Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Incomplete Intermediate

This always happens to me. I'm interested in something. I learn a little on my own, or I learn a lot on my own, but not in any organized way. Then I want more information, so I seek professional instruction on the subject. The instructor talks to me and tells me no I don't belong in the beginners' course, so I start straight in at the intermediate level, and promptly get in trouble for having missed something vital in my self-study. (Sometimes I do take the beginners' course, which risks making me bored and distracted and thus missing something that way). If I have one-on-one instruction I say, "don't assume I know anything" but they find out I know X and Z and assume I know Y, without me knowing that there is any interpolation going on. And then later mayhem ensues because I lack all knowledge of Y.

Fortunately, the way aviation is set up in Canada, the system is rigourous and demands that the instructor that sends you through to the next level has seen you complete each qualifying exercise to standard, and can't assume that X + Z implies Y. This is good, because my early aviation education was similar, with me learning what was interesting from books and online, and then being taken up by a friend for doezens of touch and goes, until I could land an airplane by rote without having practiced any of the underlying skills. If you're interested enough in a thing to want to learn it right with no shortcuts it is beneficial to do it from the beginning even if you already know some, provided the ab initio instructor knows what they are doing. You pick up things that true ab initio students miss. (If the instructor is just winging it, you get in trouble, because you're picking up on the stuff the instructor is faking).

My latest episode of learning just enough to get into trouble seems to be cooking. I would say that I can cook. I can buy ingredients, i.e. things from the grocery store or farmers' market that don't have any ingredients listed on the side and produce meals that make me say "yum." But I want to be able to make five dishes featuring a random secret ingredient within an hour and have them look like the ones on Iron Chef. And I want to be able to grab a live cow standing in a field of grain, and turn it into a perfect hamburger. That's right, I'm a Food Network addict.

It sort of makes me wish that I was hooked on the Food Network twenty years ago instead of science fiction. Imagine if the brain cells now occupied by Star Trek and Ray Bradbury trivia were full of information on how to properly braise and marinate and accent. Now I'm hooked on food. But the Food Channel isn't really a good vehicle for learning more about cooking. The shows that tell me how to actually make the food with any kind of step by step instructions are telling me how to make hummus as if it was an amazing reveal that it's made out of chickpeas and sesame paste, or giving detailed steps for making spaghetti sauce, pausing for me to gasp at the idea that it doesn't come out of a can. Once the shows pass the "cute guy or gal reads a recipe at you" mode, they leap over a vast gulf of techniques and generalizations into the territory of ultra elite chefs making things I don't know the names of by processes I'm not certain how to reproduce, faster than the untrained eye can follow. I guess there are lots of people who would like to know something about cooking, a lot who like to marvel at what the experts can produce, and not enough to be a viable market segment who want to know the how of the in-between part.

I looked up a fancy cooking course and discovered that professional chef training will set you back about as much as a commercial pilot licence. I guess good food costs more than avgas. Instead of flying to New York and signing up for an elite cooking course, I order the course textbook. I could focus every moment of my life single-mindedly on aviation progress, but a girl's got to eat. She might as well do it well.

Do I have any readers who are professional chefs? Or do you know of a fun professional cooking blog? (I already know Cake Wrecks, of course).

One thing about watching the world's best chefs prepare itty bitty exquisitely-presented portions of stunning food is that you aren't tempted to down platter-filling glop in the name of sustenance. Seeing how good food could be, actually helps me not overeat.

Last night's meal was eaten while reading the local paper. I was offered a choice of two: the provincial paper and the town one. The town one was a lot thicker, but I had read t at breakfast so I opted for the local one. "Is it exciting?" I joked to the guy at the hotel desk

"There's a goose on the cover," he said, his inflection managing to find a little strip of territory that was neither sarcastic nor falsely enthusiastic. And so there was: a Canada goose, photographed standing on one foot on the edge of the frozen river. It didn't get any more exciting inside. There weren't even any dead bodies.

