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Now We’re Cooking

cook |koŏk|

verb

1 [ trans. ] prepare (food, a dish, or a meal) by combining and heating the ingredients in various ways.  • [ intrans. ] I told you I could cook | [as adj. ] ( cooked) a cooked breakfast.  • [ intrans. ] (of food) be heated so that the condition required for eating is reached .

2 something Joel is really, really bad at.

And yet I try. Last November, I bought a Brinkman’s 3-in-1 smoker, steamer, and bar-be-que. I have used it five times now, with various results. The first use was grilling a couple of steaks shortly after having bought (and cured) the grill. The second time was for the Christmas turkey. The third through fifth times were this past month, cooking for my family and a few friends.

The results were, as I said, varied. During my first attempts with the grill, I stuck to tried and true recipes I gleaned from the internet and followed religiously. The more recent attempts, however, were more experimental.

We had some friends come over and I attempted two (huge) steaks and a bit of grilled shark. I abstained from the internet and instead went for a bit of a steak sauce marinade and lots of lemon and orange juice squeezed over the meat while it was cooking. The steak was really good. The fish was ok, without being stellar.

But that’s not really important now. What’s important is why I have been trying to cook.

I’ve always been a big guy. In the last two years though my weight has gotten absolutely out of control. Cite the usual reasons – a desk job, a long commute, eating fast food in the car, not taking enough time to exercise, etc. etc. I decided that maybe if I learned to cook, I would begin eating better, possibly less, and that the activity would be good for me as well.

Prior to this my cooking experiences were less than promising. Starting with the Intro to Cooking class I took as an elective in Jr. High where I learned very little that I retained save for how much I enjoy Waldorf Salad and that my friend CJ was kind of an idiot. (It’s a whole other story.) My cooking ineptness culminated in an incident where in I almost burned down the house of the girl I was dating while trying to make her pancakes for breakfast. My cooking, in other words, all the way through high school, college, and after was pretty much limited to things that came out of cans or boxes and involved less than three steps.

In fact, according to my college roommate Chuck, anything that involved less than three steps was not technically cooking. It was merely food preparation. He had a point.

Now, for full disclosure, a good part of my wanting to learn to cook was fueled by my addiction to Top Chef. I’m incapable of watching something I think is cool and not wanting to try it. I watch Miami Ink and I want to get a tattoo. I watch Deadliest Catch and want to take a year off to go work in the Bering Sea. And when I watch Top Chef, I want to be able to cook.

I began where I always begin, the internet. YouTube in this case, looking for cooking videos that I could follow. One of the videos I came across was Gordon Ramsay bar-be-queing buffalo meat as hamburgers. The idea seeemed simple enough, and even if I couldn’t get hold of any buffalo meat, the other things Ramsay incorporated (dicing a red onion into his mince, topping the burger with buffalo mozzarella cheese) seemed like things I could do by myself.

So, while I mainlined the first two seasons of Gordon Ramsay’s The F Word, I began shopping for a grill. My wife and I had bought a house the previous August so it seemed only natural to wait until we had gotten everything unpacked before buying anything new. As anyone who has ever moved can tell you, unpacking can take years and I eventually got tired of waiting and bought a charcoal grill.

While this brought me great acclaim and several dozens of “man points” from my friends, the somewhat cumbersome and wasteful nature of charcoal grills made itself apparent and the grill sat unused for months at a time. In the meantime, several cookbooks appeared on my Amazon wishlist and remained unpurchased. Especially as my job changed suddenly and the copious free time I had had vanished in the night.

Still, learning to cook and cooking for myself, remains a goal. The cookbook I have been reading about and most want to try is The Ratio. The idea behind the book is that the professional kitchen cook or chef uses certain ratios in their cooking, even if they’re not aware that they’re doing so. Therefore, by teaching the novice cook to use these same ratios, anyone can learn to cook. Personally, this concept fits fully into my idea of geek – that anyone can learn to do anything given enough time and patience.

