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Cooking 101

In a post below, Tater mentioned that

“There comes a point where intuition takes over, and food is made better.”

I agree with one caveat: that you need to have a grasp of the basics in order to have an understanding of what culinary intuition means. For most people, the phrase, “tastes good” works — except it doesn’t.

The problem is that it’s so subjective. There are certain flavor combinations that work well together, like for instance, garlic with tomato and basil, or peanut butter and chocolate. Or capers, olives and anchovies. Or foie gras and Sauternes. Or pork chops and applesauce. Recognition comes with experience that only time can provide.

Then you have combinations that shouldn’t work or when you see them on paper, sound completely outlandish. Like pork belly and miso butterscotch. (See Tailor.) Or milk skin, hazelnut oil and black truffles. (See El Bulli.) Or broccoli cooked sous vide and paired with fish roe, crispy bread and grapefruit. (See Alinea.) You can bet however that Messrs. Mason, Adria and Achatz are at the top of their game. We’re mere mortals by comparison.

If someone were starting out learning how to cook, I would exhort them to start small. Don’t take on more than you can handle. Explore what “tastes good” really means. Once you’ve gained some experience, you’ll be ready to go out into the wide world in front of you. Until then, please for the love of god don’t think that Swedish meatballs are made by dumping a bottle of Tabasco into a pot full of grape jelly and ground pork as I had the misfortune of experiencing a few years ago.

Life is short. Why waste it on bad food?

Stewed midnight black beans with bacon and mirepoix, served over steamed rice

dried beans [1]
celery, chopped [2]
onion, diced
carrot, peeled and diced
red wine
kosher salt, to taste
cracked black pepper, to taste

Soak beans in cold water for 4 hours or overnight. Alternately, place in a pot with cold water to cover by 3″. Bring to a boil, cover and remove from heat. Let stand for about an hour. Drain and rinse.

Place in a pot with water to cover by 3″. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to medium-low. Simmer for about an hour. Drain.

Fry bacon until crisp. Drain off most of the fat, reserving 3-4 T. drippings. Saute onion in drippings or until onion takes on a bit of color. Add carrots, celery and celery leaves. Saute for 3-5 minutes, stirring frequently. Deglaze with red wine. Add beans and 1/4 cup water. Add a pinch of salt and pepper. Bring to a boil and cook for five minutes, then reduce heat and cook for 25-30 minutes or until beans are tender. If the liquid reduces, add more water. Check seasoning. Fold in chopped cilantro and serve immediately.


1. I used midnight black beans from Rancho Gordo. Highly recommended. Feel free to use any type of dried beans however.

2. Consider using some celery leaves. They lend an additional herbaceous note to the finished dish.

* * *

Glazed Chioggia beets with ginger-lemon sauce

Chioggia beets
unsalted butter
juice of half a lemon
1/2 t. ginger marmalade
chives, minced

Preheat oven to 375 F. Place beets in a glass baking dish, along with 1/4 cup water. Cover tightly with aluminum foil and roast for 45 minutes to 1 hour or until beets are easily pierced with a fork. Set aside. When cool enough to handle, peel, trim and quarter beets.

Melt butter over medium heat. Add beets, toss to coat. Add lemon juice and ginger marmalade. Stir or until beets are lightly coated with the glaze. Sprinkle with chopped chives and serve immediately.

Thanks to Kusala for the idea.

4 replies »

  1. Your point is well taken, but nothing is as instructive as abject failure. I still remember the time when I was seventeen, and I made pancakes and put chocolate chips and American cheese between the layers.

    I think having the experience of making foods so good and so bad that they thrill or repulse you right down to your viscera is critical to the development of a great cook.


  2. Sure, experience is a great teacher. So is educating yourself: watch cooking shows, read books, attend classes, eat out when your budget can handle it, participate on food forums and blogs, ask questions.

    After a while, you’ll rely less on recipes and start to develop your own instincts. And those chocolate chip/American cheese crepes will be a thing of the past.

    It sounds like we agree. Just wait until I start talking about the “A” word. I’m sure that topic will be interesting. 😉


  3. Can’t wait to try out these recipes! Beets are one of my all time favorites, and I have been partial to roasting them with a drizzle of olive oil, and sprinkling them with goat cheese and pine nuts. I love alternate methods, however, and look forward to a change in taste. The bean recipe I am starting this morning…


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