My Christmas gift to myself!

A brief interlude for some fun stuff.

I keep calling this “my new precious”, but really, I can’t not adore everything about this:

I actually curled up in bed the other night and started reading it as I would any other book. Thankfully I did not fall asleep with it on my chest, as I tend to with any other book; The Tome is 890 pages, and weighs 6 pounds. That could have been… unfortunate.

This is a big deal for me because it’s the first cookbook I’ve ever bought. I’d been reading good reviews of it, and my boss at my library job (to whom I turn on a frequent basis for cooking advice) has spoken well of their magazines. She gave me an extra issue of CI last year through which I leafed, but I felt too intimidated to actually try anything in it – even though it covers all of the intricate details of cooking that other books don’t, like why certain recipes work and how many times they tried certain things before moving on.

What’s funny about initially feeling intimidated by CI is that the first real large meal in the past few years that I remember attempting – I guess you could call this my culinary awakening – was CI’s baked ziti. One of the first food blogs I ever started reading (I confess: it was mostly because of the pretty pictures), Annie’s Eats, had a ziti recipe that looked amazing. [Sidenote: I grew up eating my aunt’s and my mom’s baked zitis, and while they were quite good, I felt like something was missing. Plus, I was already familiar with most of what happens when you make baked ziti, so I felt like this was a recipe I could reasonably tackle. Not like, say, chicken Kiev, which I haven’t eaten since I was in Russia. But anyway.] My boyfriend had also recently hinted to me that he’d love to eat anything I cooked, so, bound and determined to win him over with my mad kitchen skills and prove to him that I was worth keeping around – we’d only been together about six months at this point – I decided to make it for his birthday.

[Here’s a link to that ziti recipe. Go spend some time browsing her blog, because it is awesome:

http://annies-eats.com/2009/07/02/baked-ziti/ ]

As you’ll note, at the end of the recipe Annie says that it’s adapted from Cook’s Illustrated, March/April 2009. This meant nothing to me when I first looked at the recipe; not that their stuff is complicated, but you have to understand that at this point in my cooking career (HA HA HA) I was the sort of person who had gotten really good at macaroni and cheese by adding my own shredded cheese to the blue-box Kraft stuff. If pressed, I could cook chicken in a pan, or brown some meat in a skillet, but by and large I was living off of Things You Can Boil and Things You Can Microwave. (Except for my apple pie. Actually, I was perfectly okay with baking things, but capital-C cooking was hopeless.) So I knew nothing of reading recipes ahead of time and figuring out what to do when, and what steps could be combined with others, and what could maybe wait a little until later in the order of things. I also knew nothing of laying out your tools and ingredients before starting in a way that makes it easy for you to move from one step to another. (For someone who lays her clothes out for the next day the night before, you’d think this would have been a snap. But no!) Which is why when I turned on the water to boil the pasta, I had no idea I was stepping into something that ended up being way, way over my head.

After a couple of hours of panic and sweat and wondering why people actually did this sort of thing for fun, my ziti was cooling off on top of the stove and waiting to be eaten. Ultimately, it was delicious, though I had omitted a few things here and there in the interest of saving time and sanity. But the next time I made that dish, I made sure to re-arrange the order of things to make them sensible, not to mention prepare my kitchen beforehand. Things went much more smoothly, and I was much less stressed, and even thought it was sort of maybe a little entertaining. Plus, I felt proud of myself – it tasted good, and I’d done it all by myself. I did also eventually include the ingredients I’d omitted, and it tasted even better, leading me to believe that whoever wrote this recipe knew what they were talking about. (Ahem.)

So when, a couple of years later (i.e. now), when it became apparent to me after months and months of playing around with food and tweaking things and assembling recipes from friends and family and online sources, I didn’t think twice when I saw that this cookbook was on sale. (I did eventually notice that the ziti recipe was CI’s, and I laughed, because it figures that I would metaphorically go down the black diamond slope over the bunny slope.*) I feel that I’m at the stage in my cooking that I can start pushing myself, and really learn a lot, and this seems to be the best way to get there. Plus, I love all the science-y things about it; my inner chemist is fascinated by the ways in which ingredients interact. So, I’ll be writing here about recipes from this book that I try, and reporting their success – or failure, which may well be the case. It’s my hope that there’s a lot in here that’s useful, especially since I have to be very careful about what I eat these days.

Wish me luck! (First up: sautéed zucchini with garlic and lemon as a side dish!)

EDIT: The zucchini came out really nicely. I accidentally did a step too late, but I think that when I fix that it will be just as good. Hooray!

BONUS EDIT: I later made some chicken to add to a pasta sauce that I’d pre-made; I used one of the chicken recipes from here and was spooked by the less-than-five-minutes’ cooking time for the chicken that the recipe called for, but it came out beautifully. I am in love with this book!

*This metaphor is not without basis: the very first time I went skiing, in high school, I made a wrong turn at the top of the mountain and actually did go down the black diamond instead of the easy green hill I’d meant to navigate. “Go down” is a really nice way of saying that I fell down the majority of it and ended up tangled in the orange mesh they put up on the sides so you don’t fall off into a crevice. Ayup.

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