Friday, October 28, 2011

Top 5 cooking challenges for the fearless kitchen explorer

List by Danielle

Fervet olla, vivit amicitia: While the pot boils, friendship endures.
~ Latin proverb

I love cooking, and I specially love trying something new (something I may not even be able to predict the taste of), but I haven't had much time or energy to explore in the kitchen lately. To see if I can revive that sense of play, I've come up with some challenges to try out with the help of our cookbook collection, which is fully awesome and expanding rapidly (don't believe me? check the mammoth new cookbooks lists in the New Titles lists each month!). From scary random-number recipes (jellyfish! argh!) to special treats for your family and friends, there might be something here that gives you the kick to try something a little different in the kitchen!

Method: Travel in space and time! Let cooking take you to fictional countries or long ago times with cookbooks from countries found only in books, or something from our collection of historical cookbooks. Make a meal to share that showcases your chosen time or place. Suggested tip: using advanced search, search for Subject 'cooking or cookbooks' and keywords such as 'medieval', 'ancient' or a favourite phenomenon such as 'Twilight' or 'Harry Potter'.

Take a wander through the catalogue, and you can find some quirky, era-spanning or fictionally-inspired titles such as The punch bowl: 75 recipes spanning four centuries of wanton revelry, The sweets of Araby (enchanting recipes from the tales of 1,001 Arabian Nights), Last dinner on the Titanic and The unofficial Harry Potter cookbook.

Method: Closely related to the challenge above, but aimed more at the armchair travellers out there. Pick a country, or a region, and explore the cooking traditions of the area through a selection of cookbooks. You might like to pick somewhere you've never been, or somewhere you've visited and loved the cuisine, or to find out more about the geography and history of the country at the same time. Make a night of it with a banquet and a foreign movie! Extra points: track down an unusual ingredient you've never used in cooking before (try spice shops, local grocery stores or gourmet foodie delicatessans).

A sort of shyness comes over me when I go to our local Indian and Sri Lankan spice shops, coupled with the excitement of the totally unfamiliar ingredients, and the possibilities for experimentation they represent to someone who's never tasted them. What a great way to try something new, and maybe even use it to whip up a feast for adventurous friends and family, if they're game! There are so many different cooking styles and techniques to try, you're bound to find one that suits your particular 'kitchen style', be it precise and methodical or a bit more slapdash and experimental. Check our DVD collection (cooking DVDs are free to borrow) or the internet to see actual footage of people demonstrating new techniques, for extra help.

Method: Choose a primary ingredient - something in season, or something you've unexpectedly been given a whole heap of. Find a selection of recipes that showcase the ingredient in a way you've never tried before, from a variety of types of cookbook. See if you can find a starter/side dish/accompaniment, a main meal and a dessert!

I was recently given a pumpkin as part of a special voucher deal for a box of produce. I've made pumpkin soup before, and roast pumpkin, but I got to thinking - this is an entire pumpkin... why not try something new? So off I headed to the shelves, and found 5 cookbooks from a range of cuisines, each with a pumpkin recipe I'd never tried. These varied from the delicious but time-consuming (Persian pumpkin, lamb and lentil stew from The Persian kitchen) to the simple and elegant (pumpkin ravioli) to the ambitiously unexpected (Argentinian pumpkin, lamb and peach stew cooked in a whole pumpkin, from South American food and cooking). I even found a decadent dessert recipe for pumpkin fritters with Amarula cream in the glorious African cookbook Tortoises & tumbleweeds, by Lannice Snyman.

Method: Pick a type of bought/takeaway comfort food that you particularly love - fried chicken, cinnamon rolls, caramel popcorn, Black Forest Cherry Cake, cheeseburgers... you name it. Find recipes and practice making it yourself - but BETTER. Play around a little, find the best possible combination of flavours.

Two things I've given a go - cinnamon rolls, as with the Saint Cinnamon franchise that used to be in Downtown and Glenfield Mall, and fried chicken in the southern American style. You might have to be a little patient with this one - and try plenty of the takeaway version in between, to try and identify flavours of course, in a totally scientific fashion! The web can be handy here in suggesting flavourings, too. But it's very satisfying to be able to bake your own treat, fresh, or to make a burger with the leanest and most delicious meat you can find, and the least wilty salad. Yum!

Method: Do a search on the library catalogue for cookbooks available at your local library branch. (How? In the advanced search, search for 'cooking' in the Subject field, then pick your branch from the Location list.) Use an online random number generator (such as this one) to pick a selection of cookbooks at random, then use the generator to pick a page at random in each.

Magic! Though I refuse to cook jellyfish. My adventurous spirit will only carry me so far. I found one treasure in particular that I'd never have otherwise found through this method, Wanying Huang's Regional cuisines of China, a bilingual book from the Chinese collection at Manukau. Everything I've cooked from this book, including my post-jellyfish random selection of prawns with fried salt and five spice, has been delicious. This challenge also saw me trying to make kulfi, or Indian-style ice cream, with pistachio nuts. My kulfi needs work!

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