Getting a reputation as a good cook is not that hard. You can take the hard-working, honorable route, and actually go to cooking school or work as a chef. Of course, cooking for a living tends to take the edge off chopping garlic on your days off. For real chefs, anything too complicated or dangerous for ordinary civilians--spit-roasting an entire suckling pig over an open fire, tending a cassoulet made with home-preserved duck confit, going deep-sea fishing and serving sushi on the deck— is cool. Boiling pasta for the kids, making a salad for the wife: just work.
Or you can go the obsessive-amateur route, taste-testing olive oils and actually, painstakingly cooking from The French Laundry Cookbook (a beautiful work of art that, in my mind, resembles a cookbook the way The Tres Riches Heures of the Duc de Berry resembles a Filofax).
And then there's the easy, lazy way: lying around reading cookbooks but actually honing your skills on just a few signature dishes.
This is the route urged by every earnest how-to book. Cook one recipe--roast chicken, short ribs, mashed potatoes--a dozen times, until you really feel the ingredients and understand the technique. Could any suggestion be more boring? Who buys a cookbook just to make the same thing over and over? I hate this advice, and of course it's exactly what I do.
I have a great kitchen-stained book called Polenta, written by Sonoma author Michele Anna Jordan. It's a lovely little book, full of everything you could ever want to know about or cook with polenta. In the 10 years that I've had it, I've gotten at least a dozen dinners out of it. And they've all been the same dish: a tomato-cheese tart with a polenta crust, served with a basil mayonnaise. Have I learned more about polenta from making that tart a dozen times? Probably not, but what's more important is knowing how to make it without even needing the recipe anymore. And who doesn't want to be the sort of person who can whip up a swell tomato-basil tart out of her head, aided only by a bag of polenta and some grated Cheddar cheese?
Having a few dishes down cold can fool anyone into thinking you can, therefore, cook anything. What goes by the name of Thai Peanut Noodles in my house has convinced several rounds of guests that I can cook Thai food. This is not true. As far as I can tell, there is nothing authentically Thai about this dish, besides a vague (but pleasing) resemblance to satay sauce. But I love it, and am ever grateful for the original formula, found in quirky book of essays, recipes, and extremely opininated advice called Cooking As Courtship, by Susan Wiegand. Wiegand, who insists that she is no cook, nevertheless presents numerous useful recipes, all of which are funny and chatty and very observant, because she assumes that you, like her, can't cook. For this dish, you make some noodles or rice, steam a few vegetables, stir up a sauce (mostly made of pantry staples like soy sauce and peanut butter), and top the whole thing with a crunchy fresh salad of cucumbers, carrots, and cilantro, or a mixture of mint and basil for those who feel that cilantro is soap masquerading as parsley.
I hold fast to unsalted natural (meaning made of nothing but peanuts) peanut butter in all things; make this with Skippy and you didn't get the recipe from me.
Thai Peanut Noodles
8 cloves garlic, chopped finely
a thumb-sized chunk of fresh ginger, peeled and grated or finely chopped
1/4 cup (scant) soy sauce
1/4 cup rice or balsamic vinegar
1 TB honey, or to taste
1 TB toasted sesame oil or tahini
1/2 tsp hot sauce, such as Siracha chili sauce, or to taste
3/4 cup natural unsalted peanut butter
1/4 cup water or cold black or green tea (or coconut milk--a recent brainstorm, which would make it more like legitimate satay sauce. Note that since I hate coconut, I haven't made it this way, but you coconut lovers out there, go crazy.)
1 block firm tofu, cubed
1 bunch broccoli, separated into bite-size flowerets and stalks peeled and chopped
1 large cucumber, peeled if waxed, halved, seeds scooped out
2 large carrots, peeled
5-6 scallions, roots and top half of green stem removed
about 1/2 a bunch of cilantro, stems removed
5 or 6 sprigs of mint or basil (optional)
Noodles or rice (I like brown basmati or jasmine rice)
Make the rice or bring water to a boil for noodles. Mix all sauce ingredients except the peanut butter and water. Add peanut butter a large spoonful at a time, beating well. At first, the peanut butter will resist you, but keep stirring. It will relax and form a thick cream all at once. Add water/tea/coconut milk, a little at a time, until sauce is thick but pourable. Taste for seasoning. Add honey, soy sauce, or vinegar to taste. Set aside. Slice cucumber and carrot into thin, matchstick-sized strips. Chop scallions, cilantro, and mint or basil leaves.
Cook noodles if using. Using a vegetable steamer, steam broccoli and tofu together, until broccoli is bright green and just tender. In a large bowl, top noodles or rice with cooked vegetables and tofu. Drizzle on sauce to taste, and toss until well mixed. Top with cucumber and carrot strips. Scatter scallions and chopped cilantro (and mint or basil) lavishly over the bowl.
Note: This recipe makes a lot of sauce, so don't dump it all on at once. The vegetables and noodles should be lightly coated but not drenched. Any extra sauce keeps well in the refrigerator.