Some people predicted that this story would be written from prison, where I would be doing time for involuntary manslaughter in the accidental poisoning of one or more dinner guests.
That’s the level of confidence my cooking usually inspires. And it’s probably why the editors of the Food section drafted me for a story in which an inexperienced chef tries to master the kitchen by studying “Cooking for Dummies” and other idiot-proof manuals.
The goal was to see which books offered the best instruction for beginning cooks.
In the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that I’m not a complete novice. In ninth grade, my culinary talent earned the prestigious Boys’ Chef Medallion from my junior high school. My sister immediately denounced the award as a sham, even though I had learned to prepare such French delicacies as roti avec confiture (toast with jam).
Today, my cooking skills remain the stuff of legend. The editors of the Food section were so impressed that they gave me a book titled “How to Eat,” presumably with chapters on “Chewing,” 'Swallowing” and “How Not to Stab Yourself With a Fork.”
I threw that one on the reject pile, along with “How to Cook Without a Book,” a title that seemed too oxymoronic to be useful. That narrowed the field to four bonehead cookbooks. After flipping through them, I chose a few recipes, made a shopping list and headed for something called a “supermarket,” which I had previously thought was a place to find beer and use the ATM.
My taste testers for Meal No. 1 were two friends who took out a large life insurance policy before arriving and left their daughter at home with a revised last will and testament.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Before planning the menus, I set some ground rules: No pasta dishes and no breakfasts (I’m actually decent at both). Each dinner had to include an appetizer, salad, entree and dessert. And the second meal would have to be harder than the first.
I immediately cheated. To ease the workload my first time out, I decided that the salad could be one of those pre-washed, prepackaged jobs, although I made the dressing from scratch.
But the other dishes weren’t so simple. And shopping was a nightmare, the first clue that these “foolproof” cookbooks had serious flaws.
For example, the ginger chicken recipe from “Learning to Cook With Marion Cunningham” (Knopf, 1999) called for four medium-size yellow onions. However, when I got to Ralphs, no yellow onions were to be found. The store had onions labeled green, white, brown, red and several other shades (periwinkle, mauve and plaid), but no yellow. I finally had to break a cardinal guy rule (‘Never ask for directions’) and request help. Unfortunately, the produce clerk was equally clueless. We eventually decided that the brown onions looked more yellow than their name implied and settled on those.
After chasing down the rest of the ingredients for the meal, I returned home and phoned my girlfriend, Allison, with an update. “What’s on your menu?” she asked. I described the aforementioned salad and chicken, plus ham-and-asparagus roll-up appetizers and an apple brown betty dessert.
“You need to have a side dish,” she said.
What? Salad doesn’t count?
Great. Hanging up, I remembered that the chicken recipe listed a side dish: “Serve with riso, a tiny pasta that looks like rice grains and cooks in six minutes.”
No problem, I thought.
Wrong. Back at Ralphs, I scoured the pasta aisle for riso but located no such animal. Fortunately, the book listed orzo as an acceptable substitute, so I grabbed that.
The recipe also called for currants, which it promised would be available in the dried-fruit section of most markets. Not this one. And not in several others I checked, increasingly panicked as my time for cooking slipped away. At Albertsons, I finally collared the produce guy for assistance. He’d never even heard of currants. In desperation, I snapped up a bag of dried cherries.
Then came the cooking phase. Although Cunningham’s book is my favorite of the lot (it has more recipes that suit my taste, handy charts on buying and storing fruits and vegetables and lots of photographs, which are more helpful than illustrations), it suffers one glaring deficiency: No mention of how long the ingredients take to prepare before cooking. That undermines the book’s introductory hint that it would explain “how to have all the elements of a meal-meat, potatoes, vegetables-come out on time.”
Actually, none of the books solved that dilemma, which turned out to be my biggest problem. Although “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Cooking Basics” (Alpha Books, 1995) and “Cooking for Dummies” (Hungry Mind Books, 2000) did list preparation times, they seriously underestimated how long a kitchenophobe like me would take to accomplish even the simplest tasks.
So I was behind when my guests arrived. Way behind. Even though the appetizers were in the fridge and dessert bubbled in the oven, I’d barely begun prepping the chicken and hadn’t done a thing on the side dish. When my friend uncorked the bottle of wine she brought, I hardly noticed.
“You must’ve been very stressed,” she said later. “You didn’t even stop to drink.”
With stomachs growling in the dining room, I tried to speed things up in the kitchen by recruiting a guest to make the salad (i.e., rip open the bags of pre-washed greens and put them in a bowl). But the “six-minute” side dish brought everything to a grinding halt. As I started following the recipe, which was perched atop the seat of a mountain bike I keep parked in the kitchen, several previously unmentioned time extensions materialized: “After 10 minutes, add the currants,” 'Fill a large serving bowl with hot water and let it stand for a few minutes,” and so forth.
The six minutes stretched into half an hour. To keep the chicken from getting cold, I put it on low heat, hoping it wouldn’t overcook.
