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From Toast to Taste: Learning to Cook with ATC


Life + Learning

  • open cookbook and ingredients on cutting board

Shaun, Hespeler | May 2, 2018

When I was young, life circumstances left me suddenly at the mercy of my father’s cooking. Those were some dark times I tell you – at the worst of it, my diet was approximately 70% Pizza and Pop. My father had two strikes against him in the area of culinary capability. First, while he’s probably the least chauvinistic man I know, he’s from a generation where men didn’t spend a whole lot of time in the kitchen. His biggest hurdle, however, is being unable to taste a thing due to brain surgery he had in the early 1980s. So the few things he knew how to cook, he could not taste. Every meal was a new surprise, and not the good kind. It did not take me long to step in and take over in the kitchen, despite having never operated a stove.

Since I was mostly cooking for myself and a father who couldn’t taste anyway, I never bothered with recipes. I just applied different levels of heat to different things for different amounts of time until things started becoming edible. Keep in mind, these were pre-internet days – there was no one to ask how long to cook a roast, and cookbooks required both money and some level of planning - neither of which were my strength. Learning to cook was a long process full of missteps and all-out disasters – it took me about 6 weeks before I figured out that you can set the stove top element to something other than HI. In the meantime, my poor father had to choke down countless plates of my first signature dish – ramen noodles, or if it was a Saturday, “crispy, blackened eggs and toast”.

Fast-forward to adult Shaun. Even though I am skilled with most kitchen appliances and I love all kinds of foods, there are a few dishes that I would probably eat over and over again (most of them based around grilled meat) if left to my own devices, and science tells me that is not good. I’m not sure I could live with the embarrassment if I got scurvy. So as a grown up, I turned to cookbooks for inspiration - and nothing has inspired me more than America’s Test Kitchen.

If you’ve never seen the TV show or read one of their books, their schtick is taking a scientific approach to cooking, building recipes in laboratory-like conditions, often cooking the same dish over and over making minor changes until they reach perfection. There are no secret family recipes or traditions in the Test Kitchen and nothing is sacred. They bypass the folklore or kitchen voodoo that permeates much traditional cooking in favour of pure nerdy science, and I love it. On their instruction, I once made minestrone using a can of V8 juice as the base - and it was amazing.

I don’t feel like I’ve arrived as a cook. I still overcook the odd piece of broccoli and I always get nervous cooking for other people. But I can say my cooking is tastier, more efficient, and cheaper. I have I have noticed a dramatic upturn from ‘none’ to ‘some’ in the compliments I receive from my food since I became a student of ATK. I highly recommend you try out one of their many cookbooks available on the shelves here at the Idea Exchange. Here are some of my favourites:

The Make-Ahead Cook : 8 Smart Strategies for Dinner Tonight The Complete Vegetarian Cookbook : A Fresh Guide to Eating Well with 700 Foolproof RecipesSimple Weeknight Favorites : More Than 200 No-Fuss Foolproof Meals Cook's Illustrated Cookbook