Patri\'s 3 Rules For Cooking Yummy Food

Most of you probably know why voting is a poor use of time. The chance that your vote will make a difference, coupled with the indirect effect political differences have on your life, combine to make your return on investment much lower than if you worked on something much smaller that has a direct impact on your well-being. Yet despite this argument, we Catallarchists spend a lot of time talking about things that you have no power to change and which don't directly affect you.

Let's buck that trend, and talk a little about how to cook simple, delicious meals. After all, if Tyler Cowen can talk about food all the time, no econ blog should be ashamed to follow.

Patri's Three Steps To Cooking Yummy Food

1. Start with fresh, yummy ingredients.

If I had to pick one key, this would be it. Cooking is not about turning lead into gold, and the better stuff you start out with, the better you'll generally end up with. Sure, good ingredients can be ruined, and a highly-spiced long-simmering stew can cover up for bad meat and vegetables. But my philosophy of cooking is like my philosophy of government, of managing, and of education: If you start with something good, all you need to do is provide a little coordination and then you can get the hell out of the way.

2. Use a standard, simple format.

There is a reason my wife & I usually have eggs for breakfast - because eggs kick ass! People have tried a lot of combinations over the years, and some of them have stuck around. Find some simple ones you like, and then work within that framework. Classic formats include "Pasta + Sauce", "Salad", "Sandwich", "Meat w/ Root Vegetables on the side", "Mac & Cheese". Just like "Boy Meets Girl, Boy Loses Girl, Boy Finds Girl Again", and "Drummer, lead guitarist/backup vocalist, lead vocalist/backup guitarist", cooking formats provide just the right amount of guidance, while allowing plenty of flexibility.

3. Add some spice.

This is third for a reason. If you combine yummy ingredients in a standard format you like, it will probably taste pretty good. But (especially after a few repetitions), you may notice a vague feeling of something missing. That something is spice, which provides variety and subtlety for your palate. Get a big spice rack and sniff everything in it. Randomly pick something promising each time you cook, until you get a feel for them. Until you learn otherwise, always include some salt - it's a +EV gamble.

Examples

Let's suppose you follow the classic format "eggs scrambled with cheese, meat, and spices" (much in favor at the our breakfast table). By my theory, it doesn't really matter that much whether you use sharp cheddar, fresh mozarella, or brie, whether you add diced ham, Aidell's sausage, or leftover filet mignon, or whether you garnish with oregano, coriander, or paprika. You can scramble this mix in light olive oil, canola, or lard, and any of those cross-products will make a delicious breakfast.

Similarly, let's consider "Salad made from green stuff, cheese stuff, meat stuff, with dressing". You can base it on fresh spinach, fresh iceberg lettuce, or fresh Romaine, you can add fresh mozarella, cubed cheddar, or aged blue cheese, you can include crumbled bacon, carpaccio, or cubed sushi-grade ahi, and you can toss it with light olive oil & pepper, with lemon juice and oregano, or with balsamic vinegar. Whatever you do, it's going to be fabulous.

Caveats and Secondary Considerations

Gourmands will have noticed that I have not paid any attention to using ingredients that go well together, or spices appropriate for the dish. This is deliberate. Those things certainly matter, and with practice, you will develop the cooking intuition to make wise choices about combinations. But this is a second-order effect, and random selection will do you just fine at first.

You'll also notice that no mention of recipes was made, and I admit to being one of those people who turns up his nose at them. Leaving my own tastes out of it, if you follow the 3 Steps, you simply don't need them. There are some exceptions where it can be good to follow a recipe, such as:

* The first time you cook in a given format.
* If you try something too complicated for your skills (which means you are not cooking in the simple style I recommend).
* Baked products. This is one format where, no matter how yummy the flour, sugar, and baking powder you use, if you don't get them in the right proportions, the result will be disaster. Fortunately, baked products are unhealthy, so this exception rarely ends up affecting me. (If I'm going to do something as effortful and customizable as cooking, I'm going to make something yummy *and* healthy!).

I find this method of "formats, not recipes" not only produces good food, but reduces stress. Much though I hate to agree with Barry Schwartz, narrowing the space of possibilities from the entire Joy of Cooking to the dozen formats I'm comfortable with makes choosing much easier. And as long as you often try new ingredients and combinations and occasionally try new formats, the results will not be boring.

Conclusion

If you've been intimidated by cooking, or if you're tired of spending hours making fancy recipes, please give my system a try. You have nothing to lose but your dependence on fast-food and your shelves of cookbooks! And if you already use this rules, post some of your "classic formats" and examples of their ingredients.

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Don't forget the generic

Don't forget the generic Mexican format: tortilla + fresh vegetables + beans + meat + cheese + extras. One of the things I make most often is a burrito with flour tortilla, spinach, tomatoes, shallots, green peppers, refried beans, ground beef, pepper jack and gruyere cheeses, some good salsa and with some garlic powder and ground pepper tossed in. Of course, you can substitute black beans for refried or chicken for ground beef or add in some guacamole depending on taste/availability. Another good one is a breakfast burrito with flour tortilla, eggs, sausage or bacon, cheddar, tomatoes, salsa, rosemary, garlic powder and ground pepper. All the possibilities for different varieties of tortillas, vegetables, beans, meats, cheeses, etc. make this format quite flexible. And you can always use rice or eggs to substitute for or complement the beans. Plus all the different preparations; burritos, tacos, tostadas, chimichangas, quesadillas and any number of others all fall under the same basic format.

I can't agree enough with the advice to load up on a variety of spices and experiment with them. It's really exciting when you discover something that works, and even when it doesn't, spices still make the food more interesting.

