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Chat Leftovers: Help for a Culinary Kid

Yes, another Wednesday is upon us, and with it another fabulous Free Range chat with the Food section staff. Join us at 1 in the usual place to ask questions, swap ideas and maybe win a free book in our weekly giveaway.

When we close up shop at 2, we’ve always got a pile of leftover questions in front of us. Here’s one we couldn’t get to last time:

I have an 11-year-old who loves to cook. Wednesdays are her cooking night, and all I do is sit in the kitchen while she works, so I’m there to answer questions and help out if she asks. I’m not even supposed to ask if she wants help! Tonight she’s making roghan josh (she even started marinating the lamb last night!); last week it was a chicken curry; the week before, stuffed pasta shells. But she has trouble pairing things. She knows that rice goes with curry but isn’t sure what vegetable she should pair with it, or if green beans work with pasta, and if so, what kinds of herbs/spices should go in the beans.
Can you think of a good cookbook to help her learn good food "matching"? She really doesn’t need a kids-version book; she's already used my "660 Curries," "Joy of Cooking" and "Bon Appetit Cookbook."

Congratulations on having a budding young cook in the house. I know plenty of parents who would love to be in your shoes.

I think two kinds of books would work well for her. (And check the “Comments” section at the end of this post, in case readers have ideas of their own.)

First, cookbooks that present recipes grouped into complete meals instead of categories (soups, salads, etc.) can give useful ideas about food pairing. For your daughter, I’d recommend “Martha Stewart’s Quick Cook Menus: Fifty-two Meals You Can Make in Under an Hour.” It was published in 1988, and a paperback version followed a few years later; both are still easily found. The book presents dozens of meal menus, each involving four or more courses. Here’s one meal: Pan-Cooked Trout With Tomatoes and Herbs, Boiled Potatoes With Green Olive Oil, Two-Bean Saute, Red and White Grapefruit Sections With Cointreau. (Your daughter can skip the Cointreau.) Another: Veal Scallopini With Sage, Pasta With Tomato-Lemon Sauce, Baby Vegetables With Ricotta Cheese, Red Oakleaf Salad With Capers, Blackberry Sorbet With Fresh Blackberries. By now you might be suspecting that Martha’s claim of “under an hour” for each complete meal is stretching it, and you’d be right. They’re not even close! But your daughter could pick one main course and only one or two of the sides, and still absorb the main points of the flavor lesson.

More advanced than Martha’s book are two other of my faves, “Julia Child & Company” and “Julia Child & More Company.” They came out in the late 1970s and were published later in paperback. These involve menus intended for company and can be quite challenging, but again, your daughter wouldn’t have to make every dish. Sometimes just reading what goes with what gives inspiration enough.

Second, books focusing on ingredients can be helpful, and one impressively thorough one is “The Flavor Bible,” by Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg, whom you might recognize as former Washington Post wine columnists. The bulk of this book is a terrific list of hundreds of ingredients with exhaustive pairings for each of them. For the curry-vegetable match your daughter was wondering about, the book suggests potatoes, fennel, mushrooms, tomatoes and zucchini, among others. For the green beans, pasta is NOT listed, but more than 75 other foods (including herbs, oils and vinegars) are. The book also tells you what flavor profiles are compatible with each food and, sometimes, which flavor pairings you should avoid.

Books aside, the best source of education might be her own taste buds. As she cooks more, as she samples more new foods, as she eats restaurant meals and sees how the pros do it, she’s bound to hone those instincts that tell a cook what’s going to work well and what isn’t. Learning by eating! What could be more fun than that?
-- Jane Touzalin

By Jane Touzalin  |  September 9, 2009; 7:00 AM ET
 | Tags: Free Range, Jane Touzalin  
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I think it's more than anything, just continuing to cook with recipes, eating out at restaurants, watching GOOD cooking shows (old school Julia, Jacques Pepin, Ina Garten, Avec Eric- new fave) and getting a sense of what pairs together well, both classically and for your own palate. When I first started cooking I tried to improvise with my own flavors and it fell flat because I didn't know a) what tasted good together and b) what I personally liked. Now it's a much more organic process for me to cook without a recipe, or to deviate from a recipe to make it taste better to me.

Posted by: cf07 | September 9, 2009 9:33 AM | Report abuse

I'd say yes on green beans and pasta, but not generically. There is a classic Ligurian dish that consists of of linguini with potatoes and green beans dressed in pesto. Also, minestrone frequently has green beans in it and depending on the region has either pasta or rice in it.

I think the best thought is to stay with a single cuisine (Italian, Mexican, etc) and use ingredients that are in season at the same time in that country. Problems can arise when you add products that store, such as cheeses, grains, meats, etc, but I don't think that this is a great problem.

Posted by: ArlingtonSMP | September 9, 2009 9:35 AM | Report abuse

"The New Basics Cookbook" (RIP, Sheila Lukins) is lavishly dotted with lists, tables, and other quick hits of invaluable info. They include the authors' favorite flavors with a particular ingredient, what cheeses go well with which fruits, sample menus, nutritional info, and (for future reference) wine pairings. It's beautifully designed and loaded with helpful illustrations. Bon appetit!

Posted by: mariebmorris | September 9, 2009 12:31 PM | Report abuse

It seems as if your daughter likes cooking internationally. For Indian cuisine, Madhur Jaffrey has examples of menus in the first several pages of her first cook book and maybe others as well. To build upon this great question, I wonder if someone can recommend similar books of other ethnic foods and with a decent number of vegetarian options.

Posted by: k1omal | September 9, 2009 12:57 PM | Report abuse

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