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[Cooking With Mike] Five Steps to an Easier Ethnic Cuisine

Now that we're in college and many of us have started cooking for ourselves, it's time to start thinking for ourselves too. And, if you're like me (a.k.a. the "typical American") then you probably grew up with the mistaken idea that foreign food is too difficult for novice chefs like us to prepare at home.

WRONG-O. Yes, tackling exotic dishes can definitely be scary, but it's also easily managed if you take the time to plan before you cook. After months of making repeated mistakes in my own kitchen, I've decided to create a step-by-step process that you ladies can use to help decide what recipe to make at home and how to make that recipe a reality.

Step #1 - Start with what you've got. When you're deciding what dish to cook, this means taking a close look at each recipe's list of ingredients. (And for now, focus only on the ingredients - don't look at the actual cooking steps just yet.) Pick a recipe that makes use of vegetables or pantry items you already have on hand. For example, a handful of red or white potatoes, an onion, and some garlic makes a great start for a hearty Indian-style curry, while a red bell pepper, a head of broccoli, and two or three carrots could be chopped up and tossed with a few other store-bought ingredients for a quick stir fry. In other words, "shop" your pantry before you head to the grocery store. It'll save you money.

Step #2 - After you've narrowed it down to a few promising recipes (based on Step #1) read through the recipes themselves and try to get a feel for the different cooking skills involved. Choose a recipe that matches your specific skill level and that you'd feel comfortable cooking, and avoid anything that seems too complicated or time-consuming for your tastes. Also, keep in mind that if you're trying out new ingredients for the first time you don't want to be experimenting with new cooking techniques simultaneously; that's just a recipe for disaster.

Step #3 - Know where to shop. After you've got your recipe in hand, take the time to really think about your next step. Like me, you're probably a frequent shopper at Giant Eagle, but don't overlook your neighborhood's ethnic food stores. Oakland, Shadyside, and Squirrel Hill all have great places to shop for Korean, Chinese, Indian, Hispanic, and Italian ingredients. (Use Google to find specific stores in your area.) If your recipe calls for a whole slew of hard-to-pronounce spices then you'll be better off shopping there instead of at a "big box" grocery store like Giant Eagle, which (believe it or not) usually overcharges for ethnic ingredients you can find for much less at specialized grocery stores. That being said, ethnic supermarkets sell most items in bulk, because many of their customers use them day in and day out. (Think dried red chiles, curry powder, basmati rice). I'd recommend you start out by buying no more of an item than your recipe calls for. This way you won't end up with huge containers of spices slowly turning to dust on your cupboard shelves. Clearly, that's just sad.

Step #4 - Well, it's more of a lesson, really: stick with the script. Remember, you're sailing in uncharted waters here, so don't go altering the recipe before you've made the original version at least once or twice. With lots of ingredients in a single dish it's easy to think you can leave one or two out, especially if this is your first time using them and you don't quite know how they contribute to the dish's overall flavor. But beware, Betty Crocker: big flavor comes from small amounts of spice and leaving anything out - even if it's an ingredient you can't pronounce - will result in a much blander (and much more disappointing) dish.

Step #5 - With your recipe, your ingredients, and your cook's confidence all accounted for, it's finally time to put the dish together! You've got this. (Yes, that was step was short. Are you complaining?)

And that's all there is to it. My only piece of parting advice is this: prepare to be humbled. I thought I was a decent chef until I tried cooking Indian-style curry at home - then I realized I was utter crap. The recipe called for a whole peeled and cubed butternut squash, and let me just say that peeling squash is LITERALLY the most tortuous thing I've ever had to do in my life. Twenty minutes into the process and I had somehow ended up with three (count them, THREE) bloody fingers and about half the amount of squash I had to start with. Now, since this was my first time cooking with butternut squash I should have been smart enough to try making something a little less complex. But cut me some slack, ladies! This was before the invention of the five-step process I just laid out for you all. (You're welcome.)  

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