Book Club

Cooking Lessons.

By: Jen Shoop

I have a bad habit of picking a mixing bowl that is just a little too small for the task at hand, and then dirtying two bowls instead of one.  Mr. Magpie has picked up on this foible and rolls his eyes when he sees me awkwardly maneuvering around an over-full bowl of ingredients.  “I don’t know how…” I trail off.

I was laughing to myself the other day when I was preparing Zuni’s Caesar Salad* (amazing amazing amazing — not overly garlic-y, which is my usual grievance against the steakhouse classic) and I was attempting to toss full spears of romaine lettuce in a bowl about half the length of each.  Mr. Magpie wasn’t around to chastise me, so I tsk-tsked myself.

Why don’t I learn?

Measure twice, cut once.

Or, whatever the bowl size equivalent to that adage would be.  (Measure twice, put in bowl once?)

It made me realize that there are a lot of life lessons to be learned from cooking if I only have the patience to attend to them:

+When you’re composing something out of simple, basic components, opt for the best you can afford.  You probably can’t tell the difference between high-quality olive oil and your run-of-the-mill grocery variety when you’re mixing it in with a dozen other ingredients in a stuffing, but I guarantee you’ll taste the difference when you’re drizzling it over a caprese salad.  Such I have found to be the case in most other affairs — splurge on the items you’ll notice and use the most: good bedding, a wonderful mattress (you spend like half of your life in your bed!), a high-quality speaker system (for us — we use it every single day, all day).  And in fashion, too: invest in the best basics you can, because you’ll ultimately save money that way.  (When will I learn that J. Crew tshirts essentially dissolve into vapor within a year?  I need to up my ante, as I’ll probably end up spending less over time if I just invest in good cotton basics.)

+Know your strengths.  I am…we’ll call it–generously–unfussy in the kitchen.  I hate recipes that are overly elaborate with the details and instructions, and lean away from recipes that require specific equipment or that will dirty dozens of bowls.  So I avoid those recipes like the plague or wind up cranky and sweaty and exhausted and overwhelmed.  Instead, I’ll gravitate towards simpler dishes and preparations that leave me feeling like Superwoman.

+Clean as you go.  Always easier to tidy up your little messes and mistakes as you go vs. letting them pile up into a formidable disaster zone.

+Don’t let the stove boss you around; you control the heat.  I used to find myself anxiously flitting around the kitchen, trying to dice things at the last minute because the pan had heated more quickly than anticipated, or because the water was boiling, or whatever.  Then I realized I was in control of the heat.  If the pan is hot and I’m not ready, I turn it down and crank when ready.  If the pan is too hot, I put it on the back burner.  Heat is an ingredient — that’s all.  Not my head chef.  Not my boss.  If anything, it’s my minion.  Strangely enough, it took me through the better part of my 20s to come to this realization, but it completely changed how I felt about cooking.  The same is true in life: there are myriad occasions where we feel helpless, out of control, at the whim of fate. But there are always things within our power; we control how we react to the phenomena around us; we can adjust our attitude towards what’s been dealt to us.  Sometimes it just takes a little mind shift.

+If you attempt substitutions, steel yourself for the aftermath.  Such is true in life, as well — any time I’ve half-assed anything, it’s blown up in my face.

+Always peel off an extra layer of onion skin.  HAHA.  OK, I can’t pretend that there’s a real-world application for this one, but it’s an odd little discovery I’ve made over time, after peeling one too many onions and finding crispy little bits of onion skin mixed in with my mirepoix.

+Drink wine often.  Seriously.  It makes cooking (and life) a lot more relaxing.

What else, Magpies?  (I loved the reactions to my admission that I am a pragmatic cook.)

*I asterisked the Zuni Caesar Salad because MY GOODNESS you need the Zuni cookbook and you MUST make this salad.  And if you’re not into caesar salad, it doesn’t really matter because the whole point of the cookbook is to make her Roast Chicken with Bread Salad, which is legitimate manna from the heavens.  You haven’t lived until you’ve eaten this dish.  It’s obviously best enjoyed over multiple bottles of wine with a dear friend in San Francisco AT the Zuni Restaurant (E., I’ll never ever ever forget that memory!), but the cookbook is insanely precise and you can come damn near close if you follow it to the letter.  Which, ya know, is not my strong suit, but that’s why I have Mr. Magpie around.

