How to Cheat at Cooking

Apparently, people like to eat.

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How to Cheat at Cooking

Postby michaelandjimi » Wed Dec 10, 2008 8:15 am UTC

I'm looking for food that gives the impression of being a master chef, without actually requiring me to be one. Recipes ahoy?
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Re: How to Cheat at Cooking

Postby Matsi » Wed Dec 10, 2008 9:47 am UTC

Well, you can't do much wrong with most fish, if you buy it fresh and don't overcook it. I don't have any specific recipes i can think of right now though, but there's probably a lot good recipes if you google the fish of your choice. A simple basic recipe with fish is to season it lightly with salt and pepper, stuff some vegetables and fresh herbs inside and some lime juice, pack it all in aluminum foil and put it in the oven.

But make sure you get a really fresh fish! Pick up a whole fish, smell it, look at it's eyes (they should still be clear, the longer they are dead the milkier the eyes become), and if you are satisfied with it ask the fishmonger to fillet it for you (and scrub of the scales if they're still on).

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Re: How to Cheat at Cooking

Postby Bakemaster » Wed Dec 10, 2008 1:27 pm UTC

Get really good at making spaghetti bolognese, I guess? You're not going to fool anyone into thinking you're a master chef just by making one good recipe, unless they know nothing about cooking. If you just want to know what has the best ratio of impressiveness to difficulty, soups and sauces are probably your best bet. People who don't know much about making pasta sauces (other than marinara) are usually impressed by bolognese. Try Emeril's recipe, I guess. For soups, do some research on Chinese Egg Drop Soup and be sure to use grated garlic, add corn starch before the egg, and garnish with chopped scallions. That's another impressive dish to people who don't know how to cook.

Really your biggest concern is making sure the person you're fooling doesn't know how to cook. There's no way to actually make the complicated dishes a master chef makes, which set the chef apart from others, without some serious cooking skills.
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Re: How to Cheat at Cooking

Postby Moo » Wed Dec 10, 2008 1:46 pm UTC

Delia's Cheat recipes.

I don't know if that's the sort of thing you're after.
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Re: How to Cheat at Cooking

Postby lethesoda » Wed Dec 10, 2008 2:19 pm UTC

Up Up Down Down Left Right Left Right Start.

After that, learn to cook a good-looking lasagna and Better-Than-Sex cake. After that, no one will worry about how good a cook you are.
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Re: How to Cheat at Cooking

Postby Bakemaster » Wed Dec 10, 2008 3:05 pm UTC

The "Better-Than-Sex Cake" is a myth. In actuality even the greatest chef can only attain the "Better-Than-Mediocre-Sex Cake".
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Re: How to Cheat at Cooking

Postby Moo » Wed Dec 10, 2008 3:06 pm UTC

...ponies?

I rarely quote for truth as it is and now with the filter I am loathe to do so... but what Bakemaster said. Very much.
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Re: How to Cheat at Cooking

Postby 22/7 » Wed Dec 10, 2008 7:49 pm UTC

lethesoda wrote:Up Up Down Down Left Right Left Right Start.
I can't believe you forgot the B A.

I have officially lost faith in humanity.
michaelandjimi wrote:I'm looking for food that gives the impression of being a master chef, without actually requiring me to be one. Recipes ahoy?
I think what you're going for are simplish dishes that look/taste like there's a lot more going on than there really is? I've got a pasta sauce that's kind of like that (sun-dried tomato cream), pretty easy to make, takes about 15-20 minutes and generally looks/tastes like it was relatively difficult to make, but I don't have the recipe in front of me (I'm at work).
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Re: How to Cheat at Cooking

Postby Angua » Wed Dec 10, 2008 9:33 pm UTC

Curries are normally pretty simple and can taste quite good. Also, I find garlic and onions tend to help most dishes smell as though they're being done well, especially if you fry them.
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Re: How to Cheat at Cooking

Postby Bakemaster » Thu Dec 11, 2008 1:06 am UTC

Actually, I came up with something tonight that I just realized might fit the bill for this thread. It's something I remembered Sarah had done last year and then decided to sloppily imitate. The original recipe was similar to this one, but the dressing was cooked briefly in a skillet and poured onto the salad warm. But tonight, all I had was spinach, pecans, rice wine vinegar and maple syrup. I think I put about 1/2 cup of vinegar into a hot pan (I had seared some meat in the pan just previously, so very hot), then added no more than 1/4 cup of maple syrup, let it reduce for just 15 seconds or so, and then poured it over the spinach and tossed before sprinkling on the pecans. They were halved pecans so I chopped them coarsely first.

