No Recipe

I’d like to attend a cooking class, but I can’t afford it. How can I learn good technique?

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The Pickle, a food and cooking advice column, was written by The Art of Gay Cooking author Daniel J. Isengart. You can follow all of his work at his website.

My roommate has absolutely disgusting drunk-eating habits. He comes home late at night and ransacks the refrigerator, pouring Parmesan cheese straight from the Kraft container onto cold corn tortillas, sucking down orange juice and spilling it everywhere, dipping his fingers into the communal hummus, etc. During daytime hours, he’s a dream roommate and one of my best friends. We laugh about his drunk-eating habits, and it’s kind of become an inside joke at this point. But to be honest: It is really grossing me out and is the single most difficult thing about living with this otherwise-lovely person. After all this time of joking about this stuff, it feels weird to bring it up in a serious way. How can I get him to stop?

Don’t we all, now and then, do something more or less unsavory when we think that we’re alone, or unobserved, or when our guard is down due to an alcohol- or otherwise-altered state? It’s not pretty, but it’s human. So while I sympathize with your outrage about his finger- (and possibly double-) dipping recklessness, I cannot help wondering what you are doing in that kitchen with him late at night when he might be better left alone in his piggish stupor. Wouldn’t you rather avoid being a witness of the crime, given that he apparently doesn’t know how to control his post-booze cravings? (As an aside: If I were to ever find the Kraft-manufactured sawdust masquerading as “Parmesan” in my fridge, I would probably hit the bottle too.) On the other hand, if you happen to be there, why not step in immediately with some gently corrective measures, like handing him a glass for the juice, and a plate for the food, and trying to get him to sit down and eat properly? He might calm down and land on a different, more civilized, plateau, which would be good not just for your sense of order but for him as well.

Short of succeeding with that approach, it is probably going to be very hard to get him to change his behavior on his own since you’ve allowed him to push the boundaries and, worse, agreed to downplay it as something funny: When you set the bar low, it’s hard to lift it. In fact, a reversal of your tolerant attitude might very well be perceived as an act of betrayal on your part. How can he know where you draw the line if you suddenly complain about something you seemed to be cool with, and how is he supposed to understand why you changed your mind?

If gently mothering him, as I hinted at above, is not a workable solution, you might have to address the problem directly and hint at the fact that his drinking habits have become a problem, at least for you. To soften the blow, do it at a neutral moment, perhaps in the afternoon (this is not something anyone wants to hear over breakfast), and formulate it to the degree that his style of midnight snacking has gone out of hand lately and that he needs to rein it in a bit for the sake of domestic harmony. At the very least, you can demand that he clean up after himself so that you don’t find any traces of his food orgy in the morning (if that has been the case). If it turns out he is, in his drunken state, too incapacitated to remember or fulfill that request, it might be time to pronounce that you’ve begun to worry about more than the communal hummus and suggest that he seek some counseling. Speaking of the dip, here’s a tip: Given his way of treating the food, it might be wise to amend some culinary aspects of your cohabitation and draw a pita line: no more communal hummus.

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After growing up in a home where nobody knew their way around a kitchen, I recently got extremely into cooking—so much so that I was ready to shell out a good chunk of my savings for a several-week intensive course at a culinary school this summer. Sadly, I ended up losing my job, which made the pricey cooking course a no-go. How do I become a great cook—with the sort of foundational know-how that one gets in culinary school—if I’m just cooking at home? Should I cook my way through Julia Child’s The Joy of Cooking, like so many great chefs do when they’re just getting started? Read as many books on the science of food as I can? Any resources or strategies you can recommend would be highly appreciated.

Just for the record: Julia Child certainly knew something about the joy of cooking, but the book of the same title was actually written by Irma S. Rombauer and preceded Child’s first book, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, by almost three decades. Neither of these two esteemed ladies’ books are on my recommended list for you, nor would they likely appear on the top of the list of any “great chefs”: Rombauer wrote for a new class of servantless homemakers and Child for novice adult hobby cooks like herself.

The truth is, reading cookbooks can teach you a lot about cooking, but it cannot teach you the cooking itself. As for cooking your way through each recipe of an entire cookbook (any cookbook), I doubt this would be as helpful as you imagine: Following recipes does not teach you how to cook—it merely teaches you how to … follow a recipe. At the very least, you should be promiscuous with your cookbook authors to broaden your horizon and stretch your flexibility. To feed your mind, immerse yourself into the culinary memoirs of such great food writers as Alice B. Toklas, M. F. K. Fisher, Elizabeth David, Richard Olney, and Betty Fussell: They articulate a highly personal approach to cooking not as a means to an end (a single meal) but as a way of life.

The way I see it, the only way to learn how to cook is to cook. In other words, through practice and repetition. I always tell adults that learning how to cook demands that they will have to become children again. What I mean by that is that they need to let go of their fear of making mistakes (things will go wrong), not aim too high (you are not Paul Bocuse), and, most importantly, relax and not take it too seriously. That doesn’t mean that one should just throw ingredients willy-nilly into a pot and hope for something great to come of it, like I may have done when I was 3. Think of the art of cooking as a solid pyramid with broad principles at the base and increasingly fine-tuned details as you go up. The key is to have a solid foundation that is not merely about technique but about understanding. Sure, you could just follow a recipe for a soufflé and hope that it does not collapse, and perhaps it won’t. But there might come a day when you won’t have a recipe handy for what you decided to prepare and be left to your own devices. How will you tell good from bad and right from wrong?