It didn’t. To my surprise, the meal was delicious. Although I told my panel of reviewers that snarky comments would make this article funnier, they insisted everything was first-rate. The orzo side dish got especially high marks. “It’s so smooth,” one of them said.
Even my roommate, who was well aware of my cooking expertise and initially declined an invitation to join us, dived in after seeing the other guests still conscious. She gave the food two thumbs up: “The chicken was very good, very tender.”
The apple brown betty also drew raves, although I rated it mediocre (but I’m an apple dessert connoisseur). Everyone was surprised to hear the crumbly top was made from diced white bread.
In short, I had somehow pulled off a quasi-gourmet meal. Unfortunately, the editors wanted this to be a humor article, so that left me one last chance to screw things up.
Meal No. 2 happened three months later, which was about how long it took for me to clean up the mess from Meal No. 1. My initial plan was to try recipes from the two books I hadn’t used yet, “Cooking for Dummies” and “The Sport of Cooking: A Gourmet Guide for Rookies” (Capital Books, 2000). But “Sport” flunked out. Although it sounded good in theory (no fancy tools or obscure ingredients, directions explained clearly), the book isn’t for true rookies.
For example, one ingredient list calls for zest of lemon but never explains what that means. The recipes are also awkwardly proportioned: Most serve six people, which means if you have a gathering of two or four, you have to multiply the ingredients by one-third or two-thirds. Too confusing.
Beyond that, only a handful of the dishes sounded appetizing. The first rule in picking a cookbook is to make sure you like the recipes.
So I opted for an all-'Dummies” menu: garlic and goat cheese tartines for the appetizer, cheater’s salad (prepackaged again), pork chops with rosemary sauce, garlic mashed potatoes and an apple-pear crisp dessert.
My chief complaint about “Dummies” books (all “Dummies” books, as well as the rival “Idiot’s Guide” series) is their length. If I want an easy introduction to a baffling topic, I prefer it to be concise. Instead, they ramble on for several hundred pages per book, often covering useless topics, such as the evolution of kitchen architecture. Who cares?
But some of the detail is helpful. The “Dummies” book offers a thorough look at kitchen equipment. The “Idiot’s Guide” goes even further, devoting entire chapters to kitchen organization, grocery shopping and dealing with butchers.
Yet there are gaps. When I shopped for the pork in the “Dummies” recipe, none of the cuts exactly matched the wording used by the book (‘loin pork chops’), so I had to guess. Likewise, the apple-pear crisp recipe suggested mixing the ingredients with a pastry blender but supplied no description of the gizmo (when I looked for one at a department store, the kitchenware clerks had no idea, and neither did several of my friends who cook).
The “Dummies” book is also poorly organized. Some recipes are grouped according to cooking technique (sauteeing, grilling, etc.) instead of by type of dish (appetizer, entree, etc.).
On the plus side, each recipe lists the tools needed as well as the preparation and cooking time (albeit grossly underestimated, in my experience).
My second meal was 90 minutes behind schedule (partly because of shopping snafus) and would’ve finished even later if I hadn’t asked my guests for help. Allison minced the shallots for the pork and Ann chopped the rosemary and handled the salad.
The result, as determined by my new panel of tasters: The pork was a bit dry but tasty. The mashed potatoes had great flavor and perfect texture (one friend offered to “try six more servings and look for lumps’). And dessert was a smash (I’ve made it twice since).
But there were a few quibbles. My girlfriend said I should’ve used less sugar in the apple-pear crisp and more salt in the mashed potatoes. She also wished I’d served some type of vegetable.
“It’s great to eat at someone’s house and actually be able to critique the food,” she chirped.
My other guest was more circumspect. When asked her opinion of the rosemary pork, she said, “I’m reserving judgment until I see if I develop trichinosis.”
Roy Rivenburg’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Also from “Learning to Cook With Marion Cunningham.”
Riso is a tiny pasta shaped just like rice. You’ll find it in the pasta section of the supermarket. If you can’t find riso, look for orzo, which is the same shape, only a bit larger. There is little difference between them, and one can be substituted for the other. Currants are very small raisins and are available in the dried-fruit section of most markets.
Fill a 4-quart pot about 3/4 full of cold water and add the salt. Turn the heat to high and bring the water to a boil. Turn the heat down to medium-high and slowly add the riso. Use a large spoon to stir it for a few seconds to make sure the pasta doesn’t stick to the pot.
After 10 minutes, add the currants to the riso and stir again. With a small spoon, scoop up a few pieces of riso to test them for doneness. The pasta should be just tender, with no hard interior. When the riso is cooked, pour the contents of the pot into a colander with small holes or small mesh wire that you have placed in the sink. Shake the colander to get rid of any excess water.
Fill a large serving bowl with hot water and let it stand for a few minutes. Pour out the water, put the riso into the warm bowl, and taste the pasta again to see if it needs a bit more salt. If so, add salt, about 1/4 teaspoon at a time, stirring to mix well, until it suits your personal taste. Add pepper to taste as well. Add the mint and butter, stir to blend and serve hot.