Help Me Kick It Up a Notch!
April 3, 2012 8:06 PM   Subscribe

Looking for basic recipes to increase my culinary expertise

I want to kick my cooking/food preparation up a notch. I'd like to go classes in the future yet want to do some changes now.

I am looking for dishes to prepare that are a notch above basic, not hyper-gourmet (what I mean by this is super long preparation time, an insane amount of ingredients (obscure and otherwise) and cookware that can only be bought at Williams-Sonoma). Not super-easy and not superhard

Mostly something that a date and friends would be impressed with

Meats, Cassaroles, Vegetable Dishes, Breads, Pies and Pastries, Desserts and more. Baked, layered dishes would be the most challenging.
posted by goalyeehah to Food & Drink (19 answers total) 45 users marked this as a favorite
This might come from Reddit, the recipes below may be doubled.

1 tablespoon butter
1 tablespoon flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup milk or 1/2 cup evaporated milk and 1/2 cup water

2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup milk or 1/2 cup evaporated milk and 1/2 cup water

3 or 4 tablespoons butter
3 tablespoons flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup milk or one half cup evaporated milk and 1/2 cup water

Melt butter in a sauce pan and whisk in flour and salt until smooth. Gradually stir in cold milk, cooking over direct heat and stirring constantly until sauce boils; reduce heat slightly and continue to stir until sauce becomes smooth and thick. When sauce thickens, simmer for an additional 10 minutes over very low heat, stirring occasionally.

Stir carefully to avoid lumps. If sauce becomes lumpy, use a stick blender or rotary beater to blend out lumps or else press through a sieve. Wondra flour may be used to great advantage since this flour does not have a tendency to lump.

Make one of the white sauces above, and stir in 1/4 - 1 whole cup of grated sharp Cheddar or Monterey Jack or other sharp cheese. Stir until cheese melts. One quarter to one half cup of chopped jalapeno peppers may be added for Nacho cheese sauce.

Using thin white sauce, add 4 teaspoons of grated prepared horseradish and 1/2 teaspoon dry mustard to 1 cup of sauce.

Add 1 teaspoon of prepared mustard to one cup of thin white sauce. Serve with ham.

Add 2 or 3 teaspoons of grated onion to 1 cup of thin white sauce. Serve with salmon or salmon loaf, meatloaf, potato pancakes, or crab or fish cakes.

Add one half cup sour cream to one cup of medium white sauce. Serve with cheese blintzes, waffles or potato latkes. Add 1 teaspoon each of chopped fresh chives and dill and serve as a topping for baked potatoes.

Add white sauce to cooked, boned chicken and mixed vegetables with a teaspoon of low sodium chicken soup base or bouillon and a pinch of rubbed sage; mix well and pour into a pie filling; cover with top crust and crimp to seal; bake at 350°F about 45 minutes or until golden to make an easy chicken pot pie.

Other Uses for White Sauce:
White sauce can be used as a starter for making creamed soups. Puree a vegetable, such as cooked carrots, cooked celery, cooked mushrooms, potatoes, and add along with milk or cream to white sauce to make a soup which can be used to make casseroles (replacing store bought "Cream of Mushroom", "Cream of Celery", etc. Or add chopped cooked chicken or beef and frozen mixed vegetables and serve over popovers.

White sauce may be flavored by adding 1 teaspoon of low sodium Soup Base or bouillon. Or make gravy by adding roast drippings and a few drops of soy sauce, Gravy Master or Kitchen Bouquet.
posted by furtive at 8:22 PM on April 3, 2012 [10 favorites]

Carbonara Pasta

3 egg yolks, room temperature
1/2 c. Parmesan cheese
salt and pepper
2 cloves minced garlic
pinch of red pepper flakes (optional)
2 tbs. olive oil
1/4 lb. pancetta, or bacon diced
1 lb. spaghetti

Beat egg yolks, set aside. Bring large pot of water to a boil, add salt. In a large frying pan, sauté pancetta in olive oil until crisp, about 5 minutes. Remove with slotted spoon.
Meanwhile, cook pasta according to directions until barely al denté. Sauté garlic in same frying pan 1-2 minutes, don't brown. Add drained pasta to garlic. Turn off heat.
Sprinkle red pepper flakes in, if desired, and pancetta. Pour eggs over pasta, and toss immediately until completely combined. Toss with Parmesan until combined.
Serve with extra cheese.
posted by furtive at 8:25 PM on April 3, 2012 [3 favorites]

