I was browsing in the bookstore when I noticed yet another “1,001 Things to Do Before You Die” type book. There seems to be a “Things to Do Before You Die” book for just about any aspect of life you can think of. They’re kind of like Dummies books for those who fear their own mortality. Places to see, golf courses to play, books to read. But so far I haven’t seen a “1,000 Recipes to Make Before You Die.” I’m sure it’s just a matter of time. However, in the interim, I would like to offer 10 things to make before you die, along with my own commentary (you knew there was a catch). I could probably slice and dice this into a thousand subcategories: 10 kinds of cookies to make before you die, 10 desserts to make before you die, 10 dinner recipes to master before you die, 10 basics to master before you die, etc. And I may do that (hey, sometimes it’s hard to come up with something to blog about, even when you think about food as much as I do). And so here, in no particular order, I offer 10 things I think everyone should make at least one time before they die.
1. Real Mayonnaise: About 15 years ago, for reasons that I can no longer recall, I decided to make “real” mayonnaise. This was after the salmonella warnings, but I was still young enough to have that “It won’t happen to me” attitude (and in case you're curious, it didn’t). I used a recipe out of Craig Claiborne’s "Kitchen Primer." It was, I decided, yummy, but kind of funny-tasting. I later realized that the reason was because I was using olive oil with garlic in it. I should clarify that for as long as I could remember, my mother had tossed a couple of cloves of garlic into the jar of olive oil that she kept out on the counter for cooking (my mother was ahead of her time in using olive oil almost exclusively for cooking in an age when most people used butter, margarine, or what was then called “salad oil” but which we now call corn oil). This garlic-in-olive-oil thing was something she did without realizing that she could have killed us all—she created a perfect breeding ground for botulism. We never got sick, but she did use it without heating it (to make salad dressings and the like).
But, as usual, I digress. Anyway, in later years I’ve come to realize that olive oil of any kind is just too strong for mayonnaise. The garlic was OK, but the olive oil was just too much. For mayonnaise you really need to use…well, salad oil. I use canola today. I also use pasteurized eggs. There’s only one company that makes these that I’m aware of, but boy are they a great concept. You use them just like you use regular eggs, and they taste just like regular eggs. If you live in the Northeast I know for a fact you can buy them at pretty much any grocery store. If you live in the Northwest (as I now do), you’re on your own. I mail order them from the company that makes them. But then, I’m weird. However, using them means you can make cookie dough, and still let your kid lick the spoon, just like we always did. You can make a fried egg and not have to worry that you didn’t get it quite cooked all the way through. But this wasn’t supposed to be an ad for pasteurized eggs.
I believe that everyone should know how to make real mayonnaise, even if they do it only once. Understanding how the egg and the oil emulsify, and getting that to actually happen, is very gratifying and crosses over into many other areas of cooking, such as sauce and salad dressing making, which most people do on a fairly regular basis (unless all of their sauces are powdered out of a packet, and all of their salad dressings are Kraft, in which case my own opinion is that their culinary lives could be enriched a thousand times over with very little effort).
2. Apple Pie: Everyone should make a real apple pie from start to finish at some point in their lifetime. Make the dough for the crust (even in the food processor—it’s not cheating, it’s just smarter and easier). Slice up the apples, season everything, bake it. I’ve made lots and lots of pies, including apple, and again it’s one of those very gratifying experiences to take this beautiful golden oozy bubbly creation out of the oven and know that you did it yourself (with no help from Mrs. Smith!) and it wasn’t really that hard. Under the category of apple pie also falls everything apple—turnovers (if you’re using puff pastry, frozen is just fine; if you’re making them with short crust dough, go the food processor route), tarte tatin, and the like. Just make something apple, just once.
Sure, all of these things take awhile, but I’m not suggesting this is a weekly occurrence. But every fall I get an unquenchable urge to make an apple pie. I also go out and buy packets of #2 pencils and new spiral bound notebooks. I believe I mentioned that I’m weird.