I still don't think this is something that will make you look like a master chef, but it will certainly show that you know some recipes that are out of the ordinary, and you'll have tasty food. That's bound to impress.
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Re: How to Cheat at Cooking

Postby PatrickRsGhost » Thu Dec 11, 2008 1:11 am UTC

Bakemaster wrote:The "Better-Than-SexCake" is a myth lie.


Fix'd.

When I saw the title of the thread, I was thinking you were looking for shortcuts to cooking, or substitutes for ingredients that make cooking less of a chore.

In that sense, self-rising flour can be used in substitute of all-purpose flour, baking soda, and baking powder. Self-rising, if you can find it, consists of all three, and works pretty well in most recipes that call for the former.

There are cookbooks and websites galore that show you how to make meals using prepackaged meals, and just jazz them up a bit. For example, take a box of Kraft Deluxe macaroni and cheese (the kind with the cheese sauce instead of powder), add milk, cheddar cheese, and mozzarella cheese, bake at 350ºF for about 20 minutes, and no one would know you cheated with a box.
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Re: How to Cheat at Cooking

Postby Nath » Thu Dec 11, 2008 2:28 am UTC

PatrickRsGhost wrote:There are cookbooks and websites galore that show you how to make meals using prepackaged meals, and just jazz them up a bit. For example, take a box of Kraft Deluxe macaroni and cheese (the kind with the cheese sauce instead of powder), add milk, cheddar cheese, and mozzarella cheese, bake at 350ºF for about 20 minutes, and no one would know you cheated with a box.

Does that really save time? Seems like almost the same amount of effort as making the real thing.

Anyway, to answer the OP's question: pot roasts?

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Re: How to Cheat at Cooking

Postby ArchangelShrike » Thu Dec 11, 2008 8:01 am UTC

I've heard crock pots and slow cookers do wonders. Simply throw the food in and turn it on in the morning, it'll be ready at night.

Or: One salmon filet (4-6 servings size). One wasabi-mayo mix/spread. One bottle furikake/packaged nori.
Place salmon on baking pan, cover top generously with spread, sprinkle furikake/nori on top. Broil 325-350 F for 15 minutes? I forget the heat/time exactly.

One round onion, container of mushrooms - slice big pieces, saute. (brown onions with butter, throw in mushrooms, cover with soy sauce/wine and black pepper, should see vegetables reduce in size greatly with a sauce at the bottom of the pan, you don't need to see your liquid flavoring of choice at the bottom of the pan in the beginning)

Asparagus - lightly saute with butter and garlic or steam in microwave with salt/pepper, butter and garlic.

Garlic/Mashed Potatoes - use the box, add extra cream/garlic to taste.

Garlic/French Bread - Most upscale supermarkets should have a bakery you can grab fresh bread from. If you've got it, French Bread with Balsamic Vinegar & Olive Oil & Roasted Garlic in a little dish to scoop out/dip bread in, or butter if you prefer.

Serve nice portions on plates. Present nicely - make sure it looks wonderful as well. Presentation is half the battle, possibly setup mashed potatoes with asparagus leaning ontop, sauted onions & mushrooms next to it, salmon on last third of plate.

Yes, I like garlic, its wonderful.

If it sounds like too much work and you've got a local fish market or some such, consider chopping up a nice piece of yellow-fin tuna into cubes and seasoning it to turn it into poke, then covering it with panko flakes and deep frying it. Drizzle with citrus ponzu sauce and possibly wasabi-mayo sauce, if you have either. Then be prepared to spend money for lots and lots of fish.

