Thursday, July 22, 2010

Basic cooking skills a virtue?

I'm reading Anthony Bourdain's Medium Raw right now on my Kindle for iPhone, and in an essay called "Virtue," he argues that "basic cooking skills are a virtue, that the ability to feed yourself and a few others with proficiency should be taught to every young man and woman as a fundamental skill."

He suggests that every young man and woman should know how to perform the following tasks "in order to feel complete":

They should know how to chop an onion. Basic knife skills should be a must. Without that, we are nothing, castaways with a can – but no can-opener. Useless. Everything begins with some baseline with a sharp-bladed object, enough familiarity with such a thing to get the job done without injury. So, basic knife handling, sharpening, and maintenance, along with rudimentary but effective dicing, mincing, and slicing. Nothing too serious. Just enough facility with a knife to be on par with any Sicilian grandmother.

Everyone should be able to make an omelette. Egg cookery is as good a beginning as any, as it’s the first meal of the day, and because the process of learning to make an omelette is, I believe, not just a technique but a builder of character. One learns, necessarily, to be gentle when acquiring omelette skills: a certain measure of sensitivity is needed to discern what’s going on in your pan – and what to do about it.

I have long believed that it is only right and appropriate that before one sleeps with someone, one should be able – if called upon to do so – to make them a proper omelette in the morning. Surely that kind of civility and selflessness would be both good manners and good for the world. Perhaps omelette skills should be learned at the same time you learn to fuck. Perhaps there should be an unspoken agreement that in the event of the loss of virginity, the more experienced of the partners should, afterward, make the other an omelette – passing along the skill at an important and presumably memorable moment.

Everyone should be able to roast a chicken. And they should be able to do it well.

Given the current woeful state of backyard grilling, a priority should be assigned to instructing people on the correct way to grill and rest a steak. We have, as a nation, suffered the tyranny of inept steak cookery for far too long. There’s no reason that generation after generation of families should continue to pass along a tradition of massacring perfectly good meat in their kitchens and backyards.

Cooking vegetables to a desired doneness is easy enough and reasonable to expect of any citizen of voting age.

A standard vinaigrette is something that anyone can and should be able to do.

The ability to shop for fresh produce and have at least some sense of what’s in season, to tell whether or not something is ripe or rotten might be acquired at the same time as one’s driving licence.

How to recognise a fish that’s fresh and how to clean and fillet it would seem a no-brainer as a basic survival skill in an ever more uncertain world.

Steaming a lobster or a crab – or a pot of mussels or clams – is something a fairly bright chimp could do without difficulty, so there’s no reason we all can’t.

Every citizen should know how to throw a piece of meat in the oven with the expectation that they might roast it to somewhere in the neighbourhood of desired doneness – and without a thermometer.

One should be able to roast and mash potatoes. And make rice – both steamed and the only slightly more difficult pilaf method.

The fundamentals of braising would serve all who learn them well – as simply learning how to make beef bourguignon opens the door to countless other preparations.

What to do with bones (namely, make stock) and how to make a few soups – as a means of making efficient use of leftovers – is a lesson in frugality many will very possibly to learn at some point in their lives. It would seem wise to learn earlier rather than later.

Everyone should be encouraged at every turn to develop their own modest yet unique repertoire – to find a few dishes they love and practice at preparing them until they are proud of the result. To either respect in this way their own past – or express through cooking their dreams for the future. Every citizen would thus have their own speciality.

I'm not sure Tony's dream of reviving home ec (as a requirement for all high school students, of all genders) would ever be realized given the resource crisis in public schools today.  But otherwise, I'm pretty on board with his agenda.

That said, my knife skills are pretty wonky (I certainly don't know how to sharpen a knife, and you don't even want to know the terror I experience each time I have to pare a fruit), I like my fish pre-cleaned and filleted by the nice guys behind the seafood counter at Whole Foods, and while I'm sure I can steam a lobster, I'm not sure I want to (yes, I know their "screams" aren't really screams, but just the same . . .).

And I'd like to add to his list: everyone should know how to make pasta, al dente; to make a decent pot of tea; and to make one basic dessert, be it a cake, pie, or cobbler.

