Thursday, December 13, 2012

Quest 1.3 - Caramelizing Onions!

First, let me preface this by saying I'm sorry for neglecting you over the last couple of months. My life has been packed with upheaval and change and I am just now starting to settle back into it! Worry not! It's good change! All is well on the 8-Bit front!

Don't get me wrong, I completely accept the fact that no one actually reads this blog and no one has actually missed it. But in a special part of my brain that spurs me forward with a crack-like mixture of delusion and hope, I dream of people reading this who are just as crazy about food (and everything else I babble about) and we can build an online family of cooking nerds.


Something so delicious, versatile and simple that you HAVE to know how to do it! Enjoy them on pizza, in stir-frys, sandwiches, pasta dishes, soups and casseroles!

Caramelizing brings out the natural sweetness and flavor of the onion. With just a little hot oil in a pan, you can turn a rather harsh-tasting vegetable into something with a wonderful, deep, sweet flavor. All you need is a little time and patience....and an onion, pan, oil and optional salt & pepper.

Step one: choose your onion! Any white, gold or brown onion will work. When you're in the supermarket, take the time to examine your onion. Make sure there aren't any bad spots or discoloration and try to get an onion with the crispy, outer skin still intact. Make sure the onion skin is bright and shiny. If you see any dark, powdery spots under the skin, this is an indication of MOLD. And that's gross. Also, make sure to choose an onion that hasn't sprouted (stemlike growth from the root) as sprouting is an indication of age and poor storage. If you buy onions in bulk, by the bag or crate, make sure to store them in a cool, dark, DRY place and try to rotate them and check for wear on a regular basis. Gently rotating your fruits and vegetables will greatly extend their life by routinely easing the pressure on the skin.

*TIP Stored whole onions should stay fresh in your pantry for ten days to two weeks. Cut or chopped RAW onions should be stored in an air-tight container and refrigerated and used within a few days. If you plan to freeze your chopped onions, make sure to store them in an air-tight ziplock bag and date them. They will begin to lose their flavor after one year in the freezer. 

Step two: chop your onion! Use a sharp knife with a good grip and a clean, dry cutting board. When caramelizing onions, it's usually best to cut your onions in thin, half-rings. If you cut your onions too small (dicing), you run the risk of burning them. 

First, peel off the crunchy skin and cut off the stems. The flat tips will give your onion some stability for your first big cut. It makes chopping easier and safer. Remember, the goal is to chop the onion, not your fingertips. Now, place the onion on one flat end and cut in half. Think of the stems as the length of the onion and the circumference as the width. So you're cutting length-wise.

Place the onion halves flat on the cutting board and slice length-wise again into strips. Four or five slices on each half should do the trick.

Step three: heat your oil! Add two tablespoons of vegetable or canola oil to a large pan and turn your stove to medium heat. I always use cast iron when I caramelize onions. The reason I like cast iron is because it conducts heat evenly. Stainless steel is my second choice and I never use non-stick pans if I can help it. I'll go more into pots and materials in a later post so you can better understand my reasoning and gain a better knowledge of how different types of pans will effect how your food cooks.

When your oil starts to move and shimmer a little, it's ready. If it's smoking, it's TOO HOT -- so turn down the heat. To test your oil, drop in a piece of onion and if it sizzles gently, it's ready. Caramelizing onion is a marathon, not a race. The sweetness is extracted slowly. Any recipe you read that says you can caramelize an onion in ten minutes, is full of shit. You can sweat an onion in ten minutes but caramelization takes at least thirty to forty minutes.

Step four: add your onion slices and stir! Using a heat resistant silicon spatula or a pair of tongs, move around your onions and give them all a nice light coating of oil. At this point add optional salt and pepper to season.

*TIP Remember, adding salt speeds up the cooking process and will drain the natural moisture of the onion! Use it sparingly and stir constantly. 

You have to pay close attention to your onions. This is a slightly more labor-intensive lesson in that you have to stir frequently. The goal is to get your onions as evenly cooked as possible and bring them to a beautiful shiny, golden brown.

The next stage you'll see is your onions starting to get shiny and a little translucent. They will also start to smell really, really good.

Soon, your onions will start to shrink (men, this is natural, don't let it affect your self-esteem) and turn a beautiful golden brown. Now the sugars are really starting to party. That gorgeous golden color is what we are aiming for throughout so continue stirring. Your onions will also start to stick to the bottom of the pan a little. Worry not! This is normal. In fact, this is supposed to happen at this point.

*TIP If you feel your onions are sticking a little too much, don't add more oil, add about 2 tablespoons of water, broth or white wine to the pan and stir. This is called "deglazing." It helps remove any cooked on onion from the bottom of your pan and creates a little extra moisture.