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Re: How to Cheat at Cooking

Postby Zak » Thu Dec 11, 2008 8:09 am UTC

If you want people to think that you are a master chef, then it's almost more important that your food looks good than tastes good.
Presentation is key. Learn how to make your meals look more attractive and people will eat it with the expectation of it tasting good too. (unless you're really just dismal at cooking). A little bit of garnish here and a little drizzle of sauce around the plate can make it look miles better, with the added bonus of: it's way easier than actually becoming a master chef.
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Re: How to Cheat at Cooking

Postby julius » Fri Dec 12, 2008 12:35 pm UTC

I think the amount of skill you can fake is quite limited - but it shouldn't be necessary, as long as you basically can cook. Of course, if you're someone that stares at an onion in confusion, you may as well give up...

A meal that I think works quite well as a "posh" dinner and is fairly easy would be magret de canard served with gratin dauphinois. Magret de canard is duck breast fillets, which are quite nice simply salted & peppered, then pan-fried until slightly pink in the middle. You can go a lot more sophisticated on that, try and make some sort of 'jus'/sauce out of the residue etc., but the basic concept is fairly simple. Gratin dauphinois sounds posh, but is also quite easy. Take plenty of potatoes (experiment with what variety of spud works best, I'm never quite sure), peel them and slice very thinly. Arrange the slices in a shallow baking dish (about an inch deep) and fill the dish up with enough cream to cover the potatoes (seasoned with salt & pepper, mostly). Then cover with not too much grated cheese (mild cheddar, Emmental or other good melting cheese). Bake for about 30 minutes, until the potatoes are soft. That's it. I'd serve it with a simple vegetable side - maybe broccoli, but be careful not to overcook it. Arrange nicely on a plate, it looks posh to the point of being pretentious... it is also genuinely tasty, though. And simple.

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Re: How to Cheat at Cooking

Postby Angua » Fri Dec 12, 2008 12:39 pm UTC

julius's point reminds me, give everything a foreign name, it will always sound more impressive. Arroz con pollo sounds more impressive than rice and chicken.

You can even get away with serving mud and boots in this manner.
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Re: How to Cheat at Cooking

Postby mandalynn » Fri Dec 12, 2008 12:58 pm UTC

Chicken Kiev. It has a fancy name. It's pretty. It looks difficult but it's really not.

Take some room temperature butter, put in a bowl, add some herbs (parsley, tarragon) and salt and pepper. Mix it up and stick it in the fridge.

Take a chicken breast and put it between two pieces of plastic wrap. Use a mallet or bottom of a heavy glass. Start in the center and pound it working your way to the sides. You're done when it's about half the thickness it was before.

Get out your butter and put a tablespoon or so in the center of the chicken. Roll the sides of the chicken around so the butter is covered. Dip the whole thing in egg(beaten) and bread crumbs(panko are recommended if you can find them, otherwise any course-really chunky bread crumb).

Once you have about half an inch of oil heated in a frying pan, place the chicken folded side down in the pan. Cook about 4-5 minutes, flip, cook another 4-5. Om nom nom :)

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Re: How to Cheat at Cooking

Postby |Erasmus| » Fri Dec 12, 2008 10:19 pm UTC

ArchangelShrike wrote:Garlic/Mashed Potatoes - use the box, add extra cream/garlic to taste.

I am thoroughly, thoroughly confused. You buy potatoes in boxes like that?

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Re: How to Cheat at Cooking

Postby Gojoe » Fri Dec 12, 2008 10:31 pm UTC

Well, I got this cookbook that is all about how to cook on a fire (like for camping) which pretty much has this reciepe repeated a few times.

Put XXX into tinfoil (add cream or spices usually) throw into embers. After xxx amount of time remove from embers. Eat (but not the tinfoil).

Replace the embers with an oven, and it works really well, and you can be lazy. Like I cook chicken like that sometimes, no dishes are dirtied in the process, and the chicken gets all nice and tender.
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Re: How to Cheat at Cooking

Postby Amarantha » Sat Dec 13, 2008 12:34 pm UTC

^ Jamie Oliver does a bit of that. I forget which book it's in, but he also does a couple of variations thereof on the Live DVD. I don't do it nearly as often as I keep saying I should, but I had great results with lemon-dressed salmon fillets.

