Letter: To Zack about Cooking Skill Stagnation

Dear Zack,

I have decided that my abilities as a cook have stopped progressing. This realization comes from two encounters with “Asian” food. One, last week: I tried to make a stir fry with mushrooms and bok choy and green beans, to be served over quinoa (a nubbly little grain from Latin America). I didn’t exactly follow a recipe–just threw together likely-seeming ingredients in roughly the order that a stir fry is supposed to come together in. It was… sub-ideal. The end result, an amalgamation of mushrooms, bok choy, green beans, ginger, garlic, soy sauce, and honey, was not exactly bad. It was just … too flavorful. Far too flavorful for it to be comfortable to eat a full serving. Really it was best in about two-bite portions. This over-flavoring is a problem that I run into fairly frequently, and I am a hack at working with Asian flavors.

The second encounter was last night at the Meadow Bar in Edinburgh. I ordered a lentil burger (with bacon, naturally, but that was sadly left off). It was a flavored with green chilies and ginger, supposedly, and it was SO strange. I am accustomed to bean burgers having a more southwestern flair that having one that was so Thai was really interesting. I would never have thought of this combination (because, honestly, I never think of new and different ways to use lentils), and I feel that this is something that I should remedy.

Normally, I would remedy my stagnation with random experimentation as the whim strikes me. However, that method has a very high failure rate. I would estimate that a good 75% of the totally random experimentation ends up largely inedible. (Leaving something largely inedible in the refrigerator for a longer period of time does not seem to get it eaten, strangely.) So, I am thinking of something a little different–a more strategic approach, using–GASP, the HORROR–actual recipes, without wild deviation and flights of fancy. I think, like music theory and a lot of other things, you probably need to learn the rules before you get to play it fast and lose with them. The question is, where to start?


Suggestions from the audience? I am a relatively inexperienced cook, and I am bad at whole wheat breads, broth-based soups, Thai food, Chinese food, and Indian food. I am inexperienced with Middle Eastern food, though I will be trying the shakshuka recipe that was on Smitten Kitten recently. I am ordinarily not very good at cooking meat, with the exception of bacon, which I (being from Southern America), attempt to put in almost anything. (Maple Bacon Cupcakes, anyone? okay, those were actually another one of the random experimentation/almost inedible set). I am fond of dark leafy greens, cruciferous vegetables, radishes, squash, and legumes. I would be delighted to be directed to your favorite recipes!

Letter: To Zack about Cooking Skill Stagnation

5 thoughts on “Letter: To Zack about Cooking Skill Stagnation

  1. Sara says:

    This is one of my favorite recipes. The grill can easily be substituted for a stove top or hot oven.

    Yougurt Marinated Chicken Kebabs with Aleppo Pepper

    • 1 1/2 tablespoons Aleppo pepper* or 2 teaspoons dried crushed red pepper plus 2 teaspoons Hungarian sweet paprika, plus additional Aleppo pepper or paprika for sprinkling
    • 1 cup plain whole-milk Greek-style yogurt (8 ounces)
    • 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
    • 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
    • 2 tablespoons tomato paste
    • 2 teaspoons coarse kosher salt
    • 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
    • 6 garlic cloves, peeled, flattened
    • 2 unpeeled lemons; 1 thinly sliced into rounds, 1 cut into wedges for serving 2 1/4 pounds skinless boneless chicken (thighs and/or breast halves), cut into 1 1/4-inch cubes – Also good with beef and lamb

    If using Aleppo pepper, place in large bowl and mix in 1 tablespoon warm water. Let stand until thick paste forms, about 5 minutes. If using dried crushed red pepper and paprika combination, place in large bowl and stir in 2 tablespoons warm water and let stand until paste forms, about 5 minutes. Add yogurt, olive oil, red wine vinegar, tomato paste, 2 teaspoons coarse salt, and 1 teaspoon black pepper to spice mixture in bowl; whisk to blend. Stir in garlic and lemon slices, then chicken. Cover and chill at least 1 hour. Can be made 1 day ahead. Keep chilled.

    Prepare barbecue (medium-high heat). Thread chicken pieces on metal skewers, dividing equally. Discard marinade in bowl. Sprinkle each skewer with salt, pepper, and additional Aleppo pepper or paprika. Brush grill rack with oil. Grill chicken until golden brown and cooked through, turning skewers occasionally, 10 to 12 minutes total. Transfer skewers to platter. Surround with lemon wedges and serve.

  2. Sara says:

    On a totally different vein, these things are super tasty and easy to make… And they make me actually *want* to buy carrots, amazing.

    Carrot Fritters

    • 1 1/2 c grated carrot, grate this fairly thin
    • 4 green onions, sliced
    • 1/4 c finely chopped yellow onion
    • 1/2 c flour
    • 1/2 t salt
    • pinch of pepper
    • 1 egg

    Mix everything together to form a thick paste like consistency. Form into 4 1/2-inch patties. Just coat the bottom of a non-stick skillet or griddle with a little olive oil. Heat over medium-high. When hot put the patties in the skillet. Allow to cook until the bottom is golden brown then flip. Press down lightly with the back of a spatula. Allow the second side to cook until golden brown, total cooking time about 5 minutes. Makes 4 fritters.

    1. rachelshadoan says:

      Those sound AMAZING. I made black-eyed pea fritters a couple of new year’s ago, with red pepper and onion. Those were deep fried, though, so while tasty I can’t imagine them being very good for you! And I do have a happy bunch of carrots, just waiting to be used. It’d be a good end of winter thing, when all you’ve got around are root vegetables.

  3. Buy a little book called ‘Bowl Food’ (they’ve got used ones on Amazon for £2.99) – perfect for Asian bits and bobs and for poverty stricken students…..

    1. rachelshadoan says:

      As soon as I read your comment, I headed straight for Amazon! But then I remembered that I’m moving the first of June… So I will buy it after that, when it can be delivered to my new flat, and be one less thing to put in a box and cart down the stupid hill!

      I was reading the reviews, though, and drooling. it looks totally lush.

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