The final stage, after all that stirring and patience, is a pan of sweet, golden deliciousness. Remember, your onion will have shrunk to a fraction of the size. This is normal. It may be smaller, but it's much, much tastier. Remove your onions from the pan immediately to prevent them from continuing to cook from the residual heat. Add the onion to soups, sandwiches, pastas or use them as a pizza topping! This particular batch went on my home made garlic white pizza and it was amazing!

*TIP If you plan to store your onions for later use, keep them refrigerated, in an airtight container and make sure you date the container for freshness. They will be good for about one week.

Well, did it! You caramelized an onion! ...Or you READ about caramelizing an onion! Kudos to you, too!


+10 Chopping
+10 Sautéing

Tune in next time as we roast garlic! In the mean time...keep on cookin'! And remember, you can follow me on Twitter for more tips and tricks @8BitCook

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Quest 1.2: Cooking Pasta! Boiling Part Deux! know how sometimes you make pasta and end up with a big, nasty ball of gummy mess? This post is especially for our apprentices because I know this has happened to you before! And when pasta is gummy, it just doesn't taste as good. You need a certain amount of firmness for the consistency to be delicious.

There are few basic rules of thumb that you may not know. In this short post, we are going to cover all of them and you will never have gummy pasta again! So keep an eye out for tips in pink!

For this quest, we are focusing on the pasta. So just choose a jar of your favorite pasta sauce, pour it in a pan over medium heat and bring it to a simmer (remember what simmer looks like? Hint: it's NOT a boil!). In a later quest, I will be teaching you how to make your very own marinara sauce from scratch! And when you learn how to do that, you will never want to buy sauce in a jar again!

Step One: remember your last quest? Pick a pot, fill it a little over halfway with cold water and bring it to a REAL boil! Remember, when choosing your pot, keep in mind how much pasta you will be preparing. If you're only cooking for two, choose a smaller pot. If you're cooking for more, choose something larger. The Culinary Institute of America recommends one gallon of water per pound of pasta.

*Tip: Your water needs to be at a REAL boil because adding the pasta too soon is your first step to mushy, nasty pasta. The longer your pasta sits in water, soaking it in without actually cooking, the more the structure of the pasta will break down.  

 Step Two: Add your pasta and a dash of coarse salt. The ONLY opportunity you will have to infuse your pasta with a little flavor will be during the boiling process. Make sure all your past is submerged in the boiling water. If you're cooking spaghetti, break the strands in half. This doesn't effect your cooking time but it DOES ensure that your pasta is completely and evenly cooked.

Remember to set your timer according to the directions on the package (usually 7-9 minutes depending on the thickness of your pasta)! Kitchen timers are your friend. It's easy to get distracted in the kitchen or forget exactly what time you put something on to cook. So get on intimate terms with your kitchen timer...woo it...give it flowers and candy because you are going to be using it a LOT in the future.

Tip* People may tell you to add some extra virgin olive oil to your boiling water. Don't do it! What happens when you add oil to water, boys and girls? Remember being in elementary school and doing those little science projects with colored water and oil in a plastic bottle? You could tip the bottle back and forth and it makes waves...everything swirls around for a bit but then it just separates again, leaving the oil on top of the water. Adding olive oil is just a waste of perfectly good oil that will only go down the drain when you strain the pasta. 

Step Three: Stir, stir, stir! As soon as you add your pasta to the boiling water - STIR it! You don't have to stir it constantly, but make sure you return to it every couple of minutes. Pasta cooks relatively quickly. The starches start to react with each other and bond. If you don't stir your pasta, you'll end up with a great big clump. I like to use a wooden spoon or a heat resistant spatula with softer edges.

Step Four: When your timer sounds, QUICKLY test your pasta to see if it's done. Just grab a fork and taste a piece. If it is slightly firm to the bite and cooked all the way through (no crunchy spots), IMMEDIATELY drain your pasta in a colander over your kitchen sink.

MYTH: If you fling a piece of pasta onto the wall and it sticks, it's done. The only thing it proves is that you're gross and don't care if you attract bugs to your kitchen wall with the starchy residue left behind by your madcap pasta flinging. It doesn't actually prove your pasta is done. In fact, if it's that sticky, it proves your pasta is actually OVER-done.

Tip* It is VITAL that you immediately drain your pasta from the cooking water. In as little as one minute your pasta can go from done to over-cooked. Because even if you turn the burner off on your stove and let the pasta sit, the residual heat in the water is enough to continue cooking your pasta.

