Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Making Cooking Easy: Don't think like a Chef

Bananas, December 2006 by photographer Steve Hopson (from WikiCommons).
One of the best bits of advice I can give to people just getting the hang of this cooking thing is "Don't get too ambitious." Chefs create new recipes and wing it a lot. This is skill that most people do not have, certainly not if they are learning to cook. We all need to eat and if cooking stands in the way of eating, you'll get frustrated and seek out that quick, easy, and nutritionally bereft convenience food. That's why I suggest that beginning cooks get a set of basic recipes that they like and make them a lot. Variety may be the spice of life, but trying new recipes all the time is hard work. I have a culinary degree and I try new recipes nearly every day so I have plenty of experience here. You don't know if they will work. You have to constantly check the recipe to see what ingredients you need next, what steps you need to do next. If you have a limited number of go-to recipes that you know like the back of your hand, you can almost execute them in your sleep. This makes getting a meal on the table so much easier.

Don't be seduced by the gazillion recipes out there. Sure, try a new one when you have the leisure to do it. It will take a little while to build a repertoire of recipes (and you'll be building your cooking skills at the same time). But once you have that list of standards, for most of your meals, stick to the tried and true. For lots of folks, the familiar makes them feel good, which means that cooking the same thing a bunch of times is a source of security. Or just plain easy.

I don't happen to be one of those people. And, that's why I keep trying new recipes. New recipes that you know will work for you, the first time and every other time you try them. Keep checking back here. I'll keep giving you new ones, if you need a change in your routine.

Here's a recipe I have made a bunch of times because it is one hearty loaf of banana bread. It's a whole grain version. You'll need to find whole wheat pastry flour, which makes it lighter than all regular whole wheat flour. You can often find it in the bulk aisle of supermarkets (bulk is very economical) and in stores that specialize in natural foods like Whole Foods and Sprouts. Bob's Red Mill produces a huge array of flours including a whole wheat pastry flour and Bob's Red Mill products are available nationally.

Unlike a lot of banana bread recipes, this one uses a lot of bananas. They need to be ripe or even overripe (the skin is all brown). You can buy a bunch especially for making this bread, or you can stash overripe bananas in a bag in your freezer and make it when you collect six of them. Thaw frozen bananas before beginning.

Banana Bread
(serves 10)

⅓ cup honey
2 Tablespoons vegetable oil
1 teaspoon vanilla
½ teaspoon salt
2 cups mashed ripe bananas (about 6)
2 Tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 ½ cups whole wheat pastry flour
1 ½ cups regular whole wheat flour
2 teaspoons baking powder (1 ½ teaspoons if at Boulder altitude)
½ teaspoon baking soda
½ cup chopped dried apricots (see Note)
½ cup toasted chopped nuts (I like pecans but walnuts or almonds are good too)

Preheat oven to 350°F. Grease a 8"x4" loaf pan.

Beat together the honey, vegetable oil, and vanilla in a large bowl. Mix in the bananas and lemon juice. Sift together the flours, baking powder, baking soda, and salt into a medium bowl. Mix the dry ingredients into the bananas, only mixing enough to moisten all the flour. Gently mix in the apricots and nuts. Pour the batter into the loaf pan. Bake for at least an hour, up to an hour and a half, until a toothpick comes out clean. Because this bread bakes so long and the bananas have a lot of sugar, it can over-brown. If the top is getting very dark, reduce the oven to 325°F for the rest of baking.

Allow to cool completely before trying to slice it.

Note: Dried apricots are very sticky when warm which makes them hard to chop. They won't stick to your knife if you put them in the freezer for 30 minutes before trying to chop them.

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