Learn to make the condiments and sauces that you would ordinarily buy at the store. Things like pesto, hummus and tomato sauce will all taste better when you make them from scratch with good ingredients. Plus once you understand the basic recipes you will know what tweaks you can make. When you have guests, they will be impressed not only with the flavor of the dishes but the fact that you went through the effort to make something from scratch.
posted by mmascolino at 8:53 PM on April 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

I suggest reading the chapter "How to Cook like a Pro" in Anthony Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential. If you can make a few things like caramelized shallots and mirepoix they will take any dish up a level. Also, getting some good, unsalted butter and using a lot of it.
posted by BibiRose at 9:08 PM on April 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

Season some short ribs with salt and pepper. In a deep, heavy-bottomed pot, brown the ribs on all sides, about 2 minutes. Remove ribs to a plate.

Add some sliced onion to the same pot and sweat the onions over medium high heat until they are soft and translucent. If you'd like some minced garlic, add it at this point. Season with salt.

Add the ribs back in to the pot in a single layer, along with some red wine, some beef broth, and a bundle of fresh herbs. Any combination of parsley, bay leaf, thyme, or sage would work here. The liquid should almost cover the meat. Season again with salt.

Get the braising liquid up to a boil, then put the lid on the pot and reduce to a simmer. Braise for about an hour, or until the ribs start to fall off the bone.

Serve with polenta and a green salad. Do yourself a favor and make the vinaigrette, too. It's easy, and so much better than anything from the store.
posted by Gilbert at 10:38 PM on April 3, 2012

Can you cook seafood and shellfish well? When I like to play, seafood is my go-to protein. It's so flippin' HARD to cook right. Yet, so easy when you nail it. I love a challenge!

- Learn to prep and roast a Whole Fish.

- Master Sushi, and especially making Sushi Rice.

- Learn how to open an Oyster.

- Practice steaming Mussels and Clams properly.

- Master how to sear Scallops.

- Make the BEST Clam Chowder you've ever had!

- Learn to butcher fish.

- Make this Lobster Recipe from Thomas Keller. (It's on page 133 in the French Laundry cookbook, if the link did not work.)

- Learn to deep fry Fish and Shellfish.

- Make a kick-ass Seviche.

I could go on! Have FUN.
posted by jbenben at 12:05 AM on April 4, 2012

A couple of earlier answers with recipes you might like: caramelized onions / French onion soup, Thai peanut chicken. Other answers on those threads may also be enlightening.

And, what the hey, here we go--beef stew:

Beef (chuck or other cut suitable for stew)
Pepperoncini, 1 jar or slightly less, with brine
Beer or sake
Dehydrated beef stock

Reconstitute the beef stock with the beer or sake (I use sake and Better than Bouillon beef stock concentrate) and add all the ingredients, appropriately chopped or diced. The heuristic I generally use is that one should have about one part each by volume of beef, onions, celery, carrots, and potatoes; a pressed clove or two of garlic; about 4/5 of a jar of pepproncini; and enough stock to cover the lot.

In any event, put it in the Crock-Pot for about six hours on high or ten on low, then check that the potatoes and carrots are soft and the beef is thoroughly cooked.

Bon appetit!
posted by tellumo at 12:49 AM on April 4, 2012

How to cook a really top notch steak.
How to cook fish properly.
Custard from first principles (i.e. not custard powder!)
Your own ice cream or sorbet.
Fish en papillote.
A good indian curry from scratch (make your own paste)
Thai green curry ditto
Your own stock, and after that your own demi-glace.
posted by emilyw at 2:10 AM on April 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

The first 100 pages of Tom Colicchio's Think Like A Chef offer unusually clear and readable explanations of basic techniques like roasting, braising, sauteing, stock-making and sauce-making. Ingredient lists in the sample recipes are short. Processes are kept simple. Some recipes do call for unusual ingredients, but plenty don't.

In The Man Who Ate Everything, there's a whole chapter devoted to Jeffery Steingarten's quest to understand how to make great pies. Pie is crust with stuff in it, and he gives a meticulous several-page recipe/explanation for crust, along with several fruit filling options.