I’ve already shared my favorite cookbooks ever, and though this is not a food blog, I promise you that none of them will disappoint.  If you polled our closest friends and family members, I am confident that “cooking” and “entertaining” would be among the most quickly listed items if asked: “What do the Shoops like to do?”  Mr. Magpie is an incredibly talented cook and I still believe that he will do something with his culinary talents at some time in his life.  There were some incredible recommendations shared on that post, and so I’m adding here my cookbook wishlist (in addition to this, which I snagged as a part of my new year’s resolutions):

+The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook by Deb Perelman.  I’ve frankly had mixed experiences with Deb’s recipes (I used to read her blog religiously; I love her aesthetic and style of cooking), but I’m intrigued enough to give this book a whirl.  She tends to have good recipes for entertaining — lovely dinner party fare.

+The Perfect Cookie by America’s Test Kitchen.  I am a loyal devotee of America’s Test Kitchen.  They put a lot of thought into perfecting the basics, and I trust their word over most others.  Food Network: America’s Test Kitchen :: 8th Grade Science Fair Project : NASA demo day.

+Cook Beautiful by Athena Calderone.  More for inspiration when plating/serving, which is not my forte.  Mr. Magpie is much better at making food look good on a plate.

+Cherry Bombe.  A must for us feministas in the kitchen.

+A Kitchen in France by Mimi Thorrison.  Once a Francophile, always a Francophile.

+Salt Fat Acid Heat by Samin Nosrat.  I’m usually put off by books that espouse a particular theory of cooking or make things overwrought and scientific, but this got very good reviews.

+Molly on the Range by Molly Yeh.  I was introduced to this lovely lady by one of my readers, and her blog is beautiful and her food approachable.

+Moosewood Cookbook by Molly Katzen.  A winner of the James Beard award, so you know it’s good.  Also a Magpie rec!

All of this reminded me of a wonderful compilation of essays I read maybe a decade ago called Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant, where famous chefs write about their favorite things to cook when solo.  It’s riveting — you’d be surprised at how many of them subsist on unfussy basics, like beans and rice or toast.

P.S. 10 things you must have in your kitchen.

P.P.S.  My favorite products for the home.


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11 thoughts on “Cooking Lessons.

  1. Love this post! I need to get my hands on a copy of the Zuni cookbook … it’s been on my Amazon wishlist for months. !

    My boyfriend is definitely the better chef in our home, but I am slowly starting to build my culinary knowledge and learn that it’s better to, say, clean as you go. Really, really love these tips you have here!

    Not sure if you are a slow cooker user, but my mom recently gave me one and I have been loving these two cookbooks: Slow Cook Modern (a paperback, which is not my fave, but packed with interesting recipes) and Dinner in an Instant, which comes with the imprimatur of the NYTimes’ Melissa Clark. Do check them out if you have a slow cooker!

    1. YES to Zuni 🙂 So so good, albeit a bit over-precious in the writing of her recipes. I am not a slow cooker user, but my sister has become a recent convert! I’ll need to pass these along to her! ox

    1. Yay! I was literally in the kitchen cooking and thinking about all these cheesy cooking-to-life comparisons and had to share. XOXO

  2. Jen, You should check out the Half Baked Harvest cookbook. I got it for Christmas and the three recipes I’ve tried so far are delicious!! It sounds like it would be up your alley because it’s approachable and not overly fussy. As a bonus, the pictures are beautiful!

  3. Love your posts, but I noticed the links are no longer highlighted in blue (like they used to be), so it’s hard to figure out where to click. Can you highlight them again? Thx!

    1. Yuck! Sorry you’ve been experiencing that. I’m going to look into changing the color for hyperlinks. Stay tuned! Thanks for taking the time to let me know!

    2. Hi Jen! OK, I *think* I finally cracked the code on this. Let me know if the links are showing up blue now!! xo

  4. I like the cooking and kitchen posts! Keep ‘em coming! Would love to see a post on what you would pack for lunch at work. It is my weekly struggle to pack for my husband and I. Leftovers are excellent, of course, but don’t always work as a lunch (too many components, too smelly, too too).

    1. Love that idea, Kate — it reminds me that mah girl Jen Schuf (fellow reader) has asked me for easy weeknight recipes for months now. I need to get around to sharing some of those, though I feel a bit like an imposter since Mr. Magpie does the lion’s share of cooking. I’m usually the saladier. BUT, still — we often return to the same handful of weeknight meals, many of them pasta-oriented…more to come!

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