And then I get a text from one of the apprentices who has been working on the airplane. The airplane is ready and she'll pick me up at 7:30 tomorrow morning to get it.


amulbunny said...

I don't know of any chef blogs, but I sure wish I could whip up 5 world class dishes from ground beef, or leeks or crab.

I love the Food Network. Emeril hooked me years ago when I had the noon hour free and an east coast feed. I enjoy Bobby Flay's throwdowns.

And I love House Hunters on HGTV, amazes me what kind of prices are out there across the world.

If you can read, you can cook. Easy as that.

Rhonda said...

I love cookbooks. I have more cookbooks than I really need.

I just experiment, using recipes as a launch point.

Anonymous said...

My friend has a blog where she documents her ventures in making french desserts: http://parissweetsinseattle.blogspot.com/

dpierce said...

Good Eats w/ Alton Brown is the best science show on TV.

I think eating on the go at innumerable restaurants for endless years either makes you intently appreciative of the preparation of new and interesting food (after all, when you're in the middle of nowhere, nothing makes your day like an unexpected little restaurant that honestly tries to do something special) or it makes you hate your dependence on eating.

Sarah said...

Speaking from the intersection of blogging and cooking.... the credits from "Julie and Julia" are rolling. Fun movie, and I can almost appreciate the commitment and artistry in serious cooking. Well. Eating, anyway. And I love Meryl Streep!

Ben Read said...

"'There's a goose on the cover,' he said, his inflection managing to find a little strip of territory that was neither sarcastic nor falsely enthusiastic."

-- an especially well-written line, nicely observed

Ward said...

I loved the original Iron Chef, but that's the only cooking show I've ever made a point of watching.

I love this book, we got a copy a couple years ago and although you have to scale the recipes back for home use, it's excellent at explaining why to do things a certain way:


For baking, this is an excellent book:


And for cake decorating, I like this one:


Ciaran said...

Well it's better than flying in that you can be self-taught without putting anyone in danger ;)

I think it's one of those things that just doing it regularly will improve your skills as much as a class will. If you're doing it regularly and really interested then you will naturally seek out information and try new things. A couple of decent books that cover the basics and Internet access will be all you need.

Something I find fun is to sign up to a local CSA (community agriculture) that delivers a box of in season produce to you every week or two. It teaches you to appreciate that not everything is available all year round (and that quality varies a lot with the season) and gives you the challenge of using unfamiliar ingredients. However if you're on the road a lot a CSA delivery might not be practical.

Also useful is a partner who at least is willing to watch and eat whatever you make—it's very hard to motivate to cook for one.

And the secret to all restaurant cooking: Butter, and lots of it.

car01 said...

I find a lot of inspiration from The Pioneer Woman cooks, and you might too. She also has another website (Tasty Kitchen), which I won't link to, because I've never really gotten into it so much, but you might. Otherwise try Smitten Kitchen or Bakerella for cute whimsy.

Mario in PY said...

You might want to check out Breadchick's blog over at http://breadchick.com/

She focuses mainly on bread (and yeast), but she also has wonderfull pointers on general food preparation and consumption (as well as other life issues). On her blogroll you will find sufficient links to other food blogs.

Andrew said...

Hi Aviatrix

I regularly read and enjoy your blog but haven't commented before. I am a food enthusiast and, being a scientist too, love to learn new techniques. I heartily recommend this book, which concentrates on the underlying techniques and builds on them to cover some failry advanced dishes:

click here

Its scope is so broad that I regularly turn to it when branching out in new culinary directions. Hope it's of interest.

Keep up the entertaining writing!


gmc said...

I look forward to The Aviatrix Cookbook - 101 gourmet meals you can prepare in a hotel microwave oven, featuring special recipies suitable for re-heating on a Lycoming Turbo 540 and/or Janitrol cabin heater.

Yellowbird said...

