What to Cook?

by Elizabeth Skipper | September 4th, 2013 | Ask the Chef

ingredientsI love to cook, but I don’t know what to make.  

On the face of it, this is a somewhat silly question. However, as anyone who cooks knows, sometimes inspiration is lacking! Even people for whom cooking is a profession sometimes find themselves wondering what to make. How do we find our ideas or the desire to get back in the kitchen to whip something up?

For gardeners, or someone who belongs to a CSA or can turn to a farmers market, often the answer is to just go see what’s seasonal and looks enticing. For example, right now tomatoes are coming into my CSA in huge quantities – enough that members are being cajoled to take half a crate for processing this weekend. I don’t can much any more, but those tomatoes prompted me to bring enough home to make gazpacho, salsa, bruschetta topping, and some simple cooked sauce.

Those are all favorites in my repertoire, but let’s say I couldn’t think of anything to do with tomatoes. Simply type, “tomato recipes” in your favorite browser and stand back. There will be no end to the resulting search suggestions. You might want to narrow it down to “tomato main course recipes” or “tomato side dishes.” Or go directly to a site like Epicurious or Allrecipes, and search there. Again, you’ll find plenty of choices.

My daughter says she’ll find herself with different ingredients – say chicken or ground beef in the fridge, pasta in the cupboard, and some ears of corn – and be stymied on how to assemble them into a meal. There are sites like Supercook, which ask what you have on hand, and based on that information will provide links to recipes that use those ingredients. Pretty slick!

Of course, I hope you have a few trusty cookbooks. One of my favorites is the Time Life Good Cook series, now out of print but readily available used. There were some thirty volumes, each dedicated to one subject like Beef & Veal, Poultry, Fish & Shellfish, Vegetables, Dried Beans & Grains, etc. The first part of the book on pork describes how it’s graded by the USDA and the different kinds of cuts, and covers all the major cooking techniques such as roasting, frying, stewing, grilling, etc., with illustrative recipes. The second part of the book is a collection of recipes from many different sources and cuisines for pork. You might be inspired to try making a French Canadian pork pie, stir-fried green beans with pork, sausage, or Vietnamese meatloaf – no lack of ideas here!

Do you have a friend who’s a good cook? Call and ask him or her for ideas. Get together to make a meal and collaborate on the menu.

If you don’t subscribe to any food magazines, your library does. You can go peruse Cook’s Illustrated, Cuisine at Home, Bon Appétit, Food Network, or Better Homes & Gardens and Family Circle for free. At my library, the current issue doesn’t circulate while back issues do. In any case, you can copy any recipes that look interesting.

My last suggestion may be the most fun, if more costly. Take a cooking class! This is something I try to do every now and then, especially when I travel. When in New Mexico for my cousin’s wedding, I took a class at a kitchenwares store to explore the local cuisine. The instructor prepared a typical New Mexican meal and lectured on the use of chiles. In Italy, my mother-in-law, daughter, and I got a good look at the inside of a Tuscan kitchen and how the chef shops and cooks. Her recipes for bruschetta, gnudi, and caponata were outstanding, and I still use them.

Along those lines, look into community education at your local high school. I teach for the evening enrichment program at ours, and call tell you it’s a bargain. My students have been offered courses from the basics of cooking to French Bistro and French Cuisine. Other instructors have taught Indian and Italian cooking. This fall I’m teaching Dine Around Europe, a six-class course featuring a different country’s cuisine each night. Instructors love to share their knowledge, and will surely give you some new ideas to try.

I just realized that nowhere do I suggest watching cooking shows on TV. I don’t. And from what I’ve read, most people watch cooking shows for the entertainment value, not for knowledge or ideas. My chef friends mostly complain that it’s all about the ratings, and nothing to do with teaching; I’ll take their word for it. Anyway, I hope that all my other suggestions are helpful. Cooking isn’t always fun, but you’ll rarely lack for ideas if you try a few of them.

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