cooking repertoire challenge

By way of an introduction to my queries about people's personal cooking repertoires, I'm going to include a few excerpts from chapter 22 of the book I reviewed earlier, Cooking for Mr. Latte:

A few months ago, when visiting Tad's parents, I noticed one of his mother's cookbooks lying on the kitchen counter. It was opened to a recipe for slow-roasted turkey.... Over the years, Elizabeth had kept a record of her efforts to refine the recipe: "1977," one note read, "12 lb. turkey took 4 hours including 1/2 hour browning." Another note read, "make tent of foil over all."... I mentioned this to Tad. "I hope someday to have recipes like that," I said. "You know, ones that I'll return to for years and years." Tad nodded. "It's a good idea. You don't really seem to have a repertoire." He was right. Although I have a few favorite dishes, I rarely make them... When you make a dish again and again, altering it to your liking, it becomes an expression of your aesthetic, of your palate, of who you are. ...People used to learn to cook by making dishes in their mother's or grandmother's repertoire. But now that cooking is no longer a necessity, very few people do this, which is probably why many young people may never cook. Without a handful of recipes to start you off, cooking seems overwhelming. There are too many choices. ...Having your own stash of recipes also allows you to travel anywhere and cook in anyone's kitchen. If you can roast a chicken, make a salad and bake a simple cake, you will be a prized guest.

(Note: Confusingly, the author's fiance is named Tad - as is my husband. My mother-in-law's name is Marilyn - and she's never cooked a slow roasted turkey for us. -rl)

In chapter 24, the author goes on to discuss futher refinement of her own repertoire and the handful of recipes that made the cut: her mother's chocolate cake recipe and her mom's peach tart recipe, a greek tagliatelle recipe she got from a book she was reviewing, a linguine with arugala and Meyer lemon recipe she adopted from a friend.

All this talk of cooking repertoires made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up, because I have been contemplating this very concept for the past couple years. I have been methodically collecting recipes for years and finally have a huge accordion folder full of recipes in addition to a nice little selection of cookbooks; however I recently realized that I only have a small handfull of recipes I make repeatedly and have commited to heart and can reproduce at a moment's notice. And most of them are cookie recipes, which is not quite the well-rounded repertoire that I would love to have as my 'cooking arsenal.' If I were to list my own repertoire now, the list would only contain chocolate chip cookies, Gingerbread Tiles, different variations of my Impromptu Beef Salad, and basic pasta with lemon and olive oil; definitely nothing to merit 'prized guest status' quite yet. I think I'd like to add at least one main roast course, and at least one or two basic cooked veggie dishes for the vegan husband to enjoy.

So here are my challenges to the Gastonome Collective:
* What is in your cooking repertoire? How did you find the dishes?
* What do you wish could be in your repertoire? Is there a dish you would like to become more proficient at?
* Want to share a recipe from your own arsenal? Why not post it to Gastronome, then leave a link in the comments on this post, so we can follow the thread?

Posted by rebecca on October 18, 2003 | TrackBack

I'll start with a few thoughts - i'm still working through what is in my repertoire...

Russell and i were talking, and observed that things cycle in and out, and morph - i think, though, that i have the Cook's Illustrated equivalent of "master recipes" that i alter over time. They include:

Soups: Roasted red pepper. Potato leek (adaptable to be green garlic, easily). Butternut squash. Mushroom soup. Turkey noodle (important that it be made with leftover turkey.) Sopa de ajo.

Tofu scramble - the accompaniments vary depending on who is over and what is in the house; everything from some simple veggies to sausage and herbs and pesto.

Fried potatoes - again, sometimes with veggies - corn and red peppers are a favorite.

Roasted chicken. I can make this anywhere, and it will be fantastic. I will always fail to carve it attractively. ;) Mashed potatoes for any dietary need except low-carb ones.

Roasted fish. The flavorings can vary, or be nothing but salt and pepper - but give me a good piece of fish and an oven, and i can make a tasty entree.