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Re: How to Cheat at Cooking

Postby julius » Sun Dec 14, 2008 8:55 pm UTC

mandalynn wrote:Chicken Kiev. It has a fancy name. It's pretty. It looks difficult but it's really not.


I beg to differ. Well, it's not difficult per se, but messy. The dipping in egg part, mainly. But freshly breaded things are nice. (I've never done kievs, but I quite like Wiener Schnitzel, which is simply a very thin veal (or pork) escalope breaded and fried (in butter, this is important!). You need good quality veal though, which ain't cheap.)

(Cut for brevity)
mandalynn wrote:Get out your butter and put a tablespoon or so in the center of the chicken. Roll the sides of the chicken around so the butter is covered. Dip the whole thing in egg(beaten) and bread crumbs(panko are recommended if you can find them, otherwise any course-really chunky bread crumb).


I'd strongly recommend an extra step here: before dipping it in the egg, dust the meat with plain flour - it makes the egg stick to it better, and you get a more even coat of breadcrumbs at the end. Also, just to be contrary, I like this sort of thing done with finer breadcrumbs.

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Re: How to Cheat at Cooking

Postby Iori_Yagami » Wed Dec 17, 2008 10:52 am UTC

A good ol' advice: all your meals will look twice as attractive and will taste twice better, if they are made twice as rarely.
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Re: How to Cheat at Cooking

Postby annals » Tue Dec 23, 2008 11:51 pm UTC

I don't know if you were interested in desserts, but if you were, ganache is easy, pretty, and delicious. Just heat up some cream in the microwave, pour it over an equal amount (approximately--depends on how dark you want it) of bittersweet chocolate chips and stir. You can let it coll a bit and pour it over stuff while it's still runny, or, my favorite, chill it and eat it by the spoonful. Yum.

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Re: How to Cheat at Cooking

Postby semicharmed » Wed Dec 24, 2008 2:03 am UTC

How much cooking do you normally do? Do you eat meat or are you veggies-only? Like vegetables? Are you looking for recipes that look like they take a long time to cook but are quick? Or things that look like they take an absurd amount of skill but anyone who can follow instruction can make?
For the first, most anything prepared in a crockpot (baked beans, stew, pot roast, etc) will require little in the way of prep and half an eye on the crock pot for 8-10 hours. And generally impress people. And taste really damn good.
For the second, I cook more than most people I know, and there are very few things I've run into, recipe-wise, where I've been confused or epically failed. Most of it is knowing which spices will work together, not being afraid to use salt (especially in the beginning), and taste-testing.
Some of my favorites (in no real order) are ziti/lasagne (and if I'm trying to impress, manicotti), chicken cutlets/chicken parm, chicken pot pie, burgers from scratch, chili (which is crock pot-able), chicken & rice and stew. I can send you the recipes, if you're interested, since they're all from cookbooks, not just links.

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Re: How to Cheat at Cooking

Postby fishyfish777 » Thu Dec 25, 2008 1:31 am UTC

AJINOMOTO (Essence of Taste)
味の素

Don't put too much on. It's basically japanese taste powder. Goes well with most foods. Also known as MSG.

For more info:
http://www.ajinomoto-usa.com/
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ajinomoto
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Glutamic_acid_(flavor)
http://www.fda.gov/FDAC/features/2003/103_msg.html

You can find this stuff usually at your local Asian store. I don't know about health concerns, but many Resteraunts, fast food chains, and packaged food use this to boost flavor.
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Re: How to Cheat at Cooking

Postby PatrickRsGhost » Thu Dec 25, 2008 3:40 pm UTC

ArchangelShrike wrote:I've heard crock pots and slow cookers do wonders. Simply throw the food in and turn it on in the morning, it'll be ready at night.