3. Beef Stew: One year sometime in February I made a boeuf bourguignon (that is, a beef stew with a lot of red wine in it). The recipe came out of a Martha Stewart Living magazine, and it took about five hours to make (admittedly, a lot of that time spent in the oven unattended—the stew, not me) and used an entire bottle of wine. It was fantastic. I served it over mashed potatoes (see below), and while it’s not something I’d serve to my friends who were dieting, or concerned about cholesterol (it had about half a pound of bacon in it), it was truly a magnificent thing to have made one time. Was it authentic French boeuf bourguignon? I seriously doubt it. But it sure was tasty. I highly recommend this project for a weekend when the weather forecast is calling for a 100% chance of precipitation (rain is OK, snow is better), and you can get to the grocery store before the toilet paper-milk-bread crowd, and you have absolutely nothing else you must (or even want to) do. While it’s in the oven, you can amuse yourself with another bottle of red wine, and some Jane Austen, or Edith Wharton, or even someone like Tolstoy (although I always say the Russian writers are summertime reading…but that’s a topic for another time).
4. Bread: I can’t remember the first loaf of bread I baked, but I do remember being very intimidated by yeast. It’s amazing how many people are. Even though we’re talking about a single-celled organism, people are still cowed by the idea of it—what if the liquid I put it in is too hot and it all dies? What if it doesn’t have enough to “eat” and doesn’t work? What if it’s too old and doesn’t work? Yeast seems so temperamental and picky. I can only say that if you’re really concerned about it, go out and buy fresh yeast, an instant-read thermometer, and “proof” the yeast first. Mix up the warm liquid (milk, water, whatever—just use that instant-read thermometer to confirm that it’s not so hot that it’s going to kill your yeast, but that it’s not so cool that your yeast will catch a chill and not work—110 degrees is about right), add a tiny bit of sugar (most recipes say a teaspoon, but even less will work), then add the yeast. You don’t even really have to mix it. Just swirl it around and let it sit for five or so minutes and you’ll see it start to swell—kind of like that puffy craft paint you can buy, only instead of being an interesting color, it’ll be kind of a dull putty shade. That’s it—it’s working. Proceed with the recipe.
And if you’re really uncomfortable with the idea of yeast, you can use a recipe for beer bread I found once in a magazine. It is totally, 100% idiotproof. Mix 2 2/3 cups of self-rising flour with one 12oz. can of the very cheapest beer you can find. Seriously, if your grocery store sells that stuff in the white can labeled “Beer,” buy it. I usually use something like Pabst Blue Ribbon or Coors Light (whatever is cheap to start with and on sale on top of that). Decent beer—anything that has a description of its flavor on the label and doesn’t just stop with adjectives like “crisp” or “smooth” and leave it at that—will be too strong for this bread. Mix the flour and the beer together. Go ahead, mix the daylights out of it—you can’t hurt this bread. Add grated cheese, or herbs, or whatever you feel like, if you want to. It’s good plain or flavored. However, do NOT add salt—self-rising flour has enough salt in it, I promise. Dump the batter into a 9x5x3 bread pan sprayed with cooking spray. The recipe I have says to bake it at 375 for 50 to 55 minutes, but I’ve also had success with baking it for about 40 minutes at 425 degrees. It’s done when it’s golden-y brown, and pretty much looks done. This bread is perfect with chili or soup on a cold weeknight when you don’t have time to make “real” bread that calls for two rises and the whole deal.
I still think everyone should attempt real yeast bread (James Beard’s "Beard on Bread" has a great basic recipe for white sandwich bread), but if you want bread fast, the two-ingredient beer bread is the way to go.
5. Chocolate Chip Cookies: Every now and then when I’m in the dairy aisle, I notice that they’ve simplified yet again the process for “making” chocolate chip cookies. When I was in high school, they came out with the tubes of dough. You sliced them, cut them in quarters, and baked them. Then they came out with the little squares that you broke apart and baked. Now it’s just a gigantic cookie in a pan that you stick in the oven. All this to simplify chocolate chip cookies? How low does your IQ have to be not to be able to make chocolate chip cookies?
