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.