Friday Reads: The Kitchen Counter Cooking School

I had two important experiences that shaped my cooking. Neither one involved a recipe or cooking a dish, as strange as that may sound. The first was my Organic Chemistry lab in college. The second was the Knife Skills class that I took a couple years ago. They didn’t have to do with food. What they did was help me develop confidence.

Confidence is the key to cooking. After pouring all kinds of chemicals into beakers in precise quantities, adding some sugar to butter didn’t seem all that daunting. It wasn’t like I would blow anything up on accident. And once I felt comfortable using a knife, all those recipes that started with a chopped onion (which is basically everything) no longer made me feel so concerned.

If you’re not afraid, you can cook pretty much anything. Because if you’re not afraid, you’re happy to learn from your mistakes. Burning dinner isn’t the end of the world. Adding salt instead of sugar is a silly mistake instead of a disaster. But if you don’t have confidence, these mistakes just make you feel like a bad cook.

These lessons are a big part of the new book, The Kitchen Counter Cooking School: How a Few Simple Lessons Transformed Nine Culinary Novices into Fearless Home Cooks. Author Kathleen Flinn taps into the fear so many people feel when it comes to cooking and she sets out to show them just how easy it is.

Image via Goodreads

If you’ve ever felt like you’re not much of a cook, or if watching cooking shows makes you wonder how on earth someone can make something so impressive, or if you never move outside of your “safe” dishes, you can learn a lot from this book.

Flinn’s descriptions of her nine cooks and their lessons are very detailed. (She videotaped all the sessions.) She includes lots of information to help you better understand your ingredients and how to use them.

Her lessons are simple. The knife skills chapter (and the chapters that follow where the women happily wield their knives and chop away) will easily convince you the worth of a good knife class and a quality chef’s knife. (To this day, I think my knife skills class was worth so much more than what I paid for it.)

If you don’t really know what to do with your meat, there are chapters on poultry, meat and fish. There are sauces. There’s nutrition. There’s soups. There’s vegetables. All the basics are laid out.

The lessons themselves sound like a lot of fun. (Of course, they get to do lots of eating so that helps!) The women in the classes are portrayed realistically, they’re willing to express their fears and they take a lot of delight in their successes. Not everyone is on board with everything. (One woman who’s mostly vegetarian leaves halfway through the meat class.) Not everyone sees every lesson as something they can use. But they all try and they all see rewards.

One of the really successful elements of the book is Flinn’s initial meetings with the women and then her close-out interviews a year later. These are not all people who don’t cook or can’t cook. They have a wide variety of motivations and fears. They have their own household stresses and pressures. You’ll be able to find a lot to relate to. For one reason or another, none of them really feels like she has any skills. By the end, nearly all of them roast a chicken once a week like it’s nothing at all.

You can really take what you need away from this book. I was happy to see some recipes with each class. I resolved to be better about food waste, which is definitely one of my problems when I only shop once a week. I also felt a stronger urge to be less of a planner when it comes to my food. I often won’t buy anything without a specific recipe to use it for, but the reminder that an omelet you throw together from what’s in the fridge or a soup made of whatever produce you have lying around can be a successful meal is just what I needed to hear.

It was such a good reminder that yesterday, when I had to work, pick up the Bug from daycare, shop for groceries, and then go home and cook, I worked on the fly. I remembered the three-ingredient tomato sauce recipe I’d seen lately. (I only needed to get tomatoes. Butter and onions are always in my kitchen.) And I figured I’d just play it by ear to find a vegetable that was on sale, looked good, and that I could prepare with whatever was lying around. Turns out, asparagus was on sale. I didn’t learn right away. I flipped through my cookbooks looking for advice on asparagus. But I didn’t want to roast or steam or simmer. Instead I tossed aside the cookbook and sauteed my asparagus (which was on the thin side) in some olive oil and butter, threw in a bit of salt and pepper, and topped with a couple pinches of parmesan. Ta da! A tasty meal that took only a few minutes of prep time and not nearly as much planning and stress as I have with most of my recipes.

I certainly feel more inspired to do well in the kitchen after reading the book. My only real criticism is of the writing itself. Flinn often feels unfocused and doesn’t always weave the points she’s trying to make about processed foods or nutrition into her narrative very well. I wanted to know more about the classes and the students and less about Flinn herself, though she makes herself the central figure of the book. I also found the book suffered from the problem of much cooking education. Switching from processed to unprocessed foods will help in some ways, but it doesn’t necessarily solve any nutritional problems. These chefs rarely seem to find ways to cut back on cream or salt in their recipes, though they’re quick to judge foods that are high in sodium or fat. (Luckily once you get some cooking confidence, you’ll realize that you can almost always substitute half & half or light cream or even milk when a recipe calls for heavy cream. Or you can just avoid those all together.)

None of those critiques makes it less worth your time. To Flinn’s great credit, she understands that watching people cook on TV doesn’t really help to make you a better cook. Instead, she walks you through what TV chefs rarely do and rarely say. I’d really recommend it for anyone who is looking for ideas on how to get better in the kitchen or even if you want to try and shake yourself out of your regular food routine.

Maybe it’s not the best book to read, but it’s full of great lessons to learn. I breezed through it in just a couple sittings and I know I’ll be back for the recipes and advice.

Thanks to Netgalley and Viking Publishers for providing me with a complimentary e-galley of this book for reviewing purposes. The Kitchen Counter Cooking School is on sale now and available in bookstores everywhere. You can also find it for your Kindle or Nook. I found the e-book version was perfectly easy to navigate.

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