What do you think of Tony's prescription for good citizenry?   Have you mastered all of the tasks on his list?  And what would you add?


bailie marie July 22, 2010 at 5:16 AM  

Anthony Bourdain is very much my chef crush. When No Reservations is one there is a strict no talking policy!! However I am sure that one or two things on his list would be seriously bad in my hands!

(Sorry my last comment had a grammar error I could not stand)

lavenderpug July 22, 2010 at 8:16 AM  

it would be wonderful if we all knew how to do these things--i certainly don't--although it's quite lofty.

Woman with a Whisk July 22, 2010 at 8:32 AM  

Eh, I'm not sure I agree with everyone needing to know how to filet a fish or braise. Even if they're "easy," I'm just not sure it belongs in the average person's cooking repetoire (especially since, as you mention, the fish guy at Whole Foods is very pleasant and capable!). Adequate knife skills and care are a must for safety reasons. I agree with you on being able to cook pasta though, and I'd also add that one should be able to bake a loaf of bread.

charms July 22, 2010 at 11:33 AM  

i can do maybe half the things on that list somewhat poorly ha. although at some point in my life, i would love to master these.

i also have a crush on anthony bourdain. i saw him in the sf airport once and ogled him. he looked nervous that i was going to come over and harass him so i didn't but it was still exciting.

Mrs. Hot Cocoa July 22, 2010 at 12:19 PM  

@ bailie marie: He's my chef crush too. I pretty much have the Travel Chanel on all day long then there's a No Reservations marathon on TV!

@ lavenderpug: I can't do all of it either. But now I have a self-improvement program! ;-)

@ Woman with a Whisk: I thought of bread as well, but then I couldn't decide whether having a bread maker counts? I mean, I feel like even in the age of rice cookers, one should still know how to make rice on the stove, but does that extend to bread?

@ charms: I would have run up to him like a giddy fool, and he would have told me to go f#&k myself, and I would have loved it!

Cathleya July 22, 2010 at 2:32 PM  

Ah! Pretty proud I can do the majority of these tasks (I wouldn't go so far as to use the word "mastered" but ... "adequately complete and continuing to perfect" these tasks is more where I'm at). :) I'm with you on the fish one---We do buy whole fish on occasion but cook them whole without deboning or filleting---I have no idea how to do those things.

I don't believe my husband can do most of these, but one I think is so important to teach him is how to choose produce (smell the cantaloupes, choose the heaviest lemons, etc).

I only now realized that I have never roasted a chicken (but many times roasted turkeys... which should sort of count?). While I'm not one for chicken (I'd rather eat no meat at all than eat white meat chicken), I do think it's an important skill and one I'll try to learn soon!

Sugar July 22, 2010 at 4:29 PM  

I am 1/3 of a way through Medium Raw on my new Nook. Parts of it are so... raw? and kinda all over the place. But I think that's why I love him.
Haven't gotten to this section yet- I would totally fail on 80% of these tasks. It makes me feel like an uber lame cook, but my Husband would pass with flying colors- I think.

M and C July 22, 2010 at 5:26 PM  

I can do all of those things except the fish one. We buy whole fish but we get it cleaned first. I remember watching my Mom clean fish as a kid and thinking I would never cook fish if I had to clean it. I've never cooked whole live crab or lobster but think I could do it.

I have to read this book!

Try Anything Once Terri July 25, 2010 at 4:08 PM  

I'm also slowly making my way through the book too. I think Tony B.'s got a pretty good point. I think part of the reason we have a food crisis is because people have stopped cooking and eating more fast food. I have crap knife skills and don't really eat enough meat to justify learning to braise, but roasting a chicken? Sure. Why not?

Also I am slightly into tony B. myself. I had a very G rated (borderline PG though) dream about him a few weeks ago.

Mrs. Hot Cocoa July 25, 2010 at 11:09 PM  

@ Cathleya: I despise white meat too! Maybe this is an Asian thing?

@ Sugar: I'm totally with your assessment of the book. Some chapters are so exceptionally written and crafted, and others seem like he rambled into a dictaphone, hit print, and called it a day.

@ M and C: It's so interesting how all of us are leery of the fish cleaning. I wonder if it's a generational thing?

@ Try Anything Once Terri: Any man who can write with such passion about the sexiness of noodles seems like he'd be pretty hot in all other respects. ;-P

BigAppleNosh July 26, 2010 at 8:37 PM  

Looks like I have my work cut out for me!

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