Lessons in Cooking: Observe and Practice

People sometimes ask me how I learned to cook. The answer is multi-faceted — my mother and my grandmothers taught me a lot, and 4-H cooking projects and junior high home ec classes added to my knowledge. I read cookbooks and my mom’s food magazines. I wanted to taste the dishes I was reading about. Mom let us do anything we wanted in the kitchen as long as we cleaned up after ourselves, so I tried some recipes. If I didn’t understand a term, I asked my mom or looked it up. I studied diagrams and illustrations. I watched other cooks. I observed. And I became a good-enough cook. I cranked out an adequate number of meals and heard no complaints.

About 15 years ago, though, I became much more interested in cooking. I don’t really know why — I suppose my growing awareness of how much more there was to learn about it teased me into learning at a deeper level. I began to observe again — ingredients, techniques, use of equipment, seasonal considerations — all these contributed to my education. For example, I observed the properties of onions — how some can be so much easier to peel than others,

the differences in moisture content,

the easiest, most efficient way to get a good dice,

and the fact that some seemed to caramelize faster and better than others.

My curiosity about these observations led me to research the reasons for them and ways I as a cook could manipulate different kinds of onions to get the result I was after. Every time I needed to dice an onion, I practiced doing it consistently.

Pretty soon, routine kitchen tasks began to be automatic. I could quickly reduce several onions to a pile of even dice. Observation and practice led to competence. For me, this is the time when cooking began to be real pleasure, because I felt truly able to do the work easily and well.

So, I recommend you get yourself some onions, your best onion-cutting knife, and start practicing. Observe the food and yourself as you work. How could you do that better? What is hard about this job? What is satisfying? Enjoy the process. Here’s something you can do with your diced onions — a snack for the hungry learning cook.

Creamed Onions on Toast
serves 1

1 medium onion, medium dice
1 T. butter
salt and pepper to taste
pinch dried thyme, optional
2 T. heavy cream
1 slice of the best bread you have in the house, toasted

Heat a skillet over medium heat. Add the butter, the diced onion, and the seasonings; stir to coat the onions with the fat; and reduce the heat to low. Let the onions cook very slowly, stirring occasionally, until they are deep brown and caramelized. This may take 30 mintues or more, so be patient. Go ahead and clean the kitchen while you wait. Read a chapter of your current book. Check your favorite blogs. Just don’t forget about your onions. When they are tender and lovely, increase the heat to medium high and add the cream. Let the cream reduce for a minute or two. Adjust the seasoning and turn the creamed onions onto the hot toast. Eat standing at the counter.

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  1. video_nana
    Posted December 16, 2007 at 8:06 pm | Permalink

    Glad you resurrected your blog!

  2. Posted December 17, 2007 at 8:31 am | Permalink

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. Posted December 17, 2007 at 8:34 am | Permalink

    I’m happy to see you’re doing this again. It’s good to do things that make us happy, but sometimes moms have to force ourselves to make time to do it. I need to make myself paint – and I keep saying that but not doing it. *sigh*

    Keep writing. You do it well.

  4. Posted December 17, 2007 at 10:54 am | Permalink

    Thanks for the onion pictures especially – I have been wanting to learn that technique for dicing!
    Can something be substituted for the heavy cream, I wonder… my husband is on a cardiac diet (well, he is SUPPOSED to be!) and I try to avoid stocking that kind of ingredient.

  5. Posted December 17, 2007 at 11:00 am | Permalink

    I would love to read more entries on teaching a child to cook – I want to teach my daughter how to properly use tools, etc. Tonight (or maybe this morning, I think we will throw a pot of beans on to simmer) she will be dicing some onions!

  6. Posted December 17, 2007 at 7:18 pm | Permalink

    thatbobbiegirl: It’s the continual quandary — when does using one’s talent become self-indulgence? When you get that figured out, let me know, ok? 🙂

    enyek: Just leave out the cream. You can use olive oil in place of the butter and have a mediterranean-style snack.

  7. my4blessings
    Posted December 18, 2007 at 11:27 pm | Permalink

    I love dicing onions, but my eyes don’t like it. I get to a point where I begin to cry and then I can no longer see. What onions are the best for not making you cry? I have tried white, sweet and red and they all get to me.

  • Your comment is the best part of this blog! Share what’s on your mind here.

  • In My Kitchen, In My Life is a place where women (and the odd male) can be encouraged, nudged, and occasionally kicked in the pants toward living their lives on a higher plane. Oh, and readers get plenty of chances to laugh at the author's foibles, which is always worth a click.

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