This contains volumes of truth. I have prepared many an excellent meal in the Crock Pot (brand name for slow cooker) in the past, with little to no preparation. There are a lot of books with slow cooker recipes that extend beyond soups, stews, and casseroles/hot dishes. I have prepared pot roast in the slow cooker that made its own gravy. I don't place potatoes and carrots in with the roast, but I do serve mashed potatoes as something to hold the extra gravy. I've made jambalaya, lasagna, apple sauce, chocolate cake, and other great things in the slow cooker.

ArchangelShrike wrote:Asparagus - lightly saute with butter and garlic or steam in microwave with salt/pepper, butter and garlic.


There is nothing in the world that will make asparagus taste good. Asparagus is one of those things that cannot be improved in its taste. It tastes bad even by itself.

ArchangelShrike wrote:Garlic/French Bread - Most upscale supermarkets should have a bakery you can grab fresh bread from. If you've got it, French Bread with Balsamic Vinegar & Olive Oil & Roasted Garlic in a little dish to scoop out/dip bread in, or butter if you prefer.


Some supermarkets have pre-made garlic bread. It's usually a loaf of French or Italian bread, split open, and coated with a spread of garlic butter, with chives, parsley, and/or paprika sprinkled on top. They will have the cooking instructions printed somewhere on the label.
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Re: How to Cheat at Cooking

Postby Dimetrodon » Tue Jan 06, 2009 2:24 am UTC

I think things that are creamy and french-sounding are all good bets. Chocolate mousse, ganache in truffles or on ice cream, and quiche are all easy if you have the right recipes.
For truffles, mix a fraction pound of melted chocolate with an equivalent fraction pound of cream (1/3 pound chocolate to 1/3 cup cream, say.) Wait until it solidifies a little, maybe in the refridgerator, roll into balls, coat in cocoa powder and, if desired, dip in melted chocolate and maybe sprinkle some nuts or drizzle white chocolate on top. Delicious. Mix flavored syrups, extracts, spices, etcetera in with the cream for, well, flavor. I've tried raspberry, mint and peanut butter, and all were fine.
For ice cream sauce, melt chocolate and just stir in a bunch of cream. Stir gently at first to get an emulsion going (it'll all turn the same color), and then do what you like. Might have to reheat it to get it goopy enough. (Tip- If you're into spice, throw in cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, cloves, and orange peel, and you have a chai-chocolate ganache.)
Remember to use a double boiler if you're melting chocolate on a stove.
As for mousse, I imagine you whip up some cream into soft peaks, then mix in melted chocolate. You could check on that, though. I bet with the right recipe it's very simple. Then you could shave some bar chocolate on top with a vegetable peeler. Voila!
And if you can get your hands on the Enchanted Broccoli Forest, it has an easy-as-egg-pie quiche recipe which is good for sacrificing to patron deities instead of oxen, or for dinner. You can throw in whatever vegetables you have on hand, or they offer suggestions. My favorite is tomato with basil.
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Re: How to Cheat at Cooking

Postby 3fj » Thu Jan 08, 2009 1:12 pm UTC

Moo wrote:Delia's Cheat recipes.

I don't know if that's the sort of thing you're after.

I'm with Charlie Brooker on this one, whilst she is a chief and it's ridiculous that she expects to make money from "assembling" recipes (Which, if i got the definitions right, is technically a cook), it shouldn't quite have had the level of outrage it was given.
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Re: How to Cheat at Cooking

Postby Dibley » Tue Jan 20, 2009 1:19 am UTC

Homemade pasta. Remarkably easy, and people are always way more impressed than they should be. It's also delicious.

Also, read Alice Waters' Simple Food. It has lots of good advice, and most of the stuff is very good and very easy. She places a heavy emphasis on bringing out the flavor of high quality fresh ingredients.

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Re: How to Cheat at Cooking

Postby Nath » Tue Jan 20, 2009 12:29 pm UTC

Dibley wrote:Homemade pasta. Remarkably easy, and people are always way more impressed than they should be. It's also delicious.

And some homemade sauce to go with it. I just put together a simple tomato sauce to use up some leftover canned tomatoes etc. I wasn't really expecting it to be all that different from the bottled stuff, but in fact it was.

