Sunday, June 12, 2005

The Curse of Cookbooks

Being an amateur cook can be both fascinating and frustrating. After a couple decades of learning, observing, reading and doing I feel like I've come close to perfecting a handful of dishes.

That said I still feel like there's room for improvement. Last week I roasted a chicken that I would rank among my Top 5 Roast Chickens of all-time. Today, I grilled a whole chicken -- no beer can, I just threw it on one half of the grill and turned off the corresponding burners -- and the result was a spicy, slightly smoky bird with deep flavor right down to the bone. A grilled whole chicken! From a boy who was taught growing up that you grilled two things: hot dogs and hamburgers, and neither of them particularly well.

Unfortunately, cookbooks and cooking magazines keep arriving and push me to try new things, though I think Chris would be happy with a steady rotation of what have become my "signature" dishes: Latin Pork Roast; Beer Can Chicken; Oven Fried Catfish; Tilapia with Pineapple Basil Glaze.

But this weekend I wanted to flex my culinary muscles, try a few new things and see how the results turned out. Well, the results were mixed at best. A seafood salad made with steamed shrimp and lump crabmeat was tasty and enjoyable, but also kind of expensive to concoct. Especially when you're a guy who's happy with a tuna sandwich or (gasp!) McDonald's Filet-O-Fish.

My other culinary adventure was also a recipe from a recent Cooking Light, Cornmeal Crusted Scallops with a Mint Chimichura Sauce. I like sea scallops and would never have thought to dredge them in yellow cornmeal, so the recipe jumped right out at me. As for the chimuchura sauce -- made with mint, honey, peppers, green onions, etc. -- I should have known better. It screamed "overpowering" and I probably would've been better off with a nice simple tartar sauce. (Sorry, I love ths tuff.)

Anwyay, the result was as disastrous as you might expect. Though I liked the cornmeal crust on the scallops, the meat was a bit bland and could've used something. (If I try a variation on the recipe in the future maybe I'll kick up the cornmeal or season the scallops before dredging.)

The chimichura sauce, however, was even worse than I could have imagined. It tasted like someone had ground up a bowl of leftover potpourri, dumped some water in it and threw it on top of my scallops. Luckily, the cornmeal crust kept the sauce from penetrating too far into the meat and I was able to scrape most of it onto the side.

Let me put it this way: when the frozen broccoli cuts in cheese sauce are the highlight of the meal, thank your lucky stars there's a grilled chicken in the fridge.


Fidge Dextro said...

I live with three roommates and they always refer to me as "Chef Vinnie". Although I appreciate the fact they like my food, I always cringe at this inaccurate designation. I'm not a chef, I'm a cook. And there's a world of difference bewteen the two.

A chef can walk into any kitchen and turn whatever's in the fridge and pantry into a gourmet meal. A cook, no matter how good, usually needs guidance. In other words: a chef creates recipes. A cook tries to cook them.

In this respect, I have enough confidence to admit that I'm a good cook. Put a recipe in front of me and 99 times out of 100, it will come out as its author intended. My two sore spots are pie crusts and chocolate-colored roux. I'd love to make an authentic gumbo, but it always ends up as gloppy chowder.

When you speak of "perfecting" dishes, I'm assuming you mean meals where the recipe is no longer needed and you feel completely at ease adding ingredients by sight and whim. I only have a few of those myself: garlic shrimp with diced bacon, stuffed grape leaves, apple vinegar baby back ribs, and a killer lasagna. Add to that some perennial side dishes (potato salad, stuffed mushrooms, poultry stuffing, etc.) and easy to make sauces (I haven't bought a jar of cocktail, tartar or tomato sauce in years), and you have the extent of my chef-like inclinations. Otherwise, I'm a semi-slave to the recipe.

However, as you discovered with the scallops, just because a meal turns out bad, it isn't always the fault of the cook. You were right in thinking the entire enterprise sounded a bit, uh, fishy from the start. Cornmeal and fish go together quite nicely, it's basic for Southern deep-frying (though successful results can be achieved in an oven), but I wouldn't have bothered with the sauce (especially since I can't stand mint unless it's in a julep).

Then again, the recipe may have been wrong. I've encountered many a cookbook (or TV show) where the ingredient amounts or cooking time was obviously way off. You can't fault the amateur at-home cook for following lousy directions.

Anyhow, we cooks can only learn from our mistakes (and those of our teachers). I have a roommate who insists on cooking one meal a week and everyone else dreads the final result. That's because he thinks he's a chef, turning simple spices into weapons of mass destruction since he's the absolute poster boy for overseasoning. Nothing he makes has a distinct flavor, it's always a mess of 20 herbs and spices in no logical proportion. On top of that, he has no idea how to properly cook. You need a chainsaw to carve his roasts and you haven't died until you've tasted his mixed seafood tomato sauce simmered in a crockpot for 10 hours. The funniest part of all this is we used to have a dog named Isabella. She was a grand old Boxer, proud and smart as could be. Anyhow, every week, my roommate would put some of his less-than-delightful creations in her food bowl. Invariably, she would sniff it, sniff it, sniff it...and then try to turn the bowl over, burying it with her nose under the throw carpet. He'd get all peed-off, but never took the hint as the rest of us rolled on the floor in laughter.

Hmmm... This post seems a bit rambly, but isn't that what a blog is supposed to be?

Still, let me end it here for now...

Will return soon, I'm sure.

Take care,

Anonymous said...

found this through your sig in the Hitch mag mailout. good stuff here. i'm following the "next food network star" and am disgusted by all of the same people. curious to know if you're also watching "Hell's Kitchen" on FOX and what you think of Gordon Ramsay?

Dan said...

Fidge: Thanks for the great post. I suppose that was what I meant by "perfecting," that comfort level with a dish that I feel like I can make changes on the fly and still have it come out great.

I should have known better with the mint sauce. I knew as I was reading it that the whole concept seemed wrong somehow, but I forged ahead anyway. Well, better to have cooked and been disappointed than never to have cooked at all.

Dan said...

You're actually the second person to ask me about "Hell's Kitchen." I haven't watched it yet, I think in part due to the fact that the guy irritates me like hell (no pun intended) just in the commercials. I fear I'd be kicking in the TV set or hurling the laptop across the room if I had to listent to it for any extended period!