Try one of the no-knead bread recipes, like those in Jim Lahey's My Bread. There's a lot of good bread that can't be made this way, but it's an easy and fairly foolproof method that's really good to know.
posted by jon1270 at 3:46 AM on April 4, 2012

The combination of Bourdain's "how to cook like a pro" chapter (synopsis: butter and salt, early and often) and Bittman's How To Cook Everything will carry you an awfully long way.
posted by mhoye at 5:07 AM on April 4, 2012

Master a homemade pie crust. Use real shortening and butter. The best butter you can find. Once you've done that you can make sweet and savory pies as well as tarts.

Whenever you grill, throw thinly sliced onions on there as well. Thinly slice one or two onions and place on a sheet of foil. Drizzle olive oil. Dash of salt and pepper. Pinch of sugar to help them caramelize. Toss. Let them cook slowly while the grill's coming up to temperature and move them around as necessary while you're grilling whatever it is. Bell peppers are great for this too.

These can be great additions to sandwiches as toppings, in marinara sauce, hummus, etc.

If you're smoking, quarter an onion halfway then pull it apart a bit so it sort of "blooms" like a flower. Do the olive oil/salt/pepper thing and let it slowly smoke. Transcendent.

Use the onions in a dip -- blue cheese, crushed garlic you've sauteed with shallots in bacon grease, a little mayo and a lotta sour cream. Add the diced bacon. A stellar dip that's great on burgers.
posted by Atom12 at 5:58 AM on April 4, 2012

These may be a level down from what you're wanting, but this is where I started after stir fry (which oddly was one of the first thing I learned to make after pasta).

Breakfast: swedish pancakes (variation on crepes), friatta.
Lunch: Homemade tacos (make your own salsa, spice mixture for meat, shred lettuce and cheese, have an avocado handy). Note: Turkey works great for this, particularly if you go towards the spicy side of tacos.
Dinner: Pork tenderlion (Asian mint -- is one of our favorite ones) that has been marinated and then cooked at 500 or on a grill. Note: Use a meat thermometer for this.
Desert: Brownies from scratch
Vegetables: Get a cheap steamer basket (those metal fold up kind) and know how to steam green beans, carrots, brocooli. (On our stove it's add water, 7 minutes on high, turn off and let sit).
Layered vegetable: Potato leek gratin
Extra credit: Risotta or minestrone soup from scratch
posted by ejaned8 at 6:31 AM on April 4, 2012

If you aren't making your own salad dressings then you're wasting time and money. The basic rule is a ratio of 3:1 oil to acid. Extra virgin olive oil is an excellent starting point, on the acid side it can be anything from red wine vinegar to cider vinegar to balsamic vinegar to lemon juice or a combination or something else that inspires you. Add a form of mustard (dijon for creamy, or grainy for something that lets the lettuce stand out), some coarse salt, pepper and seasoning (garlic, herbs, whatever suites your fancy), shake and you're good to go!
posted by furtive at 7:29 AM on April 4, 2012

Make your own chicken and beef stock from scratch. Very, very easy. Plunk meaty bones and other discarded parts in a big pot, cover with water, add herbs (but no salt), a carrot or two, some celery, and an onion peeled and chopped in quarters. Bring to a boil, then turn down heat and simmer slooooowly with the lid slightly ajar for 6-8 hours. Skim off the fat and strain through a fine mesh sieve. I store mine in 2- and 3-cup containers in the freezer, and when I need some, I just pop one in the microwave to thaw it out for a few minutes.

Last summer I bought a paella pan and this book, which is THE book on making paella. There are an enormous number of intriguing recipes, but he stresses that you can make paella with whatever you have on hand. I make it once a week or so, adding leftover meat, vegetables, and often a can of beans or a cup of slivered almonds or pine nuts for some added texture. I use short-grain brown rice most of the time, which is healthier than white rice, and lots of olive oil. Dr. Tully Monster never seems to get tired of it. It's a great party dish, too.