Also, bread is easier than people realize. A kneaded version can be put together at reasonably short notice, and a non-kneaded version can be set up a day in advance with very little work.

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Re: How to Cheat at Cooking

Postby CVSoul » Wed Jan 21, 2009 3:14 am UTC

I've personally found I can get better reviews if I say I used fancy spices in my food, provided the person can actually taste that spice. Things like basil and oregano never hurt, for example.
On a similar topic, fancy herbs and spices are a great way to jazz up prepackaged goods like boxed mac n cheese, canned beans, instant rice, and even top ramen.

There are ways to change food for your own good rather than someone else's, too. For example, if you're a lazy college student like myself who uses a microwave a lot, it's critical to learn to use a George Foreman grill or similar machine. It's like a broiler, only faster and without as much chance of burning yourself.
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Re: How to Cheat at Cooking

Postby Bakemaster » Wed Jan 21, 2009 5:42 am UTC

See, this is what I meant about making sure the person you're trying to fool knows nothing about cooking. Oregano and basil are not "fancy spices". They are some of the most ubiquitous herbs in American cooking.
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d33p
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Re: How to Cheat at Cooking

Postby d33p » Wed Jan 21, 2009 6:10 am UTC

Scratch pasta is one of the easiest things in the world to make, but one of the most difficult to master. The good news? Even mediocre handmade pasta is a treat.
The ratio I trust is 1.5:1, cups flour to whole eggs. (Ravioli for two? 3 cups flour, 2 whole eggs.) The quality of your flour and eggs (farm-fresh are ideal, organic store-bought will suffice) will make a huge difference.
Take a clean cutting board (or counter space) large enough to hold the mixture. Make a hill of the flour, create a "well" in the center, crack the eggs in. Use a fork to mix the egg whites & yolk, without disturbing the flour. Then slowly mix in the flour a bit at a time until you have a pretty decent dough mixture.
If you don't know how to knead, you can Google it, but you basically push the dough down and away from you for awhile until it smooths out into a ball. Cut it up into a couple separate dough balls and let it sit for 15-30 mins.
Got a rolling pin? Roll each dough ball out, patiently, until it's about 1/16" thick. Try to get it as square as possible, and have both of them match.
Spoon a mixture of ricotta cheese, parmesan reggiano cheese, some salt and maybe some mint or thyme, onto one of your flattened dough sheets in even spaces. Dab some water or egg white around each of your spoonfuls. Lay the other dough sheet on top (careful!) and press down around each spoonful. Cut squares around each one, and Presto! Ravioli!
The best part about handmade pasta is you only need a few (cheap!) ingredients, and a bit of patience. And they only take about a minute to cook. You toss 'em in some salted boiling water and as soon as they float, they're ready.

Sorry, the ACTUAL best part is when your guests say, "Ravioli? Really?", you can adopt a smug look and tell them you made it by hand. It's impressive. Promise.
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Re: How to Cheat at Cooking

Postby Nath » Wed Jan 21, 2009 10:28 am UTC

For those of you with a Trader Joe's nearby, I just tried out another excellent product for cheats like us:
Canned roast beef in broth (not my page).

Yeah, doesn't exactly sound gourmet. Perfect texture for chili con carne, though. Poke at it a bit while it simmers and it shreds up nicely. The end product compared favourably with slowly cooked chili made from fresh meat.

Canned salmon is also good. Not all that appetizing out of the can, but makes good fishcakes.

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Re: How to Cheat at Cooking

Postby cerbie » Sat Jan 24, 2009 10:10 am UTC

I don't think you're going to fool people that know a thing or two about cooking, but there a bunch of foods out there that are very easy to master, but don't seem like it. They can impress people who can cook, but are not too familiar with making those dishes. Italian and German cuisines are filled with these kinds of dishes. I've gotten compliments from very good home cooks on dishes that were exceptionally easy. So, no advice on how to cheat--you'll only get yourself into trouble. But, cooking is not an arcane art.

