In which my goose is cooked, succulently

I pretty much stink as a cook — my patience runs out, my kitchen instincts are leaden, and thanks to a generally cloudy sense of smell, my taste buds are dull as butter knives. When I pop, say, a reddish Jelly Belly in my mouth, I’ll be flummoxed about naming the taste. I may get a hint of familiarity, may recognize its chemical outline on my chart of Known Flavors, but my particular taste map is sketchy and incomplete, like something Vasco de Gama used to get around Cape Horn.

“Oh, I know this one,” I’ll begin. “It’s uh, uh, uh … cantaloupe, maybe?”

If someone tastes an identically colored bean, I’ll eventually be told it was cream soda. Or, if my allergies are acting up, slightly further afield — cinnamon, or cappuccino, maybe.

So much of cooking relies on the phrase “season to taste,” and if I can’t rely on my taster to indicate “needs salt” or “ease up on the cumin,” then that leaves an impressive gap of guesswork for me. I’ve had to put more faith in the Science of Cooking than the Art of Cooking. Give me measurements, give me times, give me pictures of what I’m aiming for, and I do much better.

I like to do better. I consider a special meal made for a special event to be a labor of love. A gift of time and intent for the intended. If you’re not great at using words to convey your emotions or, like me, you’re kind of daft at choosing the perfect gift (which is a superpower in itself: Gift Sense. Not everyone possesses this.) then you can rely on the gift of painstaking effort. I made it with phyllo so you’d know how much you mean to me.

Fine Cooking, August 2009But that’s special-event cooking, which is pattycake compared to day-to-day cooking. Wednesday around 6:30 is when you need perseverance, patience and battlefield experience that can recall the last time you had only capers, muenster and leeks in the fridge, and what you did to get out of that scrape. Here I have a trick: Fine Cooking.

I’ve subscribed to this magazine for seven years now, and it has made me more of a credible force in the kitchen. Certainly not impressive, but at least comfortable … approaching confidence, with moments of competence. Fine Cooking eschews the frippery of high-life livin’ that other cooking mags seem to indulge; there is no story about My Trip Through Tuscany and the Ancient Gardener Who Revealed Unto Me the Secret of Sangiovese. No side stories about the Perfect Patio Party and how the ideal mood was achieved through handmade paper lanterns.

Nope, Fine Cooking is like a culinary class in print, taking the time to show me how to hold the knife, which way to dice the mango, when to pull the pot off the stove, why not all pork tenderloin cuts are created equal, what to do with all those tomatoes spilling out of the garden. FC understands that everybody can use instruction, the savvy and the clueless alike.

Take omelets. They’re more technique than recipe, and even if you don’t know what you’re doing, you can still sorta make one. But Fine Cooking thinks I can do better.

Click for bigness.

Click for bigness.

And I can! With simple pictures and instructions, I’m already on my way to a better breakfast.

I also like that the editors don’t just churn out one unique recipe after another; instead they try to teach a broader understanding of a particular meal so the chef can riff on it, Miles Davis style, depending on mood or ingredients. They may begin a stew recipe saying , “Step 1: Choose two ingredients from this list,” and “Step 2: Add an aromatic,” and so on. Using their lists of acceptable options, chefs can create a picnic-basketful of variations.

Headline copy: "1 easy technique, 18 luscious flavors"; They ain't lyin'.

Headline copy for this ice cream recipe: "1 easy technique, 18 luscious flavors"

It isn’t all remedial Home Ec. Fine Cooking offers up plenty of challenging recipes and meal plans — but it also recognizes that some cooks want variety, freshness and time to eat it. For these people, every issue contains a “Fast & Fresh” section for quick, functional recipes suited for weeknights. You’ll still need to plan and to stock your pantry, but the reward is a constantly updating menu of good food with a modicum more effort than it takes to heat up another box of macaroni.

You can get plenty of the recipes off their Web site, but only some of their archives are available. For many recipes you’ll need a subscription. But you’d want that anyway, since this magazine is more than a depository of ingredients and instructions, but a vast quilt of tips and information that elevate cooking from chore to cheer.

 O salty temptresses!Many Fine Cooking recipes have become standards for us. Almost every Thanksgiving since 2002 I’ve made their pecan and pumpkin tarts, a batch of tiny pies that deliver just the right amounts of crust and filling. They make a knockout alternative to giant pieces of pie, and it’s easier to say, “I’ll have one of each” since they’re so small. But perhaps our current favorite go-to recipe is what our kids call “smashed potatoes” (inset). Done right, these potatoes are crisp yet fluffy, with simple flavor.

I don’t know how the rest of the human race survives weeknight cooking. If pork ‘n’ beans is getting you down, I encourage giving this magazine a try.

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