Ooh la la! Fantastique!
Here's a very different post from me, today I'd like to talk to you about cooking. Yes, cooking.
As I mentioned before, my first career choice was to be a chef. And then a few years ago, I nearly gave up my career as a software engineer to train to be one. I guess this says of me that, yes, I pretty much like cooking. And I'm not too bad at it, even if I say so myself. And as I am a software engineer, I had to approach learning to cook in a very professional, organised, methodical manner. Yes, as usual, I went slightly overboard. I just cannot have a hobby.
I didn't start very brightly, I have to admit. I remember a very embarrassing full English breakfast I cooked 14 years ago that was an absolute disaster. None of it was right! Ok, maybe the sausages were fine. The rest, awful. That's when I decided to get serious. Far from me the idea of teaching you how to cook, I'm not a chef after all. But I can share with you how I got from rubbery eggs to putting together some pretty nice, and original dishes.
I enjoy cooking. It's a prerequisite, I think. If you can't stand cooking, there's not much I can do for you. Find somebody to cook for you, that's your best option. I also enjoy eating, and that's another prerequisite. If you don't have any particular interest in fine food, and consider eating a necessity rather than a pleasure, forget it, you'll never be a good cook.
Cooking takes a lot of time. I won't deny it, it's true, but with a bit of organisation, and some professional tips, you can cut down on the time needed to cook most dishes.
The first part is the preparation (or prep, as the pro call it). In short, getting the ingredients ready before you start cooking. It's very important to get right, so you don't run around like a headless chicken trying to chop an onion while something is burning on the stove. And it saves you time on the whole.
Prep is mostly chopping, dicing, filleting and a lot of other fun activities you can have with a knife. A lot of people are afraid to use a proper chef sized knives. It's completely understandable, they are huge scary things after all. I was afraid too when I got my first set of knives. Then I read this book. It teaches every thing you need to know about knives, the safety of them, how to care for them and how use them correctly. I've been using chef knives for about 10 years now, and I have very rarely cut myself, and most importantly I still have all my fingers. There is no way now that I would use a smaller knife, it is simply safer to use a bigger one. Yes, really, safer. It's all explained in the book.
My favourite knives at the moment are a pair of ceramic knives (this is one of them). I like them because they are light, the handle fits well in my hand, extremely sharp, and maintenance wise they don't require anything, they stay sharp virtually forever. The only downside is that they break if dropped, so bear that in mind if you have butterfingers.
I'm sure a few of you are already saying “Jesus, Vale, these things are expensive!” And yes, they are (in reality, they're quite a bargain at that price). Buying good quality equipment for the kitchen is not cheap, I'll give you that. However, it is better to invest in quality. With proper care, you will keep these knives for a long time, if not a lifetime. Cheaper knives will not last, will become dull extremely quickly and will not be worth having sharpened professionally. And also, importantly, dull knives are dangerous!
Pair that with a good, solid, heavy chopping board, and you will be well on your way to prep heaven. Follow the lessons in the book, practice, and your preparation will be so much quicker and enjoyable.
One of the great fun of cooking is coming up with your own recipes. It's even better if they taste good, though. You can't improvise yourself a creative cook, it requires culture and experience. The experience you will have to get yourself, but here's how I started acquiring the culture.
The first part is learning the techniques. The techniques give you some very solid basis in getting more independent from recipes. I have a few techniques book, but the one I always go back to is this one. It is very well done, rather complete, and the large amount of pictures really help understanding. I can honestly say that I have never missed anything I have followed in this book. It's also full of classic recipes from around the world, so it is a good cooking book to have in its own right.
One little aside about recipes. They are just an indication (the only exceptions here would be baking recipes, they should be followed closely, most of the time because they are based on chemical reactions). That means that rather than keeping your nose in the cookbook, it's better to have it in the pots. It's only by tasting regularly, and then correcting, that you will end up with delicious dishes. You simply cannot cook properly without tasting. It makes sense, really, you are combining different ingredients of different quality, so they contribute differently to the final dish. Your tastebuds are your friends.
After mastering the techniques, you can start understanding tastes, and how they combine. I found this book to be particularly useful. It describes the 5 tastes (tastes, not flavours, and yes, 5, not 4) and how they interact together, how they can complement or ruin each other. The book also has some pretty good recipes, so its a good investment.
These should get you well on your way to become more independent from recipes, and really start having fun in the kitchen, and then on the dining table! As I mentioned earlier, food culture is essential. Analysing how a dish is put together, from which ingredient, how they combine in terms of taste, texture and colour. Try to do that when you go to restaurants, when reading cookbooks or watching a cooking show. It's a very good mental gymnastic, and gets you in the advanced cooking frame of mind.
I think that's enough information for today. The next step in your food education/discovery would then be to learn the basics of different styles of cuisine. We'll leave that for another day. Let me know if any of it helps. If you're interested in picking up more tips and tricks, I can share some of the tricks I use to speed up my cooking.
And don't forget to have fun!