And spare me the “time” excuse. I don’t believe for one second that Busy Betty Workingmom is saying to herself “Gosh, I’m sure rushed this morning—good thing I have these little squares of cookie dough so I can make fresh cookies for the kids’ lunches!” People use all those cookie “shortcuts” on weekends so they can have their cookies without any trouble, not so they can make them in a shorter amount of time and hurry off to do other errands. When was the last time you saw an ad for those Pillsbury cookies that had Mom saying “C’mon kids—let’s make some cookies real quick and then hurry off to the post office! With these new Pillsbury Break-n-Bake Squares, we can have hot cookies and still get there before the main lobby closes!” No, they’re sold as a convenience so that Mom doesn’t have to drag out the mixer, soften the butter and go to the store for a bag of chips on Saturday afternoon.
Even if you mostly use those convenience cookie products, you should still be able to make chocolate chip cookies from scratch and (this is more critical) you should always have the ingredients on hand. Sure, sure, we all run out of eggs and butter now and then, but for the most part, the really basic ingredients that chocolate chip cookies call for should always be around. The chips keep pretty much indefinitely, so there’s really no reason not to. Plus, for those using cookie-making as a way to occupy a couple of hours with a kid who’s begging to go to the playground in the pouring rain, I would point out that making them “from scratch” eats up a lot more of that afternoon than opening a package, breaking up little squares of dough, and sticking them in the oven.
6. Scrambled Eggs: Often this is the first thing anyone cooks. I personally am annoyed by recipes I read for scrambled eggs that insist that they be puffy, soft, and slightly underdone. While I don’t mind a fried egg with a somewhat runny yolk (as long as I have a decent piece of toast to eat with said yolk), I find runny scrambled eggs to be repulsive. I like mine to actually be browning slightly. I think everyone should know how to make scrambled eggs the way they like them, so that if they’re starving and can’t think of anything else to eat, they can make a couple. Scrambled eggs are pretty nasty when made for large numbers of people anyway. In my opinion, if you want to make eggs for large numbers of people, find a good recipe for a strata and learn to make that.
However, I also include in the category of scrambled eggs things like frittata, omelets, and the Spanish tortilla (which are all pretty much the same thing). These things take a little more skill than scrambled eggs, because you can’t just shove them around in the pan until they’re all done. You have to learn the trick of pulling the cooked edge away from the side of the pan, and letting some of the raw egg run down underneath. Then you have to master the technique of broiling the top until it’s just done, and flipping the whole thing out on a plate (either folded or flat as appropriate, depending on whether you’re making an omelet or a frittata/tortilla, respectively). Scrambled eggs have a kind of breakfast stigma, whereas all these other things can also fill in at lunch, dinner, or even as an hors d’oeuvre.
7. Mashed Potatoes: This was one of the first things I cooked. And from that experience I can pass on a piece of advice that will save you from having to throw out a whole batch of mashed potatoes and start over: DO NOT make them in a food processor. You may already know this, or it may just not have occurred to you to try it yet. If the latter, just don’t. For those who care, the supersharp steel blade of a food processor cuts the cell walls of the cooked potato to ribbons, and all the starch escapes and turns your potatoes into a gluey mess. Of all the things that can be described using the old “library paste” cliché, mashed potatoes made in a food processor must be the most accurate. But you don’t know these things when you’re 14, so you do them, and you learn never to do them again.