Step Five: DO NOT RINSE your pasta! Rinsing your pasta will wash away all those wonderful starches that cooked out of the noodles. That starchy coating is what lets pasta sauce bond to your noodles. Have you ever eaten spaghetti and watched the sauce actually slide off the noodles and pool on your plate in a sad, spicy puddle? Well, that's why, folks!

Now it's time to smother your perfectly cooked pasta in your favorite sauce and enjoy! YUM! 

Tip* Try to time the cooking of your pasta sauce to finish at the same time as your noodles. You need to add sauce as soon as possible to keep the pasta from cooling too quickly and sticking together. Usually starting your sauce at the same time you add your noodles to the boiling water will work well. 

An awesome resource to learn a little more about pasta is the National Pasta Association. There you will find a fantastic guide to pasta shapes which is incredibly useful when you're trying to figure out what shape you should use with what recipes. There are also tons of fun recipes, tips, diet and nutrition information.

Quest Points:

+10 Boiling
+ 5 Bonus for simmering sauce

Make sure you subscribe because next time Apprentices, we'll be caramelizing onions!

For the more advanced cooks and gaming nerds, I'll be posting another SPECIAL addition in the coming weeks to celebrate the release of the new World of Warcraft expansion, "Mists of Pandaria." So get ready for some WoW-themed Chinese er...Pandaren food!

So,  until next time, keep cooking. And remember, you can always find me on Twitter @8BitCook

Friday, August 31, 2012

Doctor Who Special: Catfish Fingers with Jalapeno Tardis Sauce!

Fish fingers and custard? Fish fingers and...custard? Fish fingers and CUSTARD?!

Okay, that's a combination only a Time Lord could love. But we're here today with an American Southwest twist on the Doctor's favorite dish! So, if you're looking for a delicious addition to your Doctor Who series premiere party or just something new and tasty to try, this is for you!

Jalapeno Tardis (Tartar) Sauce

  • 2 Cups Mayonnaise 
  • 1 Fresh Jalapeno Pepper
  • 1 clove garlic
  • 1 Tbs Capers
  • 1 Tbs Spicy Brown Mustard
  • 1 Tbs Fresh Lemon Juice
  • 1 Tbs Red Wine Vinegar
  • 1/4 Tsp Cayenne Pepper
  • 1/2 C. Fresh Cilantro

Remove the stem and seeds from the jalapeno pepper and dice. You want the flavor of the pepper...not all the crazy heat. The flavor of the catfish will be overwhelmed by the peppers if you're not careful.

*Be very careful handling the pepper. DO NOT rub your eyes and if you have any critters (dogs, cats, spider monkeys) be sure not to drop any seeds where they might accidentally get to them! It won't kill them, but they won't be happy about it and might do some rather disturbing coughing and hacking. 

Chop the garlic and capers, combine all ingredients in a food processor and blend until smooth.

Transfer the Tardis Sauce into an air-tight container and refrigerate for later! The sauce will stay fresh in that container for about two weeks (make sure you label and date it appropriately to keep track of its freshness). The great thing about the Tardis sauce is that it is VERY versatile! Try it on chicken, salad or on a sandwich! It's great to have around even without the fish!

On to the fish!!

  • 4 Boneless, Skinless Catfish Fillets
  • 1 Cup Buttermilk
  • 1 Egg
  • Oil for Frying

Beat the egg into the buttermilk and pour the mixture into a shallow pan. I like to use a glass 8x8" casserole dish.

Slice the catfish fillets in half, length-wise. Fresh fillets are great but frozen work just as well. Place the strips of fillet into the buttermilk (making sure the strips are completely covered in the mixture) and let them soak while we move on to the next step.

*TIP - If using frozen fillets, I recommend allowing the fillets to thaw in the refrigerator. Catfish is a very delicate fish and if you defrost them in the microwave, you run the risk of poaching (cooking) the fillets in their own juices. If that happens, the fish will flake apart before you can even bread and fry it.


  • 1/2 Cup Yellow Cornmeal
  • 1 Cup All-Purpose Flour
  • 1/2 Tsp Salt
  • 1 Tsp Ground Black Pepper
  • 1 Tsp Onion Powder
  • 1/2 Tsp Cayenne Pepper
I believe in flavor in my breading. There's nothing more boring than a piece of fried chicken or fish that tastes like fried flour...BLAND! Above is my go-to breading for fish. I use the same thing (minus the cornmeal) for my fried chicken...give or take...sometimes I add more cayenne if I want something spicier. And I also tend to wing it (no pun intended). I follow my nose. And if the breading smells good, it will taste good. At the same time, if it smells like flour, it will taste like flour. YUCK!  