Grilled tasty things. Present me with a grill full of hot coals, and i can do nice things with almost any fish, fowl, mammal, or plant that's meant to be tasty & smokey. Grilled bread is actually one of the standards in my arsenal - it's incredibly simple, and insanely good.

Pasta with browned butter, shallots or garlic, fresh herbs, and veggies (snap peas, asparagus, and zucchini are favorites). Sometimes with pancetta and parmesan grated over the top. is a nice example.

Risotto. This is one of Russell's repertoire, as well.

Coconut rice. A lovely side for anything with an asian twist.

Free-form tarts, or gallettes. These are great - you can put sweet or savory inside, and serve them anytime of the day. As long as you can get your hands on some butter and flour, and something to put inside, you can dazzle anyone.

Saffron-sausage pasta sauce.

A killer caesar salad.

A lovely salad of weedey greens, dried cherries, blue cheese, pistachios, and a balsamic dressing. Or one with romaine, apples, avocado, red bell peppers, and a spicy chipotle dressing. Actually, salad dressings at all - i can make a good one up out of almost anyone's pantry. (I thank the PhDs i worked under in college - when we were in Tampa, they taught me the Very Scientific Base of A Dressing - which has served me well throughout the years.)

Fizzy lemonade-based cocktails and mocktails. A flawless gin & tonic. A great gingered lime-drop. A perfect cup of coffee.

Triple chocolate cookies. Molasses-ginger cookies. (Though i need the recipes to make these, surely.)

Sorbet. I can make a yummy sorbet out of almost anything appealing - minted sugar syrup, fruit juices, wine.

(Keep in mind that i've been slowly adding to and documenting my repertoire for years - please don't feel intimidated! Post yours!) I do wish i could add more breads - i can make them, but i don't have a feel for them at ALL. I would not be comfortable making them in someone else's kitchen, or very often for guests at all.

Posted by: meriko on October 18, 2003 7:06 PM

As I've stated here before, I don't really cook. (I heat things. I prepare food from packages. etc.) My cooking habits have seriously regressed over the years. I started out in my teens, when I first became a vegetarian, cooking and baking all the time. I was excited about learning how to cook vegetarian dishes. I bought cookbooks and tried lots of new things. However, over the years, I cook actual dishes from recipes very infrequently. It's gone from once a week to once a month to, now, once every couple of years. When I worked in an office, there used to be occasions and events that would draw me into the kitchen to prepare something for a potluck or party - a stew, a casserole, some corn muffins. But these days I don't find it's worth my time to prepare a real meal for just the two of us after a long day of whatever we've been doing.

However, I have gotten into making soup or stew in the winter over the last few years. Also, over the last month, I've been pulling up some of the Hungarian recipes my grandmother used to make. I'm considering trying to make vegetarian versions of them over the long cold Wisconsin winter. Could be fun and I really miss some of those dishes.

Posted by: Stephanie on October 20, 2003 9:18 PM

It's like Beca said. My repertoire is the dishes I learned how to make by watching my mom and grandmother do them. I can cook other stuff and I do, but in those cases I sort of feel like I'm finding my own way, whereas for things from the Eastern European Jewish kitchen it feels more like instinct. I'm never gonna mess up a schnitzel, or blintzes, or chicken soup (although I *did* mess up blintzes a while ago by using some bizarro hippie cottage cheese from Whole Foods that I didn't taste prior to mixing up and filling the blintzes -- bad idea!) Anyway, the result is kind of funny in the sense that here we are in California in 2003, and my Mormon fiance, who swears he used to eat jello with cut up hot dogs in it as a kid, has come to enjoy eating like a Polish Jew from the turn of the century.

But, as Stephanie also pointed out, it often seems like too much trouble to really cook, for just two people, after a long day. So, in truth, I don't really bust out the traditional cooking all that often. But it's what I think of when I think of dishes I know how to make, rather than the improvised combos of scramble with this-and-that or pasta-with-whatever-can-be-sauteed-and-tossed-together.

