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Can you cook?

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You can walk into a kitchen full of food and do one of two things. After sizing up the contents of the fridge and the cabinets, you either take stuff out and start prepping, or you look for the cookbook shelf.

Long ago I used to get a kind of disapproval from some people in my family about cookbooks. My mother-in-law would taste something like meat loaf, a cake or beef stew, and she would ask, "Did you use a cookbook to make this?" I would answer that I did, and she would look at it and say, "Oh." I never really understood what she meant by it, but over the years I have come to think that she meant that if a person really knew how to cook they would not need cookbooks.

Now when you are at the level of a cordon bleu chef, that is closer to the truth than it is for most everyday people. A chef can figure out things like the proper proportions between wet and dry ingredients in baking, and s/he knows how much spice to put in a cake and why you use less cloves and more cinnamon. Hopefully that type of chef writes cookbooks!

But the person who takes out the chicken, onions, garlic, peppers, tomatoes, rice and celery can also cook. Even though he or she may not choose to take out and cook the ground beef and breadcrumbs, they know how to make dinner. So once I looked at it, I saw a progression of sorts. Children usually learn cooking skills from their parents, although they may also have learned them from "home economics" courses, though they may have been renamed since the Fifties when I was in junior high school. Their skills are always subject to improvement, which is one of the good side effects of cooking television.

There are basics: how to make a sauce or gravy; how to brown meat; how to cut meat into pieces; how to cook rice or potatoes; how to make bread. You can stay there forever, cooking happily with whatever comes along, and a great part of the world does just that.

I have also seen the cooks who place a piece of fish under the broiler for half an hour, and then complain that it is bad fish, and warn me not to buy it because it is tough. But all in all, I'd say that the huge overload of cooking television probably has done more good than bad in introducing Americans to cooking from recipes rather than on the fly. So once we have learned those basics, we can decide to go on and learn the finer points, or we can go on cooking.

What happens to the cooks who do not go on to the finer points? Well, unfortunately, it seems to me that they avail themselves of mixes and prepared foods. If you don't bake, and for some reason you want to make brownies, you can certainly go to the store and get some very fancy brownie mixes. You can even convince people that your brownies are "scratch" brownies that you made yourself, and not in the sense that you added water and there they were, ready to bake. All this is just sitting there, ready for anyone who doesn't want to buy ready-made brownies for some reason and plate them up or thaw them out.

So there are degrees of cooking, that's for sure. And there are degrees IN cooking, and hopefully we get the benefit of those who have scaled the heights of a particular discipline, like the many talented Italian chefs, or baking masters like Rachel Adams, or the Spice Goddess with her new-and-different Indian flavors (to us, her American audience).

We may not be aware that Indian cooking is immensely popular in Great Britain, as I learned when the Two Fat Ladies made kedgeree for breakfast and Jennifer confided that it very commonly served over there. There is a huge Indian influence in Britain that we don't yet enjoy on this side of the pond, where we are more attuned to French and Continental cuisine and tend to seek out the cookbooks that give us their well-known dishes in recipe form.

But the kitchen cooks who don't bother to expand their horizons will not get that far, as they make endless variations of meat and potatoes, or chicken and rice, or chicken and potatoes, or pork chops and potatoes, and so on. So on the whole I would advise people to consult cookbooks for a recipe before picking up a mix at the supermarket, to say the least. If you turn that box over and look at the list of ingredients there with your shopping cart, you just might put it back and look for the chocolate and baking powder instead.

And I will add as an aside that the current television shows that dumb down cooking to embellishing mixes and cooking hamburgers, or pork and potatoes, or chicken and potatoes, and so on, are a waste of time for cooks who are looking to learn something from them. You can learn just as much from following the directions on the back of the salad dressing mix.

Meanwhile, the oldest and simplest form of baking is bread, so here is a suggestion for your very first loaf if you have never even tried to make it.

PEASANT BREAD

From Cafe Margot

Ingredients:

3 cups organic all-purpose flour
2 Tablespoons organic granulated sugar
1 Tablespoon granulated yeast
1 teaspoon sea salt
1 Tablespoon organic powdered milk
2 Tablespoons organic olive oil
1 cup water, slightly warmer than room temperature

Place all ingredients in a mixing bowl fitted with a bread hook and beat or mix electrically until you have a lump (if you are using an electric mixer, use the bread hook attachment).

When the dough has come together, remove it from the mixer and take out the bread hook. Form the dough into a ball, oil it and return it to the bowl. Cover the dough and leave it to rise for 1 hour.

When the dough is double in size, remove it from the mixing bowl to a clean work surface. Flatten it out into a ball, which will be larger than a softball. Place the ball on a baking sheet and spray it with nonstick kitchen spray or brush it with olive oil. Leave it alone to rise once more to double its size. The ball will flatten slightly into a peasant-style round loaf as it rises.

When the dough has risen, preheat your oven to 350 degrees. Slash the top of the loaf once or twice to allow for more rising in the oven. Bake the bread for 45 minutes or until it is golden brown on top. Remove the bread from the oven and place it on the stove top or a wire rack to cool.

When the bread is cool and firmed up, slice it and store in the freezer.

This is the kind of bread that can be "broken" without cutting into slices if you like. If you sprinkle it with salt before baking it will have a pleasant flavor when you spread it with cold butter to go with a dinner salad or something else on the light side.

One caveat that is important is: DO NOT ATTEMPT to mix bread dough with two of the bird-cage-type mixing heads on a typical electric mixer. It does not work and could possibly burn out your mixer.

This loaf involves minimal handling, but I do recommend that you have a strong electric mixer to handle the dough. Of course the easiest way to make bread is to use a bread-making machine, but if you are contemplating the expenditure I would recommend the Kitchen Aid tilt-top style mixer for those just starting out with baking.

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