John Curtas is …

Don’t Try This At Home

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The Food Gal® and I recently subscribed to Milk Street – Christopher Kimball’s new food and cooking ‘zine. As an old Kimball fan, I’ve plowed through more issues of Cooks Illustrated than I can count, and still consider his old “America’s Test Kitchen” show to be the definitive television cooking show. Kimball’s Milk Street show on PBS recently debuted, and I’m sure that it will be every bit as good as his old enterprise.

Milk Street is very 21st Century in its sensibilities. Instead of the “perfect meatloaf” and “how to make a pie crust” articles of decades past, it is chock full of foreign foods and travel tidbits. There are also quite a few recipes for things like Peruvian ceviche, Indian curries and southeast Asian soups. All of which got our staff to wondering: What recipes are best left to the professionals, i.e., when are you biting off more than you can chew when you try to cook something at home that is always better in a restaurant?

The following lists are by no means definitive, but after 50 years of restaurant-going, and 40 years of serious home cooking, I’m a pretty good judge of when a recipe (or a type of food) is a waste of time for anyone but those who immerse themselves in it daily. These should give you a good start on what to avoid trying, even if a pro like Chris Kimball is doing the teaching. No offense to him (or avid home cooks everywhere), but no matter how hard you try, the best you can hope for is a distant approximation of what the pros turn out daily:

LEAVE IT TO THE PROFESSIONALS:

Sushi

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Dim sum

Fried chicken

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Bread (unless you bake all the time)

Vietnamese food (unless you’re Vietnamese)

Korean food (unless you’re Korean)

Chinese food (Take it from someone who spent the 80s cooking his way through a number of Chinese cookbooks.)

Indian food (unless you’re Indian and have a larder the size of ELV’s ego)

French food (Even simple French food has more steps than a Fred Astaire movie.)

Puff pastry

Doughnuts

French fries

Whole fish

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Shellfish (raw)

Foie gras

Duck

Ramen

Wine

Chicken wings

Pizza

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Barbecue (unless you have the tools and the patience of Job)

Paella

Chocolate

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COOK AWAY:

Italian food

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Mexican street food (sophisticated Mexican food is another animal entirely)

Burgers

Steaks (Although the best steakhouses always get the best beef, and they use higher heat, to get a better Maillard reaction than you can.)

Chili

Vegetables

Salads

Soup (Except ramen, pho and any number of other Asian noodle soups. NEVER try to make these at home. You will never master them so don’t even try.)

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Stews of any kind

Salsa

Whipped cream

Salad dressing

Roast chicken

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Rack of lamb

Cookies

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Sandwiches

Filets of fish

Pork chops

Hot dogs

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Potatoes

Rice

Shrimp

Shellfish (cooked)

Fruit (Fruit is its own best friend in the kitchen. You can get away with anything when you’re using good, ripe fruit.)

Beer

Eggs

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Home cooking is like any other skill: you have to do it all the time to be any good at it. Milk Street is a great place to learn, but never forget that your cooking reach should never exceed your cooking grasp.

Bon appetit!

 

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7 Responses to Don’t Try This At Home

  • I just had a conversation with my colleague who is from Bombay. He told me that Indians don’t go out for food they can make at home and they think it’s weird that Americans do. Like you can make a perfectly good burger at home so when you’re out order chicken wings because you don’t have a fryer to make them the good way.

  • Mostly agree with your list, but have some disagreements. Once you get the hang of the Korean flavor palate, a good deal of Korean food is easy to do well at home, although some things are nearly impossible to do efficiently on a small scale. For me, tops on the list of things I won’t do (but worth trying once) at home is anything deep fried. I’ve made homemade chimichangas and egg rolls, but I have no plans to do so ever again. Just about everything on your list folks should *try* to make once, though.

    Things on your list I wouldn’t include on mine are: fried chicken (although it does use a lot of oil, does make a mess, and it’s hard to find grocery store chickens small enough to work well), some shellfish recipes (steamed mussels are better at home than at restaurants, cheap as hell, and super duper easy), getting the Chinese flavorings right is tough, but having an outdoor 54,000 BTU propane burner for stir frying is one of the best investments I’ve made for cooking up really good and healthy food. Much of Indian food is also not as difficult as ELV makes it out to be, and mediocre home made bread is still way better than grocery store bought.

    Some of the items you warn against are really pretty easy, but it’s hard to replicate the restaurant experience, like dim sum. On occasion I’ll make a mess of a single variety of wontons and dumplings and freeze most of them to use in soups and such throughout the year. Trying to do an assortment of dim sum at home for a single meal is a recipe for frustration, though. Also, while some asian soups do, indeed, take a lifetime to master, such staples at hot and sour, egg flower, tom kha kai, and japanese hot pots are straightforward, tasty, and good for you.

    Oh, and as to chicken wings, yeah, deep frying them at home is a pain, but I make them all the time by baking them using Alton Brown’s method (my vote for the best cooking show of all time). They’re easy, as tasty as any in town, and healthier for you than deep frying.

    While there’s real wisdom behind ELV’s recommendations, I’d encourage folks to *try* to make each of these. You learn *so* much in getting some of this stuff wrong, that I’d hate to deny people the experience. The only caveat is to warn your potential victims that trying such things is likely to lead to a call to the local pizza place.

  • I’m glad you said “old” America’s Test Kitchen. The new, post-Kimball version, sucks. OK, some of the cooking is fine, but the presentation makes me feel like I’m watching a cooking segment on The Today Show. Too much giggling and inane comments like “who knew?” coming from chefs who are supposed to be the experts.

    Can’t wait to see the Milk Street TV debut which is happening next week in my area.

  • Damn. Killed me here. Pretty much most of what I cook really well is in part B above.

    Keep it up sir.

    PS-Have not seen you comment on Lip Smacking Foodie Tours. You should. They’re spectacular.

  • ELV responds: npc is right when he says, “you learn so much in getting some of this stuff wrong…,” as such disasters provided the research for ELV’s PhD in food failure. Much of our knowledge of foods of the world is based upon trying, and failing, to cook it like a native, and when you see how hard it is to duplicate something so seemingly simple as a California roll or a potato-crusted sea bass, you learn to appreciate the skills of professional chefs all the more. We take issue with his characterization of Indian food, however. To do it properly, you need a lifetime of immersion and a truckload of spices. Like a lot of highly-spiced cuisines, you can duplicate some of the sensations, but it’s hard to nail the subtleties. Thanks to all for the comments!

  • You learn by doing. I love to try new and different recipes. Milk Street has given me the courage to try new things and most often they are eminently edible.

  • Jamaican food (unless you are a Jamaican) should be added to your list of “Don’ts”. I say this mainly because I recently googled “Jamaican food Las Vegas,” and Bahama Breeze was first on the list. PUH-LEEZ!

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