Look for recipes and cookbooks with pictures of the food at certain stages of cooking (to give you an idea of what to look for, as a n00b). Also, there are some basic tools and techniques that, once you're good with them, can be adapted to many meals (that is, you can often do things your way, not the recipe's way, and get it done just as good, if not exactly like it says). One of the hurdles of learning to cook is that so many of us who do have been for so long that we aren't sure of what you need to know to become good at it. Based on my own learning of foreign cuisines, and watching friends learn to cook, this is what I can come up with.

An example of what is simple, but easy and impressive: chicken Parmesan. Especially if you bake it (many recipes have you cook the chicken on the stove), this dish is easy, and can be made to look, smell, and taste like a million bucks. It's more a matter of cost and presentation effort than anything else. Toast French or Italian bread, and chop it in a food processor, rather than buying crumbs. Get mozzarella packaged as a block (usually in liquid), and slice it thin (use a long serrated blade, like a bread knife), instead of using shredded, pre-sliced, etc. Add freshly-mashed and chopped garlic, and a little olive oil, to store-bought marinara sauce, then simmer for awhile. Serve with fresh herbs as garnish on top of the pasta, and half of that bread the breadcrumbs were made with as garlic bread (mash garlic, add to melted butter, maybe with herbs). Use the soft pasta from the store, rather than dried, for an extra touch. The result? A meal that may cost you $8-$15 to make; but will look, smell, and taste great, and is exceptionally easy to master. The next step would be to make your own sauce (very easy).

Notice how chicken Parmesan takes different flavors and physically layers them, rather than mixing them up into a homogeneous mass. This alone makes cooking the dish much easier. Dishes with simple basic ingredients, that then put them together as distinct pieces, make for dishes that are easier to cook as a beginner, easy to make pretty on a plate, and easy to learn to master (since you can better tell what part of the dish went wrong). You will get a good feel for the individual flavors this way, too, since each part will be giving a separate aroma and appearance while it is being made. Wrapped schnitzel dishes are great examples, too (but may require more skill with the stove). Most European dishes of these kinds don't have any gotchas to worry about, either (unlike, say, Mexican). With these types of dishes, you can impress people while you are still learning the basics.

Watch 30 Minute Meals, whatever Guy's show is where he cooks without an audience, and How to Boil Water (assuming it is still on--I haven't seen it in awhile). Just watch, and pay attention. There are going to be many details of techniques that people will forget to tell you in person or in a book, that are important. One thing to note, when you see a chef doing something, is that chefs are artists. They will often go out of their way to make complicated meals, when most of the people eating them wouldn't consider it better than a similar dish that took 10% of the effort to make. Watching people who are not frustrated artists will hopefully show you how easy many things can be, that are done over-the-top by genuine chefs (IE, be prepared to be dumbfounded when you see Rachel Ray make basically the same thing you saw an Iron Chef make by dropping a few things in a pan, instead of some 10 minute stressful ordeal).

For 90% of European-derived stove-top foods, sacrifice eggs. Get yourself a cast iron skillet, and a thick-bottomed steel skillet (you can sauté in this, even if you can't do the flipping thing; and it will be easier, due to not having hot-spots to deal with), with no special non-stick surface. Learn to, with olive oil, butter, and pork fat (seriously, leave margarine behind, except maybe for pie crust), make scrambled and fried eggs (as much pork fat as you can in cast iron :)). IMO, this is the best way to learn to cook stuff on the stove, and you can usually eat the failures.

The most difficult part of cooking vegetables, meats, and sauces on the stove is managing the heat (including proper timing for stirring and flipping). Eggs are very sensitive to that, cook quickly, and are cheap. If you can reliably make eggs in an iron skillet and a steel pan, then you will be very well prepared for getting sauces and gravies to blend to you whims, and for nothing to stick to the pan badly. Many elaborate and intimidating French sauces require no more skill on the range than good eggs do. This is often overlooked by beginner guides and cookbooks, but you'll find it said many different ways by masters. I first heard it from Justin Wilson, and then read it many times, but never in a book for the basics, and usually just in passing. Also, once you can use cast iron well, you will not want for a non-stick surface.

Finally, everything Bakemaster said x2.
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