Practical Tips for Cooking from Scratch

Practical Tips for Cooking from Scratch

Thanks everyone for chiming in this week — I think this has been the liveliest discussion yet here at LivingSmall and I’m just thrilled. So often, I feel like the lone crank in the wilderness bleating on about how food in boxes is terrible for you and it tastes bad. My cry of despair: Just cook something!

In light of that, I thought some practical links might be an appropriate way to close out the week.

Here’s a terrific site all about home cooking: Simply Recipes
It looks like the kind of place where you could find a solid recipe for just about any occasion, and Elise’s focus isn’t re-creating restaurant food, but creating good solid home food.

I also like 101 Cookbooks — she’s got a terrific piece up today about the recipe entry in Michael Ruhlman’s new book, The Elements of Cooking. Myself, I am not good at following recipes — I usually go off on a tangent someplace and the recipes I find myself going back to again and again are the ones that provide the kind of scaffolding that will allow this. My Beloved Stepmother and the Mighty Hunter are really good at following recipes — which is why they’re both much better Thai and Chinese cooks than I am (up here, if you want Thai food you have to learn to cook it yourself).

As for storage options — I blogged about getting rid of my plastic a few months ago. I ordered a lot of vintage pyrex refrigerator storage containers off of eBay which I’ve been thrilled with. I like that they have glass lids on them as well.

If you want real info on how to store food, I rely on Putting Food By — it’s got info on everything from canning to pickling to freezing.

As for cookbooks:

I learned to cook when I was broke in my 20s and living in NYC by reading James Beard’s duo: Theory and Practice of Good Cooking, and The New James Beard.

Patricia Wells Bistro Cooking is probably the most dog-eared book on my shelves. It’s also stuffed with clippings I’ve cut out of magazines or newspapers. I love this book — it’s my favorite kind of food, for one thing, and every single recipe works. It’s a bombproof book. Everything works. Everything’s delicious. And nothing requires exotic ingredients — it’s good, solid French food and you could easily use these recipes to feed a family.

I love Mario Batali’s Molto Italiano for many of the same reasons I love the Patricia Wells book. There are flavor combinations I wouldn’t have thought of — the lamb shanks with oranges and olives is beyond fabulous.

Staffmeals from Chanterelle would be a great cookbook for anyone feeding a family or looking to change up their weekly repetoire. It’s a collection of recipes that the restaurant feeds its own staff — I’ve used it a lot for parties. It’s all homey food: brisket, lamb shanks, macaroni and cheese, and some great summer barbecue potluck dishes. The potato salad is to die for. (Sadly, it seems to be out of print — maybe check Alibris or AbeBooks or your local used bookstore for a copy.)

What about you all? What are the tips and tricks you rely on to get dinner on the table? Was there a book that you think of as your core cookbook — the one you go back to again and again?

9 thoughts on “Practical Tips for Cooking from Scratch

  1. This has been a great series this week – thanks so much for posting them! We rely on a combination of easy meals that don’t require recipes – grilled meats with veggies, grilled cheese made with local ingredients, simple soups – most nights. A couple of nights a week, and on weekends I cook more “sophisticated” foods. Often tangents (good word) based on recipes from The New Best Recipe cookbook, or Nigel Slater’s Appetite.

    I love both of these for their explanations of why the recipe works and the included variations. Nigel in particular has helped me to become a much better cook over the years.

  2. We like recipes by Rick Bayless–good, simple, and amazingly tasty! His salsas are excellent with everything. Also, the King Arthur Flour Co. whole weat cookbook is just awesome. My husband swears by Alton Brown because he loves knowing the science behind why things work.

  3. Thanks for the book recommendations! I’ll be asking for Putting Food By for Christmas, for sure!

    I love the Joy of Cooking. I think it offers tons of recipes that are just what you mentioned… basic enough to offer a good jumping off point for some kitchen creativity. I was never interested in cooking when I was younger and had my mom around to teach me. I used JOC like a set of chemistry lab instructions for a few years to learn how to cook. When I discoved that I had lots of food allergies, I was forced into creativity in cooking. Now I just look at JOC for a general idea of ‘what to do with X’ and never really follow the recipe. It’s a great book, nonetheless. I love the “about” sections.

  4. How could I forget Joy? Are you using the new one that just came out? My friend Nina-of-the-4-children says it’s a huge improvement and she loves that everything she needs is in one book. I got all my jam and jelly-making instructions from Joy. I also like the Marion Cunningham revision of the Fannie Farmer Cookbook — particularly for baking.

  5. Thanks for all of the links, I’m looking forward to checking them out!

    I didn’t start to learn to properly feed myself (still working on it, frankly) until I chose to eliminate meat from my diet altogether. Suddenly everything I’d grown up with was out the window, and I had to start over. I picked up “Sundays at Moosewood,” the Moosewood tome that details some of their “international” dishes (it’s divided into countries or regions of the world, and there are a dozen or so recipes “from” each country). I still have a handful of favorites in it I go back to, plus a couple of recipes I’ve been meaning to try for years but never have. But most importantly, it helped me break out of my habitual ways of thinking about food, and helped me realize that a wider variety of foods, flavors, and experiences than I had ever imagined was available to me even at the big chain grocery stores — no specialty markets required!

    I’m not a vegetarian, for a variety of reasons, but I credit “Sundays at Moosewood” and subsequent Moosewood and vegetarian cookbooks with helping me eat much healthier than I had before.

  6. I’m big on soups – I hate that they’re so misunderstood! I find that many people think making soup is complicated and time-consuming, but there are plenty of soups that aren’t all-day events. Even if I come home spent, I’m low on groceries and don’t have any sort of dinner plan, I can always throw together a big pot of some kind of soup in time for dinner. It saves my bacon all the time. Plus, it comes with built-in, freezeable leftovers!

    I use recipes mainly for inspiration or reference, and I don’t have “a” cookbook that I’ve really worn out, but I do have a few that I really like. I make repeat visits to the original Moosewood Cookbook quite a bit, and I think “Hands Off Cooking” by Ann Martin Rolke is just brilliant. Her recipes allow you to just throw everything in a pan and walk away, which is great for a weeknight. My husband likes that one a lot, too – it does all the guesswork for him.

  7. Well, here in rural France the only ready-meals are the truly disgusting offerings from the large supermarkets that I, for one, wouldn’t give to my dogs, so I cook everything from scratch and using only seasonal, organic produce. If it’s locally produced so much the better but we’re a tad limited in Brittany when it comes to fruit, apples and pear a-plenty but nothing else. Still, this year has given me the chance to become a ‘real cook’ and both my wallet and my waistline are all the healthier for it. Thank you for the useful tips

  8. The first things that made me want to cook were the Time-Life Foods of the World series, which my parents had and I devoured when I was home from college; then, Martha Stewart’s early books, not so much for the exact recipes as for the ethic of craftsmanship that I felt she represented. (Me = mid-40s so I was reading her when she was fresh and not such a cultural monolith.) Looking at my shelf, the books that look most-loved are Rick Bayless’s first book “Authentic Mexican “and several each by Patricia Wells and Jamie Oliver.

  9. Don’t forget Julia Child’s “The Way to Cook”. Everything a beginner needs, and lots of good things for people who aren’t. It follows the “master/variant” style, which I love (because I can’t stick to a recipe either). Oh, and “Fine Cooking”, the magazine. Good instructions, good pictures. 😉 And a nice variety of things for everyone, plus a wonderful tendency to have recipes appropriate to the season and the produce available.

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