Mix all the ingredients in a large bowl with a spoon until well blended. Now, one-by-one, take the buttermilk-soaked catfish fillets and coat them in the breading mixture. Don't be shy about it! Just toss it in the bowl and move it around really well...coat that sucker until there isn't the tiniest naked bit of meat! Do each piece the same way and set aside on a separate plate. DO NOT discard your unused breading or buttermilk! You should have a decent amount still hanging out in your dishes.

Time to get your oil ready for frying! Use a nice, heavy-duty pan (being a Southern girl, I swear by cast-iron. It's ALL I use for frying) and fill it about half-way with vegetable or canola oil (whichever you prefer). Turn your burner to medium high and let it do it's thing until it hits about 375ºF. This is going to take a little while so now, go back to your fish.

DOUBLE-BREADED MADNESS! Have you ever wondered how to get a nice, thick, crunchy restaurant quality breading? Well, I'm about to let you in on my technique so don't tell me I never gave you anything. I find this works better if you let your first coating of breading sit for a little while so that it looks kind of gummy and gross...which is why I had you take care of your oil just now. I know, I'm sneaky. 

One-by-one take your breaded fish and coat them again in the buttermilk/egg mixture you had them soaking in and return them to your breading. Move them around a little, get a nice second coating on them and return them to the plate. 

Once your oil is ready, then the real fun begins! If you don't have a thermometer, don't worry. I learned a nifty trick from my aunt to gauge the readiness of frying oil. Take a piece of breading from your bowl...after all that dipping, you should have some hard little bits of clumped breading. Drop a piece into your oil. If the piece just kind of fizzles in a lazy way, it's not ready. But it all kinds of bubbles come off immediately and it starts traveling around the surface of the oil like it has a mind of its own, then it's ready. 

Carefully place 2-3 pieces of fish into your oil. Don't be scared of the oil. Just hold the fish by one end and ease it into the oil. If you're careful, the oil won't pop up and burn you. Just don't drop it in...not only will you make a mess but if you have a gas stove, you run the risk of setting a grease fire. 

*Safety first! Get out that baking soda or a large pan lid and keep it close. Better safe than sorry!

 Cover with a splatter screen to reduce the mess and let it cook for about three minutes or so. It's important that you work in small batches. The more stuff you add to your oil, the more the temperature will be affected. If your oil temp drops too much, it will take longer to cook your fish and it will feel and taste greasier. With a pair of tongs, check the fish. If the breading has hardened, turn the fish over and let it cook another three minutes. When the fish is golden brown and you can just begin to smell the fish cooking, remove it from the oil and set aside.  

Serve with chilled Jalapeño Tardis Sauce on a blue plate and enjoy! 

 I do hope you like the recipe! The conversion of my recipe for Who-ness was inspired by Alton Brown and his fabulous creativity. Any questions or comments, feel free to email me or shoot me a message on Twitter @8BitCook!  

Tune in next time for a new lesson for apprentices! Enjoy the series 7 premiere of Doctor Who on BBC America and remember... bow ties are COOL!


Monday, August 27, 2012

Quest 1.1 - Boiling Water! No...I'm not kidding.

Welcome back, apprentices! Have you finished those character tomes? Good! Because now you need them!

Today we are boiling water. The reason I chose this as your first quest is twofold. First, because being able to bring water to a controlled boil is actually a very important component to a lot of dishes (i.e. anything with rice, pasta, boiled potatoes for mashed potatoes, poaching eggs, fruit, fish, making soups or stews etc...). You might even run into some recipes along that way that require your water or liquid temperature be very specific. Second, over the years, many people have said to me, "I can't cook. I can't even boil water!" Well, this is to prove you can. And don't worry, those of you who are experienced boilers might learn something here, too. We are also going to discuss the science of boiling water and the different factors that affect the boiling point temperature.

Materials for his Quest:

Cold Water
Pot (with a fitted lid)
*Candy Thermometer (optional)

Choose your pot. For this quest, a one or two quart saucepan will do the trick. Fill your pot a little more than halfway with cold water from the tap.

Why cold water, you ask? You may think that by using hot water from the tap, your water will boil faster. Although it may shave a precious five seconds off your boiling time, that hot water has been hanging out in your pipes, getting stale for a long time. And that's gross. You may also be asking, why tap water? Well, let me ask you, why waste filtered water? If the dish you're making doesn't involve water as a main ingredient (soups, stews, etc.) and you'll only be discarding the water when you're finished, then you're good. Tap water doesn't affect the taste of pastas or potatoes. For rice, however, I do recommend using filtered water or vegetable, chicken or beef stock since the liquid is fully absorbed into your food.

