When I first started taking cooking more seriously, I aimed straight for the Joy of Cooking.
After cooking many of the recipes therein, I’d gotten a bit more comfortable with the idea of cooking rather than assembling and picked up a copy of Jamie’s Dinners. It’s a beautiful book, full of outright food porn (and Oliver’s pretty easy on the eyes as well) and the message that one can just “throw a few things together” and end up with a delicious meal!
It is true that one can do that. And wonderful things occasionally come out the other end. But for those of us who knew only how to follow directions, but not how food works (read: me) the book results in much gnashing of teeth and rending of garments.
I will say now that Jamie Oliver’s recipes stack up as some of my favourites and this book holds such treasures as the first meal Neil ever cooked for me, a few go-to recipes for dinner parties and some handy tricks for packing tastier sandwiches.
But it took me quite a few spoiled dishes and a scrambled carbonara (confession: I still can’t temper eggs*) before I learned the cardinal rule of pretty much all cooking, and an essential element of success with this particular cookbook: TASTE EVERYTHING AS YOU GO!
When making food that you’re going to eat it would seem like common sense to focus on the taste of what you’re preparing. Unfortunately, that is not always the case. It’s easy to get distracted during the cooking process by remembering all the ingredients, trying to prepare them without slicing off pieces of one’s digits, not burning whatever’s on a heat source and trying to finish a few dishes all at the same time so the beans aren’t stone cold and the potatoes dried out because the meat’s still resting.
However, the recipes in Jamie’s Dinners ONLY WORK if you are tasting as you go. I learned that lesson the hard way, but I did finally learn it. I learned that a bit of lemon juice or zest brightens up a dish, tasting pasta while it’s cooking is much more reliable than timing it, a pinch of salt is a lot bigger than I’d thought and adding a little bit more than a little bit makes all the flavours sing. Also, there are no hard and fast rules about how much of any herb or spice you should add to a dish. It all depends on the volume and condition of the ingredients you’re using. If you taste it and like it and want more of that flavour, add a little more.
Suddenly, everything I cooked started turning out much, much better. Not only was I making tastier dishes, I was also salvaging dishes that were starting to go south by adjusting the ingredients and seasonings as I went.
Finally, thanks to the Joy of Cooking and Jamie’s Dinners, I’d become comfortable with what I was making, as well as the food-saving habit of tasting as I went. But I still didn’t really understand how ingredients work together to make dishes. That started to come together after I picked up The Improvisational Cook…
(*by the by, if you’re interested in hearing more about how my continued lack of ability in combining uncooked eggs with hot food, check out my latest disaster on the Menus from an Orchard Table cook the book blog – coming up later this evening!)