"Eggs in a nest". Separately

"Eggs in a nest".

Separately fry small potatoes with peppers and white onion. Arrange in a ring in a small shallow bowl, add one egg raw in the center. Bake ~ 400 until egg is done. Melt Fontana cheese on top of ring. Enjoy.

Optional: for that "special spice," I like Tony Chachere's. On just about everything where I would use salt 'n pepper.

Amen, Patri. That's more or

Amen, Patri. That's more or less my method too when I get in the cooking mood (though that's rare recently... been too lazy). Cooking is art.

RKN, that looks really good.

Yep! Perfectly describes our

Yep! Perfectly describes our cooking philosophy/methodology too.

With all due respect Patri,

With all due respect Patri, no male over five years old should ever use the word "yummy."

I cannot agree with the idea

I cannot agree with the idea of experimenting with spices other than Adobo. It just doesn't make sense.

There is definitely a "Two

There is definitely a "Two Cultures" thing going on here. I was raised by extreme foodies, of the sort who finagle large quantities of rendered duck fat from their local friendly restaurateur so they can make duck confit at home, and I don't cook Patri's way at all; I cook mostly from recipes and often do fairly complicated stuff when I have time. My wife, who was not so freakishly brought up, cooks like Patri. Both styles are quite capable of producing consistently good results with sufficient practice, and each has something to learn from the other.

The secret to fancy cooking from recipes is to find the really good recipes *for you*. That is, find the recipe authors who write in a way that you can easily grok and have a palate similar to yours. I swear by:

-- Cook's Illustrated, for everything under the sun. Their recipes are absurdly exacting and Rube Goldberg complicated: take the potatoes and cook them for 17 1/2 minutes in a 300 degree oven, then raise the temperature to 400 degrees and add a little water and cook 29 3/4 more minutes, then add the onions which you've chopped as shown in Figure 3 and half-caramelized with a little cognac... I exaggerate slightly, but you get the idea. Their saving virtue is that they always, always work, and produce extraordinary results at least half the time. There is no better New York cheesecake in the world than the one Cook's spends three pages telling you how to make.

-- Madhur Jaffrey, for Indian. Simple, no-nonsense, and again an extremely high success rate.

-- Giuliano Bugialli, for northern Italian. A bit of a snob, and not easy for everyone to follow, but the man knows what he's talking about.

And the Joy of Cooking is of course a nice bridge between the two styles: real recipes, revised often for ease of understanding, that fit well into the "simple formats" Patri justly lauds in Step 2. I've heard that the Minimalist series by Mark Bittman does something quite similar, but even simpler; I've been meaning to check it out.

And if you already use this

And if you already use this rules, post some of your “classic formats” and examples of their ingredients.

The Chupaqueso!!

A crunchy cheesy tasty toasty anytime meal. The Food of the Future! Don't settle for vending machine versions, make your own! Indulge your creativity: choose from an infinite variety of shell cheeses and filling materials; find the combinations that will become your favorites!

Warning: not for you wussy vegans or anyone intimidated by greasy finger foods served hot enough to give you second-degree burns. Great for low-carb dieters, though.

Invented (more or less) by Howard Tayler, who writes and draws the webcomic Schlock Mercenary, which all anarcho-capitalists should be reading. It's about mercenaries, for pete's sake. Plus it's really good hard science fiction (in a cartoony kind of way), and it's funny. And occasionally tasty. Howard says you should start reading here, but I like to point first-time readers here.

"I admit to being one of

"I admit to being one of those people who turns up his nose at them. Leaving my own tastes out of it, if you follow the 3 Steps, you simply don’t need them."

My two favorite cook books are The Joy of Cooking and The BBQ Bible. The Joy of Cooking covers practically EVERYTHING you need for basic cooking. I wouldn't want to come anywhere near a first attempt at a baked MAC-N-CHEESE that was thrown together without a recipe. Eww?

The BBQ Bible is a fantastic tour of the planet's finest grilled foods. I worked as a grill cook in multiple resturaunts, I can mix spices well, and I understand how to cook on an open flame. That said, this book is >amazing< in scope and he presents dishes that I could never hope to randomly think up by mixing together our 50 bottles of spice. To top that off, the book delivers a tasty sauce, dip, and sides that fit the main course.

Nothing fancy about most of these recipes, but they deliver results and a firm foundation for further exploration and experimentation.

For general meals, your format is more than adequate. It is what we follow day to day at our house. Discounting GOOD recipes is missing out on a lot of good food though. Check out the BBQ Bible from your library. His How to Grill is freaking awesome too, and presented in a nice visual format (with significantly less content, but the content that is there is great)

I'd add 'basic techniques'

I'd add 'basic techniques' to your list of requirements. 'Format' is much too broad -- meat + root veggies, for example.

Am I better off sauteing the meat at reasonably high heats, baking at medium heats, or boiling?

It's difficult to argue that these basic techniques are part of the format you listed. Your format may list which technique (baking instead of boiling, for example), but even then the temperature and timing can be important. Bake a chicken at 500F, and the outside will be crispy and brown while the inside is undercooked. Bake a chicken at 250F, and the outside will be pallid and flavorless when the inside is done.

The solution to this standard problem? Either mix heating techniques (start low to cook the inside, then finish high to brown the outside), or alter the shape of the chicken (by butterflying, deboning, or quartering it).

Just like 'formats' requires some experimentation, technique requires some experimentation. I've thrown out a few pieces of meat because I was experimenting with technique and messed up.

Julia Childs was the classic chef that believed in technique. Alton Brown (Good Eats) does a reasonable job at this.