen space, which is in short supply in the kinds of living situations young Americans find themselves, particularly in urban areas: The counter space in my apartment between the sink and the stove measures 24 inches by 18 inches, and that is after I move the toaster out of the way. There is also the matter of transportation. As young Americans are less likely to own cars, grocery trips are less convenient, while delivery and takeout—which can be easily brought onto public transportation, unlike a week’s worth of groceries—are more convenient.
Then there is the matter of cooking instruments, which most people accumulate over a number of years, with an eventual boost from a wedding registry. This reality was hammered home for me as I prepared pork tenderloin for schnitzel one month ago, and had to eschew the traditional meat hammer for the next best thing in the apartment, a hefty ceramic spoon rest.
Despite it all, there is a romance to cooking in addition to the benefits it offers in terms of nutrition, cost, and dating cache. So a few months ago (before the noodle incident) I decided to learn how to cook, and further decided that I would document the experience here, so that I could expense a cookbook.
The cookbook I settled on was 100 Recipes: The Absolute Best Ways to Make the True Essentials, a new volume by America’s Test Kitchen, the popular public television show. The authors view cooking as a science rather than an art. They operate on the assumption that good cooking is “based on a foundation of objective technique” and that good recipes are the product of methodical testing. The Test Kitchen cooks make dozens of iterations of a dish to create one recipe that combines successful elements from the iterations. “The result, we hope, is the best version of a particular recipe,” the introduction states, “but we realize that only you can be the final judge of our success.” Only me. A 24-year-old with zero knowledge of the kitchen. I endeavored to take this responsibility seriously.
The cookbook’s 100 recipes are divided into three sections. The Absolute Essentials section contains the elemental building blocks of cuisine, starting with scrambled eggs (one of the few things I already knew how to make), continuing through entrees like pot roast and barbecued chicken, and ending with baked goods. The Surprising Essentials builds on this format with slightly more adventurous, though still familiar, dishes like manicotti, beef burgundy, quinoa, and banana bread. The Global Essentials includes recipes from abroad like paella, pho, and focaccia. A skeptic might question why a dish like Thai beef salad is included in a book of “true essentials,” but never mind that.
In the preface, America’s Test Kitchen host Christopher Kimball (who recently parted ways with the show) recommends that readers pick 10 recipes from the book and make them until they “don’t need to look at the recipe instructions,” and then repeat the process with ten more recipes. “If you can cook 20 of the recipes in this book without referring to the instructions then you are now a serious cook,” Kimball states. Content to settle for semi-seriousness, I selected 10 recipes that I would make once.
I began with scrambled eggs, a baseline that I could compare with my past experiences. The recipe’s accompanying text stated provocatively that “scrambled eggs might just be the easiest dish everyone gets wrong.” It further promised—with more than a touch of hubris—that the book’s recipe would produce eggs that would be “a revelation, even to seasoned cooks.” The cookbook’s copy writers have a soft spot for that promise, by the way: I counted seven uses of the words “revelation” and “revelatory” in the book. The recipe called for a lopsided ratio of yolks-to-eggs (one extra yolk for every four eggs) to boost the fat and flavor of the dish, a splash of half-and-half instead of milk, and a reduction in heat from medium-high to low as the eggs were cooked.
The results were underwhelming. After following the instructions to a letter—buying half-and-half for the first time in my life, carefully monitoring the heat of the stove, cracking an extra egg into a little bowl so I could harvest its yolk—I was rewarded with eggs that were not noticeably better than the ones I made in two minutes while sloshed in college. And that was the problem: the book’s recipe required a level of sophistication and involvement for scrambled eggs that scrambled eggs needn’t require. As far as this dish is concerned, the short-order chef variety is king: crank the heat to medium-high, throw on eggs, and sprinkle with shredded cheese to cover the defects.
My experiences with the book’s other dishes were much better. I made marinara sauce that was superior to the store-bought variety, although the act of creation nearly burned down the apartment; I made beef, veal, and prosciutto meatballs that were rather fancy; I made schnitzel with a flour, egg, and pulverized breadcrumb wash that tasted like a Chick-Fil-A sandwich—the highest compliment I can pay fried food. For these dishes, the book’s highly-involved recipes were helpful, though not helpful enough to prevent user error, as when I baked cornbread in too big a dish and over-floured a blueberry pie crust, with disastrous results.
After two months, I was able to identify common themes in the book’s recipes, beyond the fondness for “revelations” and bad puns (section headers include such knee-slappers as “Whip it Good” and “The Big Cheese”). Practically all of its recipes require a food processor, “the ultimate multitasker,” according to the authors. Having purchased one—in particular this one, the inexpensive model recommended by the Test Kitchen affiliated Cook’s Illustrated—I can vouch for its usefulness, well worth the precious space it occupies on my counter. Finally, the cookbook’s savory dishes lean heavily on garlic and shallots for flavor—so much so, in the latter’s case, that my running tally recorded 19 uses of shallots in the book, although the book’s index mysteriously recorded only three.
That I went to the trouble to tally such a thing gives away the game: I had an unusually good time with this project. I am not yet a good cook. I will likely not be the host to bring back the dinner party. But ten recipes later, I have picked up valuable tools, and at press time, the apartment block is still standing.