Learn to understand the anatomy of a dish

It probably won’t surprise you that we are a true believer that anyone can learn to cook without recipes.

The living proof is the person writing this blog post.

Hi, I’m Edie and when I left home for college, I couldn’t cook and was a very picky eater to top. Luckily, I discovered that cooking is fun and soon I started to collect tons of recipes. I remember often sighting So many recipes, so little time. I desperately wanted to become a creative cook that wouldn’t need them anymore, and just could peak in the fridge and make something.

Now I teach cooking cooking classes with this goal in mind. Each class, we dive a bit deeper into 1 subject to teach you the how and why of cooking, so you can get free of recipes too.

Of course you can figure it all out on your own too, just like I did. One way to do so, is to compare recipes.

I still do this when I cook something that is new for me.

The anatomy of a dish

When I compare recipes for the same dish, I break the dish down into its separate elements to understand what I call the anatomy of a dish. Depending on the dish, the elements could be the cooking technique(s), ingredients – both main and seasoning ingredients, tools used, and serving and garnishing tips. Some elements are essential to the dish, others you can (learn to) play with.

At our classes that really teach you to understand a dish (like pureed soups, Dutch stamppot, or braised chicken stews to name a few that were on the calendar recently), we start the class doing this together.

To help you understand how we do that, here’s an example.

the anatomy of a dish, an example of how we teach our learn to cook without recipes cooking classes

The anatomy of a dish: example

As an example, take the poached pears we cooked at last month’s Valentine’s Day cooking class (also bookable as a private class), in which we cooked with flowers.

Let’s break the dish Poached pears down into the following elements:

The pears

Poached pears are a staple in Dutch cuisine, especially in the winter months. We have a special pear called Gieser Wildeman that you can’t eat raw. So you have to cook them. A bit like quince, but smaller and definitely a pear. I had them at many, many Christmas dinners growing up. 

Now in California, I use regular, unripe pears. I love pears, but I never seem to catch them when they are perfectly ripe. So I poach them.


Poaching is a classic French technique in which you cook soft and fragile ingredients. The important distinction with boiling is that you keep the temperature of the liquid far below boiling point not to overcook the ingredient. The French are masters in poaching fish this way and at the cooking technique class on Boiling, Blanching & Poaching we illustrated the dos and don’ts of this technique with chicken – another ingredient you don’t want to overcook. 

But the term poaching is also used for cooking fresh fruits in a sweet liquid. That’s what we did with the pears. In my book, you don’t have to do anything to nicely ripe pears, but unripe ones will become almost as good after poaching. The only thing you need is to turn on the stove and make a few decisions on what other ingredients to use.

Sweet liquid

Did you noticed I said sweet liquid above and not sugar water or honey wine. Because that’s one of the decisions you can make. You can simply use sugar and water, but more exciting is it to use wine (any color) or a fruit juice. Or a mix of water, wine and fruit juice.

Instead of sugar you can use other sweeteners like honey. Fruit juices also bring in sweetness. How sweet you make it, is also up to you. The pears will cook and get softer in the liquid. It’s just for the final sweetness of your pears that you are aiming for.

Other flavors

Besides the liquid and the sweetener that you are using, you can add other flavorings. Spices for instance. I like to add warming spices like cardamon, cinnamon, cloves, all spice. Or think of star anise, fennel or anise seeds. When you use saffron, your pears get a beautiful yellow color.

Cooking time

Another decision to make is the cooking time. How soft do you want your pears to become? Do you poach them whole, halved or in quarters? How hard or ripe were your pears when you started? What variety of pears do you poach?

I simply start checking my halved and cored pears after 5 minutes and if a knife slides easily through them, I turn off the heat and let them cool in the liquid. They will continue to cook a bit more, but this way they stay firm enough to easily scoop them onto a plate. But you can cook them longer until they are much softer.

Serve your poached pears

Serve the pears as is. Or make them the center piece and serve a small scoop of ice cream in the hollowed out halve pears. Or use the pears as a thinly sliced garnish on your big bowl of ice cream. You can toast nuts (pistachios, almonds) and cut mint into slivers as garnish (as I did for the picture). Boil down the poaching liquid until it is reduced till a thick syrup and garnish your plate with it. Just don’t forget to sieve first if you used whole spices. Serve them with whipped cream. Add the poached pears to your morning yogurt. With pancakes, in your grilled (blue) cheese, in a cake. I guess you get it.

When you look at a recipe, you want to learn to understand the anatomy of the dish, be able to break it down into its separate elements. This shows you what the essential elements are, and where you can go your own way. We call this playing with food.

chef Edie Dourleijn

The anatomy of a dish: poached pears

Getting ready to get into the kitchen? Let’s recap quickly. If we describe making poached pears in 1 sentence we can look back on how we described the second use for the cooking technique poaching: cooking fresh fruits in a sweet liquid.
You need pears, a liquid and a sweetener as the bare minimum. But which and in what ratio, that’s up to you. And yes, the choices you make will influence the outcome. If you use wine instead of water, the pears will definitely take up all that wine flavor. You’ll get a milder taste if you only use (sweetened) water. If you keep the pears whole, the cooking time is longer. Etc.
In our classes we will teach you how to work with these differences so you understand what you are doing and why, so you can create a dish that works best for you. But you can always figure it out on your own.

People on our mailing list have received our downloadable synopsis of the above, and our favorite recipe for poached pears, including all our tips to alter our recipe to make it the way they like it. Sign up too and receive the pdf in your mailbox.


Or leave a comment below if you like our help creating your own poached pears recipe.

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