Mashed potatoes is another food that has been taken over by the “convenience” trend. It’s a takeover that occurred years and years ago, when the first person thought of dehydrating potato flakes and selling them to be reconstituted with water or milk or whatever, and has been carried on by the “pre-made” mashed potatoes you can buy in the same area as the eggs in most grocery stores. My dad used to make me instant mashed potatoes, and we used to serve them as a side dish when I worked in my mother’s catering company and carry out. Here’s a tip—you can always tell instant mashed potatoes (I’m speaking now of the commercial ones, which are actually a lot better than the home product, but are still instant mashed potatoes) by how they “melt” when gravy is poured on them. They’re a product meant to be mixed with a liquid to create a semi-solid mass. While you’re making them, if you put too much liquid in them, they become more “liquidy” and you’d have to add more of the powder to tighten them up. However, when they’re on your plate, if you put gravy on them (really just another liquid), they’ll do the same thing they would have done while they were being made—they’ll become too liquid, and the gravy and the potatoes will seem to “melt” together. Don’t say you never learned anything from me.
At any rate, I think everyone should be able to make “real” mashed potatoes, and if they serve them, they should make them from scratch and never use either of the “convenience” products. The only thing I’ve ever heard of using mashed potato “flakes” for that sounds even semi-useful is as a coating on meats that were to be cooked. I’ve never tried this, but it sounds like it might be kind of tasty. However, those nasty little flakes should never be used for their manufacturer-intended purpose, in my snot-nosed opinion. And it’s just too easy to make really good mashed potatoes to use the ones in the refrigerated packet.
8. Fried Chicken: I’m somewhat ashamed to admit that I’ve never had much luck with “real” fried chicken. The only times I’ve ever made it (maybe twice), it’s been raw in the middle and burnt on the outside. I know my mistake, but I also know that it’s such a pain in the ass to actually make fried chicken that I’m not going to make a batch just to confirm that if I’d let the chicken come to room temperature before frying it, it would have turned out fine. However, I think it’s important to be able to make it. If pressed, I can make it—I know how to coat it, and how hot the oil should be, and that sort of detail. I think everyone should know the ins and outs of making fried chicken, even if they never do. It’s just one of those classic American dishes that anyone who labels themselves as a cook should understand.
9. Thanksgiving (or other major holiday) dinner: When I say “major holiday dinner” I mean the all-American one with a roast turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, vegetables, rolls, and pie for dessert. Nothing against a Passover Seder, and if that’s the major holiday meal you most identify with, then that’s the one you should be able to make. But for me, it’s Thanksgiving dinner. Our Christmas, New Year’s Eve, and Easter menus vary too much to be the “before I die” meals. Thanksgiving is always the same.
When I say I think everyone should be able to make this, I really don’t mean solo. As long as you can roast the turkey and do the stuffing yourself, and you know how to make the rest of the meal, I think it’s perfectly acceptable to call in reinforcements to actually provide the various side dishes and dessert. I was always responsible for the mashed potatoes when I was a kid (this was long after the food processor incident). I remember once opening a stick of butter, standing it up on end and giving it a good push down into that huge pile of potatoes, much to the horror of the woman at whose house we were eating. Her concern was not for herself, but for a couple of the other guests who were pretty fanatical about their diets, apparently. My reaction then (as it is now) was “If you’re not going to go all out on Thanksgiving, when are you??”
So I say, learn to do the bulk of it yourself, get everyone else to bring something, and ease up about what they may or may not have put in what they bring. It’s one meal on one day. Live a little.
I should clarify that for all of these things, I don’t mean to imply that you should make them on a regular basis (unless you want to), or that you should have the recipes for these things memorized (some things, like mashed potatoes, you wouldn’t be able to help “memorizing” the recipes for, because they’re so basic). But I think everyone should attempt to make these things just once. They may not turn out, they may be fabulous, but either way, you’ll probably develop a new respect for people who make these things and serve them to you. When you understand the work that goes into making a cheesecake, your appreciation for the one you’re served at a dinner party goes beyond the thought of someone taking the trouble to make you a dessert. If you haven’t already got a feel for it, you move closer to the understanding of how the making and serving of food equates to the expression of love. And if you have already got a feel for it, you just deepen your understanding. Either way, you come out of the experience a more well-rounded and better-fed person.