Ergo, start at the bottom and learn about simple dishes that require only basic techniques first—a pasta dish, a roast chicken, a decent salad, a pie—and explore their variations before moving to the next level, focusing on the general method rather than the specific details of whatever recipe you choose. Or you may try an even more systematic approach: Pick one ingredient—say, lemons—and work your way through a dozen different ways of using it: ceviche, tabbouleh, lemon chicken, hollandaise sauce, lemon cake, lemon custard, etc. Once you’ve mastered that, squeeze something else. And be mindful that disciplining yourself to work in an organized fashion and always cleaning up after yourself as you go from task to task is the only way to make you want to return to the kitchen again and again. (Nothing spoils the fun like a mountain of pots and pans to clean after the meal.)

I should also warn you to keep your consumption of online cooking videos to a minimum—they will lead to a lot of what I call vicarious cooking ­­(living out your cooking fantasy by watching someone else do it who never makes a mistake), which is the phenomenon that cemented the success of the Food Network and every food-media outlet that followed in its footsteps.

However, since you have to start somewhere, here are two recommendations for well-illustrated, comprehensive books that focus more on technique than recipes:

• Jacques Pépin’s New Complete Techniques. You can’t go wrong with one of the great masters of the venerable French technique who acquired his skills the old-fashioned way and modernized them for the American public without losing any of his integrity.

• J. Kenji López-Alt’s The Food Lab. This book is the best among a new breed of cookbooks that proclaim the advantage of a scientific approach to cooking. They are all well-meaning and well-researched, but they’re also spoiling the fun for the rest of us by explaining too much. Leave a bit of magic! However, with his light touch and sense of humor, López-Alt strikes a good balance.

Even as you do your reading, don’t forget to look for inspiration in the colorful, seasonal fruits and vegetables offered on farmers markets. Have a dialogue with them. Ask them what they would like to become in your kitchen, and start playing.

What are some easy or good recipes for cooking fish? I basically just do the roast-in-foil-bags trick.

One of the great advantages of cooking fish versus meat is that fish cooks fast—very fast.
In fact, I’d like to start you off with a dish that requires no cooking at all. And it’s not sushi.

Pick a well-frequented seafood store and build a trusting relationship with its fishmonger. Ask her where the fish you’ve set your eyes on is from (aim for a local fish for freshness) and make sure it is “sushi-grade.” And don’t automatically buy an already-filleted piece: Now and then, buy a whole fish and ask the fishmonger to fillet it for you. Ask them to pack up the head, skin, and bones so you can make a classic fumet (seafood broth).

Once home with the fillet, slice it thinly, crosswise, fan out the slices on a chilled platter or individual serving plates, top with an aromatic herb of your choice (like basil, celery fronds, or shiso leaf) and a few very thin hot chili peppers or pink radish slices, perhaps something mildly acidic like diced raw rhubarb or a few drops squeezed from a tangerine, drizzle with your best extra-virgin olive oil, season with flaky sea salt, and serve immediately. There you have your fancy crudo. This works well with halibut, striped bass, red snapper, fluke, yellowtail, sole, salmon and tuna. Tartare is pretty much the same idea, but the fish is diced or chopped and then seasoned to taste. (Leave out anything acidic or the fish will “cook.”) It’s delicious on rice crackers. Warning: Once you discover the sensuous and refreshingly clean taste of raw fish, you might find that cooked fish is bound to disappoint in comparison.

Next is the ceviche. Here, the fish is effectively “cooked” by the acidity gained from fresh lime, lemon, or passion fruit juice, and then dressed with your choice of hot peppers, red onions, radishes, tomatoes, or cilantro, to name a few possibilities. Lean, white-fleshed fish is traditional, but I am very fond of giving the ceviche treatment to boned and butterflied sardines: Lay them, “face-down,” into a puddle of freshly squeezed lemon juice for no more than 30 minutes (you want them to be half-raw) before draping them over a slice of bruschetta. Top with a drizzle of olive oil, chopped parsley, red onions, raw garlic slices, and flaky sea salt. To me, this is the essence of the sea.

But let’s talk a bit about your foil-bag trick: I hope you’ve used it for a whole fish, and not just fillets? If not, try that—although I prefer folded-over parchment paper to ovenproof plastic bags. The taste difference between a whole fish and a fillet is the same as that between a whole roasted chicken and a boneless skinless chicken breast: One’s flavor is innate, whereas the other needs to have it added. And if you own an outdoor grill and have never grilled a whole fish, give that a try too, before the fall season sets in. Pick a fish that is not too large (like branzino, red snapper, pompano, or dorade) and have it cleaned and scaled. Rub it with olive oil and season it inside out with salt and pepper. Stuff the cavity with a bunch of fresh herbs and a few slices of garlic. You can use a toothpick to secure the belly shut. Heat the grill to medium hot and place the fish diagonally onto it, making sure there is room to flip it. Once the skin has firmed up from the heat, it will come unstuck as you gently lift it off from one side and flip it to cook the other side. This takes some confidence and may take a few trials. It’s worth the damage once you figure out how to get it right and taste the crisped fish skin that’s as delicious as that of any rotisserie chicken.