Aleksandra Mir

Cooking Lessons the Hard Way

By Nona Joann, Denver, November 2010

Cooking is equal parts science and art. If you get either wrong, the dish may be ruined or you may create a masterpiece. It's a toss up. You never know the result.

Last week, I checked out Aleksandra Mir's The How Not to Cook Book: Lessons learned the hard way from the library. Mir offers cooking advice from 1000 anonymous cooks. Clever concept for a book I thought. As I skimmed through How Not to Cook, I realized that I could come up with nearly as many examples of cooking mishaps just from my own experience.

In about 15 minutes, I wrote down 25 personal illustrations of how not to cook. This is not an anonymous or fictional list. I really did all of the things listed below.

If you like to cook, you probably have experienced a calamity or two. It's nearly impossible not to. Fortunately, most cooking errors aren't permanent.

Of course I've been cooking for over 40 years, so I most likely have a few more mishaps to choose from than you do. Some of these cooking, um, experiences are from when I much younger. Some are very recent. Such as, the first example. The teakettle incident happened only this year. You'd think I would know better. So you see, it's never too late to learn from your cooking mistakes. That is if you live to tell about it.

1. Don't ever leave a teakettle on the stove unintended, especially when it doesn't always remember to whistle. You could end up ruining your favorite, expensive teakettle. Furthermore, it might take a while to get the smell of burnt stainless steel out of your kitchen.

2. You can't make a decent stew in less than an hour without using a pressure cooker. (Hey, I was newly wed and my wonderful husband blamed the chewiness of the meal on a tough piece of meat.)

3. When using a blender don't start on high. Especially without placing your hand on the lid. You're likely to end up with a polka dot ceiling.

4. Don't forget to add the baking powder when making cookies. You'll be serving little flying saucers.

5. When boiling eggs don't place cold eggs into warm water. You'll end up cracking the shells and a trail of egg tentacles will fill the pot of water.

6. Don't ever use an electric burner. You might forget that the burner is on, especially if it's on low. Besides, it's so much easier to control the temperature with gas.

7. If you plan on a baked dish for dinner, turn the oven on. This is especially important if you have a new oven. Make sure it actually got turned on when you set the temperature.

8. Add salt at the END of cooking. Salt loses its saltiness as it cooks.

9. Don't add olive oil to the water when cooking pasta. It will make it impossible for the sauce to cling to the pasta.

10. Clean the bottom of the oven before roasting a chicken or a turkey. Or the smoke alarm will be your signal that dinner is ready.

11. When making oatmeal for breakfast, don't check your email. You'll end up with a burnt offering.

12. After a trip to Tuscany, don't attempt to make cousin Mirella's signature apple cake without first having accurate measurements. Metric conversion is hard enough, but with guesstimates, it's impossible. Then add the need to alter a recipe for high altitude. It just isn't the same. (Can't say I didn't try.)

13. Never sauté veggies on high heat. Splattering oil will ruin your blouse and you'll make a mess of the stove and the wall behind it. In addition, you'll be concocting your own trans fat.

14. Use only sharp knives. A dull knife will most likely fail to penetrate hard raw veggies or even bread on the first pass and you'll need four stitches.

15. Don't keep knives in a drawer. It's impossible to keep them sharp. (See number 14.)

16. Gather ALL the ingredients for dinner BEFORE you start cooking...or you may find you don't have an onion or garlic. Just about everything tastes better with onions and garlic.

17. When attempting a new muffin recipe from a cookbook, be careful not to lose your place. If you begin with one recipe and end with the one printed beneath, you will have trouble making it a second time, no matter how yummy it turns out.

18. Don't cut the amount of baking soda in biscuits, even if you live at high altitude. You'll end up with hockey pucks.

19. When your husband invites a guy from work and his family over for dinner, be sure to ask not only how many, but how large they are. Or you could end up entertaining the giant family with enough prepared food for little people.

20. Always use extra virgin olive oil. It tastes so much better and it's healthier, too.

21. Crush garlic by placing a clove under the flat side of a knife and then hitting it with your palm. It takes only a second. The paper-thin covering will pop right off. It's so much more efficient and fun than pealing it with your fingers.

22. Never throw out a brown banana. Peel and freeze it in baggie. Then toss the frozen banana into the blender when making a fruit smoothie.

23. Don't cry over spilt the dog.

24. When attempting to make gravy, never add flour directly into hot turkey drippings or you will end up with little gravy dumplings. (Note: Dumplings aren't supposed to be in gravy. Perhaps a stew, but definitely not gravy.) Whisk the flour into a little wine and then incorporate it into the hot drippings. Don't forget to pour yourself a glass of wine.

25. Never exactly follow a recipe. Live dangerously; it's more fun that way.