Posted by: Carmel on October 22, 2003 7:46 AM

(I skimmed over Mko's post again, and was reminded:) recently I've started making challah, the ritual sabbath bread. Bread baking takes a million years with all the rising and punching, so recently I tried preparing the dough through all the steps on a weekend when I had time, forming the loaves, and then freezing them before baking. It actually works! They take a while to thaw, longer than is convenient, so instead I've been thawing the frozen dough-loaves in the microwave, then baking. So for our past few Friday night sabbath dinners we've had from-scratch-hot-from-oven challah. I think the loaves do not rise as well as they would without the freezing and whatnot, but they look fine and they taste just right, and we don't need big ones anyway since it's just us.

Posted by: Carmel on October 22, 2003 7:53 AM

Did not have the talents of a cooking Mom or Grandma to start a repertoire from. However, friends & even an ex-husband have had their influences on me...

Papas con huevos con chorizo: absolutely the best breakfast dish (for meat eaters); goes nicely with a slightly spicy Bloody Mary

Baked Mac & White Cheddar Cheese: My kids turn they're noses up to Kraft. Hooray!

Pork tenderloin: olive oil, salt/pepper, fresh rosemary

Cranberry Nut Pumpkin bread: I make it every year; and its delicious. I very the chose of nuts.

Posted by: carolann on October 22, 2003 1:21 PM

Carolann -- have you ever tried Soyrizo? I just got some, and I've had omelettes made with it, and they are *wonderful*. Might be a way to share your papas con huevos with veggies. And would you share your mac n cheese recipe? I miss that from my own upbringing.

Most of the cooking I grew up with wasn't too worthy of being retained. Like the aforementioned mac n cheese - always made with velveeta. Sigh.

I do have - my stepmother's biscuits.
Tim's mom's scones and molasses cookies.

Sweet crepes and omelettes - I taught myself to make these because they fascinated me technically. It helps to have dogs to feed to ruined crepes too when you're learning.

Tortillas Espagna - god I love this dish. So good.

Seared ahi tuna is becoming a regular around here - especially with spicy citrus sauce.

I have a few favorite soups - black bean, lentil varietes - that I make over and over again.

Sweet potato oven fries with cinnamon and pepper.

Posted by: heather on October 24, 2003 11:44 AM

my mom has always been a great cook, as has my grandmother. i come from a large family and when the 30 or so of us would get together for the holidays there would always be lots of food. from my grandmothers matzo ball soup, to brisket, glazed ham, latkes you name it.

dinner was almost always home cooked, and spent with the 5 of us (immediate family) sitting at the table together. when i was growing up my mom was busy working and my father would often be the home parent. there came a time when mom was too busy to be the one to cook every night, so during the week my dad, the older of my two brothers and I each had a night to cook, (the baby brother was too young). so we all learned various meals. we were not allowed to make the same thing each time, or to make just sandwiches.

killer tuna melts, burritos, pasta, pizza, stir fry, softshell tacos, roasted chicken, with rice or potatoes. our having to cook had a really nice result both of my brothers are good cooks.

and there are still times when i go to visit my mom when she would prefer that i cook, cause she enjoys it so much.
or she asks me how i would make something and then does it the way i would and is surprised at how it turns out.

i have learned to make many different types of foods;

finnish pancakes, crepes, roasted/grilled/baked meats and fishes, soups, veggies, fancy baked things. the recipes i use the most only resemble their originals, as i have tweaked them over time and made them my own. i rarely measure so, unless i am baking or making something new much has become instinct.

i have started a small leather bound recipe book that i am trying to fill with the recipes i use the most, or like and want at my finger tips.

i read cookbooks and cooking magazines for pleasure, and what i read sinks in and gets merged with the other kitchen knowledge.

i love to cook, and i even love shopping for the food i am going to use, it can be so exciting. i enjoy feeding people. but i hate cleaning the kitchen. every kitchen should come with a reset button.

Posted by: karine on October 26, 2003 9:04 PM
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