I always saw it like this: Either you had a great-grandmother who whispered age-old recipes to you on her deathbed or you didn't. That decided your culinary destiny. Since I fell into the latter category, my epicurean fate was sealed: eat cereal and be the one who brings a good bottle of wine.
Then my friend Jennifer, a non-foodie like me, took a cooking class. In my view, she might as well have auditioned to play first oboe in the L.A. Philharmonic--you can't outlearn your destiny. But weeks later, I sat down as she served me a hearty ragu, a perfect salad, and a light, airy cake. "Cooking's actually kind of easy," she said.
Is there a more beautiful word in the English language than "easy"? I thought. So I called up the New School of Cooking in Los Angeles and enrolled in its four-week basic cooking course. Could I really learn to cook in a month? Or was Jennifer just a big, fat liar?
Week One: The First Cut
You may think that food would be considered the foundation of cooking, but according to my lovely instructor, May, the basis of a successful meal is how you wield a sharp object. Whatever dish you're going to make will require cutting, chopping, or hacking of some sort. And often what you'll have to slice will be hard and/or small, so a crappy knife from the dollar store won't cut it (although it very well may slip and cut you).
We start class with the proper knife grip: thumb and last three fingers wrapped around the handle, index finger alongside it. "You want your knife, not your index finger, to do the work," she says. Keep the knife tip on the cutting board, and then move the blade up and down like a paper cutter for blood-free hacking.
May notes that before chopping the first victim, a vegetable, we need to cut off the ends and, if it's something like a carrot, peel it. (While my 15 classmates can probably deduce this, I appreciate a recitation of the obvious.)
I'm paired up with a charmingly foulmouthed nurse named Carolina, who's as clueless as me. Every week, each cooking couple would draw a recipe out of a jar; out of the gate we get the Thai coconut soup Tom Ka Pak. "Phuket!" I mutter--but not the city. The recipe has scary phrases like "tipped" and "sliced on the bias." Carolina and I aren't alone in our helplessness. The women next to us--roommates who had eaten every dinner for the past two years at the Whole Foods salad bar--pull a chopped salad in which they will have to roast a pepper! "I might as well try to remove my own gallbladder," one of them whines.
But knowledge is power. May explains to us that "tipped" means to cut off the tips and that "sliced on the bias" means to cut at an angle. From my salad-making compatriots I learn how to roast a pepper: Blacken over range flame, turning repeatedly (with tongs, not hand). Put in bowl and cover with plastic wrap. The skin just peels off.
Of course, we also learn the not-burning aspect of cooking. Heavy-bottomed pans help; you want your oil hot enough to hiss--not to smoke and erupt into flames; stir! Lesson learned: Cooking is just about following steps and maybe looking up a few terms.
Week Two: Sea Change
Fish, I decided long ago, were for aquariums and restaurants. But May casts my anxieties out to sea with these pointers:
When buying a whole fish, make sure its eyes are clear. Cloudy, sunken eyes mean Nemo's been sitting around.
Whether it's a fillet or a whole fish, skin should be shiny and taut, not slimy.
Sea odor: good. Ammonia odor: bad.
Sushi chefs are about the only people who don't overcook fish. The goal: Retain the fish's natural moisture without leaving it raw. You should thoroughly preheat pans, grills, and ovens so that the fish starts cooking quickly and evenly. And tempting as they are, poking and overturning are no-nos. A good rule of thumb is about 10 minutes per inch of thickness; when the fish starts to flake and the juices rise to the top, it's ready to eat.
Carolina and I pick mahi-mahi tostadas with black beans and mango salsa--to us, the kitchen equivalent of a back handspring. But again, broken down into steps, it's doable. This recipe has three parts: beans, salsa, and the fish itself. The cooking beans part is like boiling water, except there are beans in it. Salsa, like most vegetable and fruit dishes, just means lots of chopping. As for the fish: Get pan hot. Oil hissing. Put fish in pan. Wait. Flip. That simple.
Week Three: In Which We Get Skewed
May lectures about cuts of meat: Tough cuts, like shoulder and butt, are best slow-cooked and roasted; more delicate cuts, like filet mignon, sirloin, and chops, should be grilled--or is it sautÃƒÂ©ed?--I'm not really paying attention anymore. I'm too busy basking in my ability to dice an onion in 30 seconds and emulsify vinaigrette with ease.
That is, until it comes time to do kebabs. Then panic sets in. I know what you're thinking: What could be so hard about putting food on a stick? But do it wrong and your food ends up falling into the pit of charcoal death below. After some choice words, Carolina and I take a collective deep breath and handle the skewers like freshly sharpened samurai swords.
Result: slightly overcooked but highly complimented by the class. So you were right, it isn't so hard to put food on a stick. When it comes to cooking, sometimes you just need to calm down.
Week Four: The Sweetest Thing
May informs us (I'm back to paying attention) that dessert often involves baking and that baking is just a tasty form of chemistry. Accurate measurements ensure that important things, like rising, take place. Flour gets measured in a dry measuring cup--not an empty yogurt carton; and you can't measure with the teaspoon and tablespoon that came in your four-piece Ikea place setting.
Carolina and I choose strawberry shortcake, which I love but have had maybe five times in my life because I couldn't make it myself. Do you know how freaking easy it is to make strawberry shortcake? I know just where you'll lose it--at macerate. It just means to let something sit and stew in its own juices (we can all do that!). A pastry scraper is just a big spatula. And to toast almonds: Spread on cookie sheet. Put in 400-degree oven until they smell good (five to seven minutes).
Epilogue: The Proof is in the Tom Ka Pak
In the confines of class, I'm Nigella-meets-Julia. But how would I fare beÃ‚Â-yond the gaze of the helpful May and my partner-in-ineptitude, Carolina? The test would come in the form of a dinner party for my foodie friends Brett and Talia as well as the former cook-a-phobe, Jennifer.
I make Tom Ka Pak, chopped salad, and strawberry shortcake. My soup: fragrant and spicy. My chopped salad: every vegetable bite-sized, perfectly roasted. My strawberry shortcake: a slice of heaven. "This is good," Talia and Brett admit. Or I think that's what they said. Their mouths were full.
Forget destiny. I'll take the expensive knife, a little professional help, and a heaping side of patience.