Two books I cook out of constantly: The Joy of Cooking (2006 edition) and Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Joy is a great primer on doing things right. There are complicated recipes, true, but there are also a lot of recipes that describe simple but interesting ways to prepare things, and one of my favorite chapters is the one on Brunch, Lunch, and Supper Dishes, which contains a lot of creative ways to use leftovers. I learned to cook with the 1975 edition, which was kind of a relic and relied a lot on canned soups and other staples of WASP cooking in the 1950s, and often recipes didn't turn out the way they should have. But the current edition is great and I have never had a dish go wrong when I follow the recipe exactly.

Julia Child intended her book for "servantless cooks", and again, while many recipes are complex, many are both simple and delicious, and she provides a lot of good basic instruction and useful shortcuts. I keep mentioning basic instruction because I've found that having a good grasp of the fundamentals prevents mistakes and disasters and just produces better dishes. And the more practice I get, the more I find that even recipes that seemed complicated at first become second nature, and prep time is significantly reduced because I've just gotten better and faster.

Lastly, I sent my brother Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything, and he uses it often. Bittman is a minimalist and many of his recipes involve five ingredients or less. He also is not a big kitchen gear enthusiast, maintaining that you really only need a few very good tools to cook just about anything. I have his How to Cook Everything Vegetarian, which includes a lot of very simple but interesting ways to prepare vegetable dishes and a lot of good basic information about the vegetables themselves.

But you also wanted specific recipes--here's one that we really love (although it's a fall/winter dish): Fall Vegetable Cobbler. It's a fabulous potluck dish that even kids will eat!
posted by tully_monster at 9:41 AM on April 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

Butternut Squash with Lamb and Yogurt Sauce

This dish is absolutely delicious, impressive looking, and the hardest part is cutting the butternut squash (seriously). It takes a little while only because the squash takes a long time to get tender, but it's so worth it. You can substitute a lot of different types of sausage and it will still be tasty.

For desserts, make a trifle. Depending on how much effort you want to put into it, you can make it really quickly or spend several hours making everything from scratch.Berry trifle with lemon custard is usually popular, and again, it looks impressive. Store bought lemon curd, pound cake, and even frozen berries are fine. Trifle bowls are totally unnecessary. If you want it to look pretty - do you have a set of wide, shortish glasses? Make mini trifles!
posted by SugarAndSass at 9:45 AM on April 4, 2012

Oh, and one more thing: roast or grill salmon on a cedar plank soaked in water first. When I first did it that way, it was a revelation. I will never ever cook salmon any other way if I can help it. It is soooo delicious, and you can use this method to cook a whole host of meats and other kinds of fish. You can usually find cedar planks with grilling stuff. Remember to soak it first (overnight, if possible).

Also: brining does wonders for very lean meats. That grilled pork tenderloin someone suggested above? Immerse it for 45 minutes in a bowl of warm water in which you've dissolved 1/2 cup salt and 1/2 cup sugar before you grill it. Different meats (and different cuts) require different brining times.
posted by tully_monster at 9:49 AM on April 4, 2012

Shameless Self-Promotion Alert!

I keep a food-blog called Cogito Ergo Consume that I fill with recipes that I think fit this mold - basically easy things that are still generally worth preparing for company or dates. I'm by no means a professional, and some of the older entries are pretty embarrassing in terms of the photo quality and such, but I imagine you could find some tasty ideas.

Also consider following somebody like The Pioneer Woman (from whom I shamefully plundered my own blogging style) for fantastic recipes with step-by-step detailed instructions and pictures. I used Ree's sites and others like it to get me up to speed as I was just starting to cook more interesting food all by myself.
posted by Rallon at 9:59 AM on April 4, 2012

All of these are great! Thanks!
posted by goalyeehah at 6:17 PM on April 4, 2012

Late to the party here, but thought I'd toss in my two cents. Please PLEASE find a copy of Thomas Keller's Ad Hoc and Alice Waters' The Art of Simple Food. Both of these books have great discussions regarding technique, selecting ingredients, and respecting said ingredients.

Also, dishes that always seem to impress dinner guests include pommes dauphinois, gougères, and a dark chocolate risotto spiked with cinnamon. If you're looking specifically for oven-type casserole dishes, there are many great variations of broccoli, cheese, and rice that involve creating your own cream of mushroom soup. That would be an excellent exercise in practicing a few techniques in one dish.
posted by conradjones at 10:04 AM on April 5, 2012

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