Two weeks ago, I managed to cook some really nice chicken on the grill for my family for dinner and did so without specific aid from the internet, merely with some tips I half remembered from watching various cooking shows. My wife was quite pleased, both that she didn’t have to cook and that the expensive grill was seeing more than one use per year. So I’m planning on trying again soon.

However, there are things I have learned about myself in the attempts so far:

  1. The fun is in trying, most times I could care less about the final result. In fact, I’m usually planning the next assault while still enjoying the fruits of my labor.
  2. It may take me six months or a year to get around to it, but I will get to it and try it eventually. Whether this is cooking or learning javascript, it will happen someday.
  3. I have to do it myself. Give me all the advice you want, it won’t make sense until I have royally cocked it up all on my own. That’s when your advice will make sense, now that I know how not to do it.

Where I go from here, I’m not actually sure, but I’m looking forward to giving it a go.

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Filed under Learning From the Master, Left From Seattle, True Thoughts on True Life

6 Series

The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2006 (The Best American Series)
David Bowie's Low (33 1/3) (33 1/3)
Uncle John's Curiously Compelling Bathroom Reader
My 'Dam Life: Three Years in Holland (Lonely Planet Journeys (Travel Literature))
Travelers' Tales Japan: True Stories (Travelers' Tales Guides)
Finding Serenity: Anti-Heroes, Lost Shepherds and Space Hookers in Joss Whedon's Firefly (Smart Pop

Some series that I have been reading a lot of recently:

The Best American Nonrequired Reading
This series, edited by Dave Eggers, is put together through the 826 Valencia project.  As I understand it, students submit their picks for the best reading they have come across, whether it is fiction, non-fiction, news, or comic, and then a team of students edit the best submissions into a book, with help from a professional guest editor.  This is an excellent series and an interesting way to keep in touch with the zeitgeist.

33 1/3 Series
Truthfully, I have not started this series yet, but the book pictured is on its way from Amazon as I write this. The idea behind this series is a single book, by a single author for each of the great albums.  I opted to start with David Bowie's Low, while the friend that recommended the series to me started with the Beastie Boys' Paul's Boutique.  At the moment there are 38 books covering a wide range of classic albums by a variety of authors.  It looks quite promising.

Bathroom Readers
Uncle John's Bathroom Readers are, hands down, the best books of trivia and minutia out there.  With a wide topical focus and varying lengths of articles, the books are designed to be read in the bathroom.  Or anywhere else where one may have anywhere from a few seconds to half an hour to kill.  Uncle John's Curiously Compelling is the most recent wide-focused book, but there are several others including the "Uncle John Plunges Into" sub-series.  Good to keep around for, well, you know.

Lonely Planet Journeys
Lonely Planet Journeys are a little hit and miss, but when they do hit, they contain some of the best travel narrative to be found.  I have recently ordered "My 'Dam Life" by Sean Condon, after having read his books "Sean and David's Long Drive" and "Drive Thru America", also in the Journeys series.  Others in the series have left me a little flat, but overall the series has been well enough edited that I keep returning to it whenever I need a travel fix.

Travelers Tales
Speaking of travel fixes, the Travelers Tales series is an interesting series collecting various pieces of travel essay, narrative, and story from a myriad of sources, including their own online magazine, and then collecting them in regional books.  The book on Japan was one of the few books I read about Japan before moving here, and every subsequent book I have read (Hong Kong, China, Brazil) has had me wanting to up shop and move all over again.  They are just that compelling.

Smart Pop Books

This last series, from publisher BenBella Books, is one I just came across recently.  In short, the books are collections of essays about various pop licenses, usually television shows (Lost, C.S.I, Firefly) or movies (Star Wars, the Matrix) with a few overarching media properties as well (007).  This is another new series for me; so far I am only about half way finished with "Finding Serenity", a collection about the television show "Firefly" and the movie "Serenity", and am quite enjoying it.  In fact I am enjoying it enough that I have already ordered books from on 007 and Star Wars from the same series.

And that's it.  These are the six non-fiction series that I go to whenever I want something to read; these are the series that I buy without reservation and that I recommend to friends and family or have had recommended to me.

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