Now, look at the different burners on your stove and you'll see they are each a different size. You ever wonder why they make them all so different? This is actually pretty important in cooking. You need to make sure to choose a burner on your stove relative to the size of the bottom of the pot. In other words, not too big or too small. If the burner you use is too large for the bottom of your pot, you are going to have a difficult time controlling the temperature of your food and it will burn or boil over before you know it. And if the burner you choose is too small, the fire won't be sufficient to do what you need it to do. It is also a "greener" way of cooking. If your burner is too big or too small, you are wasting energy and heat. It's also important to make sure your burners are clean so they can distribute heat properly.

Okay, now that you've chosen a burner, put your pot down and turn the gauge to high.

So, you know that saying, "A watched pot never boils,"...? Yeah, I hate that saying. In the kitchen, that saying DOES NOT apply. A watched pot DOES boil - it boils quite sufficiently, thank you very much!  And in this case, you need to WATCH THAT POT!

**Candy Thermometer: At this point, if you've chosen to use a thermometer, clip the thermometer to the side of the pan so that the tip is submerged in the water but NOT touching the bottom of the pan. It is important that you're reading the temperature of the water and not just the bottom of the pot as the bottom of the pot will be hotter than the temperature of the water itself.

Water goes through several stages before it gets to a boil. A lot of packaged food, like macaroni and cheese for example, will tell you to "bring water to a boil." The "boil" they are referring to is actually called a "real boil," which is the last stage of the boil.


Temps based at Sea Level:

Tepid Water - 85ºF - 105ºF Temperature is comparable to the human body. So if you stick your finger in it, you don't feel much.

Warm Water - 115ºF - 120ºF Water is touchable but not hot (luke-warm) If you order a Kid's Hot Chocolate at Starbucks, the temperature of the beverage will be around 120ºF. This is also the ideal stage to activate yeast when baking...but we'll cover that in a later quest.

Hot Water - 130ºF - 135ºF The water is too hot to touch without burning yourself. So, don't do it!

...and here's where things start to get interesting! Well, maybe not interesting per se, but this is where we cross the line between heating and actually cooking.

Poach - 160ºF - 180ºF The water is beginning to move and shimmer under the surface. Tiny bubbles form on the bottom of the pan but do not break the surface of the water.

Poaching is a very precise way of cooking. It involves a lot of control over the temperature of the water and is typically used for more delicate foods like eggs, fish and fruit. Personally, I don't make a lot of dishes that require poaching but it's good to know how to do it and what the water looks like at this stage.

Simmer - 185ºF - 200ºF The water is beginning to move and small bubbles are forming and breaking the surface. Things begin to really pick up the pace at this stage.

The simmering stage is the first stage of the boil that is really important to know. A lot of packaged food and recipes make it a point to tell you to "reduce heat to a simmer." Therefore, knowing exactly what a "simmer" looks like is crucial. If you've ever over-cooked rice and ended up with a pot of mush with a scorched bottom, then your simmer was probably still a slow boil. Which brings us to our next stage...

Slow (Soft) Boil - 205ºF You will see more movement and larger bubbles.

So close! We're almost there! We've got some nice, big bubbles and a little steam.

Real (Hard) Boil - 212ºF The water is bubbling vigorously and giving off a good amount of steam and heat.

And here is the magic stage! Pasta, hard-boiled eggs, rice and various other dishes are all cooked or started at this stage.  Pat yourselves on the back Pirates, Wizards and Star Fleet cooks! You just boiled water! And now, you can never again utter those awful words, "I can't even boil water."

On to the science!

There are LOT of factors that will affect the boiling point of water.

SALT - Adding salt, sugar or any other substance to your water will elevate your boiling point and shorten cooking time.

ELEVATION - The higher your altitude, the lower your atmospheric pressure. Low atmospheric pressure means there is less pressure on the molecules of the water which allows them to escape faster into the air. Less pressure means water heats faster and comes to a boil at a lower temperature. The same rule is true for baking. A cake bakes faster at higher altitudes than lower altitudes. For each thousand feet above sea level, the boiling point temperature drops roughly 2ºF.

HARD WATER - Hard water has a higher level of dissolved mineral salts and boils at a higher temperature. The difference between hard and soft water is 1ºF - 2ºF.

ALCOHOL -  Alcohol has a lower boiling point than water at about 175ºF. Diluting water with alcohol will lower the boiling point until the alcohol evaporates. It is important to cook alcohol based stews and sauces at a slightly lower temperature to avoid scorching or over-cooking.

POT/PAN SIZE - Boys and girls, size DOES matter. The water distribution and depth will affect the boiling temperature of your water. A tall, narrow pot will boil at a higher temperature than a short, wide pot simply because of the distance between the bottom of the pot and the surface of the water. Heat has to work harder to completely distribute throughout the water because of the pressure the water puts on itself. The difference is about 1ºF.

