What I taught my friend to cook

For those unfamiliar with Teach Your Neighbor to Cook Week, you can check out the full explanation. The brief explanation is that I wanted to encourage people to pass along cooking knowledge directly to people who are unsure how to cook, or perhaps unsure how to make a particular dish.

For my student, I chose my friend Kristen, whom I have heard on several occasions say that she really couldn't cook well. I felt sure that this wasn't true, and TYNTCW seemed like a great opportunity to see if I could help her past whatever it was that was holding here back in cooking. She was pleased to help me out.

To choose a dish, I left things open-ended and asked, basically, what she wanted to learn. This probably wasn't the best way to go, because as anyone who's tried to pick a place to eat lunch with someone else knows, open-ended is usually trouble. I probably should have suggested a few options for her to choose from.

Kristen suggested perhaps some sort of protein and sauce. In these cases, my mind usually jumps to a pan-fried steak in a reduction sauce, but Melanie suggested that perhaps steak was a bit fiddly for this first lesson, and she was almost certainly correct. instead, I offered to teach Chicken Piccatta, which has several steps, all of them relatively simple, so would make a fine example to teach. Also, I wrote an article on it for Fine Cooking, so at one point in the past couple of years I made many many batches of it, so I should be ready for just about any sort of question related to its preparation.

I figured that, as a bonus, we could even roast some vegetables, which is east and can happen in the background. That way we could enjoy a nice, balanced meal after all of our efforts were complete. Kristen arrived, we chatted for a bit about what was going to happen, and I made us some AYFS citrus soda. After everyone was fully relaxed, we got into it.

Making Chicken Piccatta goes pretty much like this:

  • Cut chicken pieces so that each piece is roughly uniformly thick
  • Pound out all the pieces so that they are very thin.
  • Cover evenly with flour
  • Cook in a pan until golden brown and delicious
  • Make a pan sauce from the fond, wine, and lemon juice, adding some capers if you are of the mind
  • Combine and eat

Another advantage of this dish was that, while there were all the steps, there really wasn't anything going on that couldn't be stopped for a minute or two if explanations needed to be made. As we got into it, I could tell that Kristen intellectually knew much of what I was teaching her from watching cooking shows on television, so it really wasn't knowledge that she was lacking.

Eventually, I discovered that Kristen's lack of confidence came because of some cooking disasters, and those disasters came because she was trying to do other things while she cooked, such as laundry and dishes and anything else that needed doing. So much of properly cooking is paying attention to what the food is trying to tell you, and she didn't spare that attention.

If it all worked from timers and exact temperatures and uniform cooking conditions, then she probably would have been fine with a good recipe and the proper equipment instead of focusing on the food. I told her that most of my cooking problems, which certainly do happen, usually also happen because of a lack of attention to the food. The more practiced you are, the more you can multi-task, because you will know exactly what to pay attention to and when, but if you find yourself in a situation where a few meals in succession aren't going as well as you thought, it might be time to focus on what you're doing for a while.

In the end, much chicken was cooked, and aside from a couple of demonstrations with cutting, flattening, and cooking, Kristen did all the work. She was pleased with the results, and made the dish again later that week, and she made it successfully.

For the eagle-eyed readers, you might noticed a lack of description about the side dish. The lack of mention is because we didn't end up doing it. I suppose we focused so much that I forgot about it. A checklist is probably a good thing to include for any future lessons.

I am curious how each of you did with your lessons. Please post in the comments a link to your article on how it went, or write up the story there if you don't have your own blog. Was focus the main problem with your students as well, or was there something different? I'm sure the reasons were many and varied.

Teach Your Neighbor to Cook Week

This is going to be a somewhat long post, with some background and philosophy and the like, but the end message is important and worth stating up front:

On the week of September 20th, I would like for any of you with a blog who enjoys cooking to find someone (a friend, family member, or someone in your community) and teach them how to cook something, then post about it. You can do the teaching at any point, but post about it on the week of September 20th. If you don't have a blog or other publishing platform, and you'd still like to join in, please do find someone to teach. You can post about it in the comments or just skip that step; the teaching is the important bit.

I started blogging about food because I wanted to try to teach other people to cook. This wasn't an entirely altruistic decision; the blog started as a school project, so I had good reason to start writing. Also, I know that the best way to learn something is to try to teach it to someone else, and I really wanted to learn a lot more about food and cooking. Still, ultimately, I wanted to teach, and I wanted to inspire.

As with many people, I've watched a lot of cooking shows on the  Food Network, PBS, and wherever else they happen to pop up. Except Fit TV; I avoid those cooking shows. Most of them are what are often referred to as "Pour and Stir" shows, when the host has a bunch of ingredients, dumps them into a pot, stirs them together, and a dish is made. Food Network had gotten a reputation as a Food Porn channel because the shows were all flash and little substance; they got people interested in the food, but rarely would someone make food or learn much from the process.

The major counter-example to this is Good Eats. It is no surprise to anyone that I am an Alton Brown fan, and that he was one of the major influences of what I've done here on The Food Geek and elsewhere. His show is much more effective at getting people to cook and understand what is going on in the food.

Still, with cooking shows on television, and even recipe books and, yes, blogs, these can all be a passive experience. You can watch them or read them, and you can admire them, but in the end, you don't have to do anything with them. They can be as real to you books or TV shows or blogs about vampires, whether sparkly or not.

Back before mass media and worldwide niche media, we learned to cook by learning, whether from a relative or in a professional setting. Learning in a professional setting still exists, but I think we've lost a lot of the personal teaching and learning that comes from sitting with Grandma while she bakes a pie. That's a shame.

There are some things that are a lot better learned in real life than from a distance. My favorite example is the feel of dough, whether noodle or bread or gnocchi or pie. If you can feel, just once, what a dough feels like when it's really ready to be turned into its final product, then you know so much more than you can get from the best description in a book.

Now, many of you reading this have probably learned a lot from relatives or friends, which is great. But I know people, and I suspect you do as well, who believe that they cannot cook, and maybe feel that they could never learn. They may not have had the interest or the opportunities to learn, and there is so much food so easily available that need no more work than driving up to a window or putting into a microwave in order to be sustenance.

So I want to change that, and I'd like you to help me. The start of this is something I am calling "Teach Your Neighbor to Cook Week." It's a gift that you give to one or two people, in order to help them learn to make something that they couldn't make before, and maybe something that they were afraid to try.

On the week of September 20th, I would like for any of you with a blog who enjoys cooking to find someone (a friend, family member, or someone in your community) and teach them how to cook something, then post about it. You can do the teaching at any point, but post about it on the week of September 20th. If you don't have a blog or other publishing platform, and you'd still like to join in, please do find someone to teach. You can post about it in the comments or just skip that step; the teaching is the most important bit.

If you are one of those people who believes you can't cook, then try the opposite: find someone to teach you how to make something. Maybe it's a secret family recipe, maybe it's something your friend served when you went over to dinner the other night. Learn, and then tell us how the process went.

Things that would be great to see in the write-ups for the experience are what you taught or learned, if you had any trouble finding a student or teacher, how you prepared for the process, what went right, what went wrong, and what you would do differently if you did it again.

For the person I teach, it will be a completely free experience. If you are short of means, then maybe the student could bring supplies, but even if you are a professional cooking instructor, avoid charging for the lesson. This will be much more meaningful as a gift than as a commercial exchange.

If you have any questions, ask here or on Twitter. I'll update this post with any questions and their respective answers as I can.