Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Columns

September 21, 2012

Mastering the fine art of cooking at home

Partially to save money usually spent in the drive-through and partially because my oven heats my apartment up much quicker than anything else, I am trying to cook at home more this fall and winter.

The desire to start opening the oven up more and try some new dishes comes from much more than a lighter wallet and colder living quarters. I recently finished Julia Child’s “My Life in France” and have moved on to Peter Mayle’s “A Year in Provence.” A reread of Frances Mayes “Under the Tuscan Sun” is up next. Though these foodie books feed my literary appetite, they make my stomach growl.

The Food Network has also become my TV channel of choice and though Paula Dean’s show still makes my arteries clog, I have found myself glued to a show called “Restaurant Impossible.” The premise is simple: a celebrity chef has two days and $10,000 to turn a usually unclean, gross failing restaurant into a hit while emotionally remaking the owners. Of course, a lot of the things they are finding in restaurant kitchens have contributed to turning me off of food other people have made in the same way all those shows about hoarding make me compulsively clean and scrub every speck of dirt I can find.

I am nowhere near an expert cook. I rarely made my way into the kitchen to do anything but lick cake and cookie batter off the spoons and egg beaters until I was in my later teenage years. I am fairly adept at following recipe cards and cookbooks, though even if I follow the instructions perfectly mine never ends up like the example picture.

In an ideal world, I would come home, open the oven or microwave and there would be a perfectly cooked four course dinner already made for me.

Unfortunately, that is not the case. I am nowhere near advanced enough to touch “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” and barely can get my way through some of the recipe in the spiral-bound “Betty Crocker” cookbook I have with all of those simple (or supposedly simple) recipes for basic things like baked chicken, chocolate pie, meat loaf and lasagna. A lot of the time, however, instead of turning to my cookbooks I find myself searching whatever ingredients I have in my fridge online to see if I can mish-mash them into some cohesive dish.

So far, I have learned a few things in my brief foray into becoming my apartment’s “Top Chef.” Though I am nowhere near having a “specialty,” there are some dishes I am starting to get the hang of. I can make a pretty mean chicken Kiev. It isn’t fancy and definitely would fail all of those Food Network “plating” competitions, but it tastes great. I usually make a meal for four and then save the extras for later lunches and dinners.

Being that I could make chicken Kiev, chicken Parmesan wasn’t too much of a challenge either, and since I could make chicken Parmesan I thought other Italian chicken dishes would come as easily.

My attempt at lemon chicken piccata taught me one thing: I am not a big fan of capers. I didn’t even know what they really were until the recipe called for them and, after fifteen minutes of scouring shelves, I finally found one teeny-tiny bottle of capers near the olive oil. It wasn’t worth all that effort. I quickly scraped the capers off my dish after one bite.

Taco salad is another dish I am getting the hang of, though my meat gets a real boost from those pre-made sauce packs.

Being a big seafood lover, I find myself experimenting with fish more than anything. Lemon, pepper and butter or olive oil seem to be a fail-safe combination. I prefer my tilapia and catfish with some sort of lemon pepper combo on the grill. However, my salmon experimentation is leading me to go with some sort of butter-olive oil marinade. I still have plenty of experiments to do on that front.

While I am confined to rice and potatoes of the instant variety, I do try to mix it up. I don’t always get mashed potatoes but switch it up with au gratin and scalloped.

I’m not exactly sure what the difference between au gratin and scalloped is, but the boxes look different. I also get a lot of Spanish rice in addition to the instant-white variety.

The one side dish I am confident in is my mushrooms. I love mushrooms of just about any variety raw and cooked. I find a splash of olive oil and a little pepper go a long way to producing good sautéed mushrooms. I usually eat them first before anything else on the plate.

Cooking has been hit and miss. I find myself calling my mother and grandmother constantly for questions about substitutions, ingredients and other things they probably think are insane. I’m no Betty Crocker and I’ll never be Julia Child, but at least I won’t starve.

Kate Coil is a reporter at the Daily Telegraph. Contact her at kcoil@bdtonline.com

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