WEATHER - Boiled food takes longer to cook on a stormy day. Atmospheric pressure is higher and puts more pressure on the molecules.

Congratulations! Now you know a lot more about boiling water! Now, give your pot a rinse, dry it off and put it away. A happy kitchen is a clean kitchen...especially if you have roommates, a spouse or live with your parents. If anything, clean up just to avoid any snarky comments.

For our next quest, you will put your boiling skills to work as I teach you how to cook pasta without turning it into a gross, mushy mess. Each stage in this quest chain will be important as you work towards your first boss fight - a recipe that will involve every step in this chain. At the end of the chain, I will give you a recipe to complete WITHOUT my step-by-step instruction as you will be using skills that I already walked you thru.



Later this week, I'll be posting a special, fun project (no points) for more advanced cooks and my fellow Whovians in celebration of the series 7 premiere of Doctor Who! Make sure you subscribe to my blog so you don't miss a thing!

Until next time, keep cooking! Because the more you cook, the better you cook!

Friday, August 10, 2012

Creating Your Character!

Welcome back, Apprentices! And for those of you reading for the first time, Hello! And welcome, for the first time! Take a minute to quickly peruse the first post entitled Anyone Can Cook for an idea of what we're doing.

Today, we are going to discuss creating your character! Remember, you are only limited by your own imagination, so USE IT! You can be anything! You can be a pirate working aboard the Queen Anne's Revenge where your very life depends on preparing delectable dishes for the legendary pirate, Blackbeard. Or maybe you're a scruffy old cook on a wagon train in the old West or you work in the castle keep at Winterfell, cooking for your beloved masters, the Starks (before poor Ned was beheaded *sad face*). Or maybe you've just been hired by Malcolm Reynolds aboard the old Firefly class ship, learn all his favorite dishes and prepare them with care because you know the way to a man's heart is through his stomach. There are nights in the deep vacuum of space where your dear Cap'n can't sleep from memories of his battle at Serenity Valley. So you fix his favorite dessert, put on your best gauzy dress (it's maybe a little see-through) and dab your lips with strawberry juice to give them a little color and hint of tiptoe through the ship to his quarters and -

Wait...where were we...? Oh, yeah! Creating your character!! Use your imagination and figure out who or what you want to be (you don't even have to be human!). Got that locked in? Okay, cool. Now....creating your character tome! What is a character tome, you ask? Well, a character tome is a sheet of paper that explains who or what your character is and charts the progress of their powers or abilities. Usually, in gaming, you would choose an alignment that helps determine the personality of your character. Are you good, evil, neutral, etc? But for the purposes of this blog, you are just a cook. Your goal is the pursuit of creating deliciousness for those you love. You are using your fledgling powers in the kitchen for good and not evil! I will be actively steering you away from poisoning yourself or others.

Materials for creating your character tome: Graph paper, pencil, refrigerator magnet.

I'm having you use graph paper because it will be much easier to chart your progress with those nifty little boxes all laid out for you. It is also something you can hold in your hand, take in the kitchen and keep on display. Which is where your magnet comes in. I want you to put your Apprentice character tome on display in your kitchen as a reminder of your goals. The ideal place will be right, smack on the front of your refrigerator. I want you to see it every time you reach in your refrigerator. You will see how far you have come, what you are capable of and what you WILL be capable of with more practice. Because the more you cook, the better you get! It is also a strategic position to encourage you to COOK! So, if you're thinking about reaching for that frozen pizza or slapping together a quick peanut butter and jelly sandwich, take a moment and consider...does reheating a frozen brick of preserved food or smearing semi-solid substances on bread make me a better cook? The answer: not so much.

So, now that you've determined your character, bust out your graph paper. Still feeling a little lost? Maybe you need a visual representation of your character to get you started. I recommend taking the time to draw your character. Only you know what your character looks like. Are you human? Alien? Orc? Troll? Do you live in contemporary society or are you medieval? Like I said, the possibilities are ENDLESS. For those of you that don't want to take the time to draw your character, I've taken the liberty of researching a few online character generators that will let you build a character and download that character to your computer to print out. Many of the online character gens are very specialized and may not represent what you have in your head to your satisfaction (which is why I recommend drawing it out...there is no judgement here, only praise and encouragement).

Fantasy Avatar Creator by Age of Games: Age of Games Avatar Creator

+10 for awesome variety of races and features.
+10 Easy Download
-5 it doesn't generate the entire body, just an avatar portrait...which, for me, is kind of a bummer.