Everything you need to know about cooking, right here: http://www.lileks.com/institute/gallery/index.html

Peter said...

I don't read any food blogs, but I can suggest a couple of books. For making desserts, I highly recommend In The Sweet Kitchen. It's half textbook, and half cookbook. Everything is delicious.

For basic technique, "The Joy of Cooking" is a good start, although I'm not crazy about how the recipes are presented in it.

Critical Alpha said...

As I've got older (aged gracefully?) I've grown to appreciate the Cucina Tipica style of cooking that's so prevalent in rural Italy. Simple local food cooked so well.
Books and TV shows have been my inspiration to learn to cook and to learn good and simple techniques. Here are some:
The Cook and the Chef Great TV program.
Maggie Beer An advocate of good simple cooking
A Cook's Companion
Thai Street Food by David Thompson is a brilliant and beautiful book.
Books for Cooks although in Australia will get you old or new books on cooking and technique. They're nice guys...and neighbours of mine.
Hope you get some fin out of something in there!!
Verification word "peabr" which I think is an abbreviation trying to tell me something!

Anonymous said...

Speaking of learning just enough to get in trouble (in my country people would call it "dangerous semi-knowledge") -- I had a different problem when I took my motorcycle driving lessons:

All the guys around me had either had small motorbikes with a restricted license before or had just gone riding illegally. The instructor expected you to already know most of the practical things about handling a motorbike.

When he discovered that I did not just want to get the legal formality out of the way, but actually had to learn how to use a hand-operated clutch and a foot-operated gearshift, it led to some ... interesting driving lessons. :-)

Steve said...

I also recommend the "Professional cooking" book by Glissen. I bought mine used off e-bay and have learned a lot from it.

You should also check out the Egg Beater blog at http://eggbeater.typepad.com/shuna/
and http://blog.ruhlman.com

Carmi said...

I'm no chef, but I have several years of practice in proffesional kitchens. Thankfully, I work in computers now.
It's very important to remember that chefing and home-cooking are two different skills, even if there is some overlap.

In my experience, the best thing to do in order to learn is practice, often.
Choose a direction you like, a style of cooking or certain ingredients you like. From there, you read the net (I like the about.com food guides) and decide on some stuff to try.
Each direction will have a set of techniques, ingredients and spices that are typical to it. Once you know those, you can use them for other stuff as well.
The Thai food section at about.com is actually a good place to start, assuming you like Thai food.

Aviatrix said...

Mmm. I had a Thai flight student once, and she taught me how to make Thai dishes, and more importantly it is from helping her shop that I learned the paramount importance of the quality of ingredients. If an ingredient wasn't exactly right she would rather not have it than substitute something inferior.

I've probably presented myself as more of a cooking neophyte than I meant to. I'm on my second copy of Joy of Cooking, having worn out the first one, and do own a number of both technique and ethnic cookbooks. It's making the leap from "if you can read you can cook" to "here's an ingredient: go for it," that I'm working on. No one on Iron Chef ever pulls out a cookbook, but they always know what proportions and techniques to use.

The motorcycle story is awesome. That's truly how much trouble you can get in if instructors assume you can do things.

I like the weekly vegetable idea, but you're right: I'd bee out of town too much to use them.

Jim said...

I understand the Incomplete Intermediate concept perfectly, and in the area of aviation as well.

In my move towards the PPL, I always did a lot of reading. When it came to lesson time, I had a few instructors (all of which were, coincidently, Class 4's) make a leap of assumption when I had some knowledge in an area. This actually slowed down my progress as we would move forward to the point where my inadequate self-taught knowledge ran out, and then we'd need to fill in the gaps and rebuild from there.

I had several lessons with some Class 1 and Class 2 instructors, and it was astounding how quickly they zeroed in on a lack of a root concept - they fixed the problem and I suddenly was able to make a great leap forward.

Of course, since I was a rookie in the middle of it at the time, I had minimal knowledge of what was going on. In retrospect, it makes sense.