The engineer in the kitchen

The engineer in the kitchen

As today is Thanksgiving (in the US, anyway), it seemed appropriate to talk about my favorite kind of engineering: food engineering…more commonly referred to as cooking.  I guess you could call it that, but I take my cooking far too seriously to do something like slap some bread in the toaster and claim I just cooked something.

Thanksgiving is probably my favorite holiday because I love to cook.  (Washing dishes is a different story, and my husband has been officially designated as chief dish-cleaning engineer.)  Since I reached adulthood, I’ve been searching for the perfect combination of dishes for Thanksgiving.  Of course, even the perfect dish takes time to perfect.

So how you develop the perfect Thanksgiving meal?  I think that’s going to change from person to person, so rather than giving you a list of recipes, I’m going to talk a little bit about some of the other things that are helpful in developing mad cooking skillz.  (And if you’re an engineer, I’m guessing that intentional misspelling just grated on your nerves…)  Unlike my electrical engineering skills, my kitchen skills were gained through both trial and error and observation of other cooks.  I discovered I wasn’t a big fan of my parents’ overcooked vegetables and bland food.  Oh yeah…and the fact that my mom’s version of a dinner bell was our smoke alarm.  As you can tell, I’ve had a lot to overcome.

First, to be a good cook, you need to try a lot of recipes.  I have been collecting piles of recipes for years.  I have four linear feet of cookbooks lining a shelf in my kitchen.  However, the best ones go in my binder in plastic sheet covers.  As you can see, I didn’t learn this little trick until after my recipes got that…hmm…wear-and-tear look?  Yeah, that’s it.

On the other hand, marking them up is good.  If I don’t like something, I’m not afraid of changing it.  I make notes on all my recipes of things that I liked or didn’t like, things I changed later, etc.

The internet is a great source for recipes.  One of my favorite websites/blogs EVER is Cooking for Engineers by Michael Chu.  It’s just plain awesome.  There is a conversion calculator, the recipes are all fully illustrated and put into an easy to read and execute form, and, most important, the recipes actually taste good.  Every year, I get asked to make mulled cider, and I always grab Michael’s recipe.  On the other hand, I’ve also gotten my fair share of stinkers from the net, so be careful!  With practice, I think one learns to determine by looking at the ingredients in a recipe whether or not they will like it.  Still, it’s good to be adventurous: sometimes you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

Like most engineers, I like gadgets, but I especially like kitchen gadgets.  Once you start getting into some extensive cooking, you find out how important some of those gadgets really are.  My favorite all-time tool is my food processor, and I use it unendingly when preparing a large meal.  My second favorite tool for Thanksgiving time, however, is actually my apple corer/peeler/slicer/you-name-it.  I hate peeling potatoes, not to mention I’ve given myself injuries with the hand peelers.  I use this particular tool to cut up and peel apples for apple pie, but I use it also to peel potatoes and yams.  On other occasions, it’s great for cutting things up for the dehydrator (another favorite gadget!) or cut up potatoes which will later be au gratin.

The third thing to be aware of is the quality of your ingredients.  I’m particularly picky about my meats.  Of course, that’s probably because I can be.  It’s not like I have a huge choice of fresh produce in North Dakota in November.  (If I do have a choice, and it’s being baked, I usually choose a frozen variety.)  I like free-range meats just because they seem leaner and seem to cook up much nicer.

Another thing to be aware of is how the flavors go together.  I like herby foods, so my favorite holiday recipes all contain tons of herbs.  It’s ironic that I don’t like gravy or mushrooms, but I happen to love a shitake mushroom gravy recipe I found simply because it’s loaded with herbs and the flavor goes well with the turkey.

Finally, with enough recipes and gadgets, you simply have to put in the practice.  It’s taken me nearly two decades to perfect my turkey cooking skills, but with the right tools, right ingredients, right recipe, and a lot of practice, I finally managed to do it.

Happy Thanksgiving!


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