Easy to use: Just let the game load, click the arrow to enter, choose a country (represented by a flag), choose a gender (click "basic avatar" to build an avatar using a massive selection of features) and build!

I created this nifty card with a name, class, text description and saved it to my computer. Again, the only downside is that you can't generate a full body view and you're limited to armor and weapons. I am anxiously awaiting the day fantasy games have a cook in an apron armed with cast iron skillets. Those can do some serious damage!

Here's one from the creators of South Park at South Park Studios.

+10 awesome variety of features, clothes & backgrounds. Endless customization.
+10 Easy download

This one is really fun and totally easy to use. You just click the different parts of the generic avatar and then customize to your heart's content! The site also allows for easy download of your creation. I made this Gator-Pirate Girl...the tail could prove problematic as I don't want to get it stuck in the oven...that would suck.

The last one I found that I really liked was from AMC and Mad MenMad Men Yourself!

+10 Customization
+10 Easy Download
+6 Swingin' 60's Backdrops!

This one is fun if you like that ultra cool 60's look. Again, it's easy to use, customize and download. You can also download several different versions of your character - portrait, body, widescreen and standard.

I'm sure there are several other character generators out there so don't feel limited by what I've shown you here. And if you stumble on one that you really like and think everyone else needs to know about, feel free to fire me off an email with a link and I'll update the blog!

Alright...we're almost there. Now, you need to know what your character tome should actually LOOK like!  Your character tome is going to track your progress using a points system. With each quest (or recipe) you complete, I'll assign a certain point value to the tasks you performed. For example, if the quest is Chicken Fried Rice, you might get +10 for boiling, +10 for dicing, +5 for Sauteing, etc. Each time you get 10 points, you'll color in a block next the corresponding task. So each block is worth 10 points. But not every task, in every recipe will be worth 10 points...especially when you really begin to level up and get into the more difficult recipes. So you might have to fill in only half a block. And when you're giving yourself points, be honest with yourself. If the task you performed is given 10 points but you feel like you could have done better and really earned only 5 points, then give yourself five points. The only competition in this game is with yourself. This is about YOU doing better in the kitchen. So challenge yourself and hold yourself to a high standard!

I put together a little example of what your character tome could look like. Again, your tome doesn't have to look exactly like mine. The only thing you'll need are the corresponding categories. But like with your character, get creative with your tome, too! I recommend graph paper because it is nice and neat and you can have everything all laid out on a grid. But if you're a medieval cook and you want your tome to be on a scroll and you are willing to take the time to make that happen, go for it! And send me pictures!

The required categories are as follows:


  • Safety
  • Tools
  • Ingredients
  • Washing
  • Chopping
  • Dicing
  • Slicing
  • Whisking
  • Mixing
  • Folding
  • Blending
  • Boiling
  • Sauteing
  • Frying
  • Baking
Clean-up & Storage:
  • Washing
  • Sanitizing
  • Proper Storage
Kitchen Savvy:

All of the categories are pretty self-explanatory. The last one, "Kitchen Savvy," involves extra points earned by following me on Twitter. @8BitCook I regularly tweet useful tips and tricks for the kitchen...anything from gadgets and gizmos to the weird and awesome recipes around the net. 

So, get to work on those character tomes, Apprentices! Soon, I will be giving out your very first quest! In the mean time, send me pictures of your tomes! I would love to see them and put them up on my blog for other Apprentices to see and be inspired! And if you have any questions, don't hesitate to email me:

I'm looking forward to our adventure together!

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Anyone Can Cook!

“Anyone can cook!” - Chef Gusteau, Ratatouille 

Friends often tell me, “I can’t cook.” But what I’m actually hearing is, “I don’t cook.” Or “I won’t cook.”  Cooking is just like any other learned skill, the more you do it, the better you get. I think that's why I love that quote from Ratatouille so much; it is absolutely, one hundred percent true! Anyone can cook! You don't need the title "Chef" to be able to prepare an amazing meal or a kitchen full of minions (although, I have to admit, my own flock of minions would be pretty sweet) to ask "How high?" every time you yell "Jump!" You don’t have to be able to dice an onion in under a second with a giant knife to be a good cook. Don’t get me wrong, that’s really impressive, but my coordination is such that making a simple pot of chili would turn into something out of a Scream movie if I tried it. And I like my fingers right where they are, thank you very much! Cooking isn’t about speed or nifty flourishes of a knife. Most of us don’t plan on working for Chef Ramsay or in some fancy gourmet restaurant. We just want to be able to make tasty dishes for the people we love. But where to start? The kitchen can be a very intimidating place. It’s easy to get discouraged because maybe you burned something once or you mistook salt for sugar or maybe you overcooked something to the point where it was unrecognizable as actual food. Or perhaps you just grew up in a family where cooking was never very important and so you never learned. 

So, I've decided to conduct a little experiment. And you, gentle readers, should you choose to participate, are about to embark on this little adventure with me! I love to cook and I love games so we are going to mash them together and see what happens! I am going to teach you how to cook and it's going to be fun! Or it could be excruciatingly boring; we really don't know at this point and honestly, it could go either way. But we're going to give it a whirl and hope it's not a disaster! 

I play World of Warcraft. One of the skills you can learn for your character in the game is cooking. You start out with basic, simple recipes, gather ingredients, build or find a cooking fire and prepare your dish. The dishes your character prepares go into your inventory for your character to later consume to replenish your "health" after a big fight or quest. Each time your character "cooks," your cooking skill levels up. Your character can then seek out more advanced recipes, with better ingredients which allow your character to prepare dishes that provide a higher level of nourishment or "health." If you are questing with a friend, you can share the food you make which definitely proves helpful if you're out in the middle of nowhere. In the game, as in life, cooking for yourself has definite advantages. Once you learn how to cook, you are no longer at the mercy of those shifty merchants, shelling out hard-earned copper for stale bread or some weird stew that may or may not give you food-poisoning. Okay, so you won't get food-poisoning in-game but in real life, you never know. 

And yes...that really is my little Dranei mage. 

Helpful Tip: Take the time to read the reports from your local health department on the restaurants in your area. You will find them in the food & dining section of your local paper or you can look it up online. This site has each state listed with many broken down further into counties or a list of local sources. You will find your research very enlightening and not a little bit disgusting. Having worked in the food service industry for many years, trust me, it is not difficult for a business to maintain an "A" average. The restaurants that receive demerits are most likely ignorant of the standards (which is really bad) or are simply careless (which is worse).

For the purposes of this blog, you are now an apprentice cook! YAY! You're that little ragamuffin that follows the Chef around, carries a heavy pack with pots and pans clanging loudly with each step, dresses shabbily and is only permitted to perform easy tasks until you learn not to blow yourself up. Okay, maybe you're not a ragamuffin (I just really like that word and the Samwise Gamgee-ish image it provokes for me) but you are an apprentice! As an apprentice cook, you will learn the basics of several skill sets and we're going to break them down in ways that make sense. You are going to learn the basics of baking, pan-frying, sautéing, boiling, chopping, dicing, slicing (again, no fancy knife tricks - it's a kitchen, not a circus), mixing and whisking. I'll post information on the best tools for the job that won't break the bank as well as basic kitchen safety and food storage advice. Best of all, you are going to learn how to prepare simple, tasty meals that you will be proud to serve your friends and family.

You might be wondering where the whole "game" aspect comes in to play. Well, we are going to take a page out the RPG manual and you are going to create a character for yourself along with a character tome to track your progress as an apprentice cook and begin leveling up! Start thinking about who or what you want to be in the kitchen! Use your imagination! The possibilities are endless. 

Be sure to subscribe to the blog because in my next post, we'll talk about creating your character and making your character tome. I'll have some links to online character avatar creators for those of you who want a visual representation of your character that you can easily build, download to your computer and print out. 

So, let the adventure begin!

A little bit about me, in case you're wondering: 

In my family, the kitchen was like the heart of the home. Cooking was a family affair and everyone had a hand in preparing the meal. My mom never banished us kids from the kitchen and wether we were making the salad or the iced tea or just setting the table, we were always involved. By the time I was in elementary school, I could make the easy things like spaghetti with meat sauce, mixed salads, garlic bread, chili, hamburgers, pan-fried pork chops, scrambled eggs and I could even manage a Betty Crocker cake from a mix. Of course, now, poor Betty is banned from my pantry since I began making cakes from scratch. Growing up, surrounded by amazing cooks like my mom, my grandma and my aunt, I couldn't help but develop a love for the kitchen. I don't want to mislead anyone, I am not a professional Chef. I did not go to culinary school and I don't know the first thing about proper, French cooking other than what I've seen Julia Child do on PBS. And honestly, with my Southern roots, I prefer Paula Deen anyway. I will not be teaching you how to prepare veal, truffles or anything involving ingredients that cost more than my car. I am simply here to share my love for cooking and nerd-out with like-minded folks. Fair warning, I am obsessed with Doctor Who, Star Trek, all things Joss Whedon, smutty romance novels and obviously, video games and food. I might occasionally post a themed menu for a season premiere of one of my favorite shows, movie themed dinner or maybe even a game-themed meal. But I hope you'll stick around. I think this could be a lot of fun!