How many of you have dust on your kitchen stove? Or on your pans and other cookware? Was the last “oven” you used a microwave? I’m not going to point fingers and giggle. I avoided cooking (at home at least) for about ten years or so. I grew up cooking. As soon as I could reach the stove top (about 12 years old), I was pretty much in charge of cooking at home. Since my parents were divorced most of the time, I got to cook at both of their houses. (It was either that or sandwiches!) When I was about 20, my grandmother was recovering from surgery and wasn’t able to make the Thanksgiving turkey so she asked my aunt to do it. My aunt freaked out: “I don’t know how to roast a turkey!” I was incredulous: how can you not know how to roast a turkey?! I had done it myself a couple of times by then. (hint: it’s like a chicken, only bigger, so it takes longer! Oh, and it matters if you’ve stuffed it or not.)
Before we go any further, I am not a gourmet or even any kind of ‘foodie.’ I learned to cook out of necessity: two divorced working parents and one younger sister. (FYI: my sister learned to be a much better baker than I ever was.) We both learned to cook because this was before processed prepared foods were cheap and easily available. I remember when Pepperidge Farms came out with their frozen cakes; until then, if we wanted cake, we made it ourselves- with and without the boxed mixes. Popcorn was made in a cast iron skillet with a glass lid, cream puffs began as batter, and chicken, rice, and enchiladas were all made by hand. Nothing really fancy, unless it was my sister’s Boston Cream Pie (awesome!) but we grew up reading recipes, tweaking them and making all kinds of things. It was cheaper to buy a bag of flour, a bag of sugar, baking powder, and other ingredients that would make several cakes, pies and whatever else we wanted to make than it was to buy them already made or even the boxed mixes and a tub of frosting.
By the time I was in college and living on my own, I was pretty tired of cooking. I didn’t hate it (much) but I had done it all my life and cooking for myself was just one more thing that I didn’t want to do. So, I opted for prepackaged or fast food/ takeout as much as I could. It wasn’t that cooking was “such a chore”; part of it was that food-not-made-by-me was a bit of a treat. There were some really nice dinners that I made for myself on weekends and other times that I really enjoyed making and eating.
To be honest, I never really thought people could be of cooking or dread it as much as the do until recently. One of my water aerobics classmates recently started the GoLo diet program (you’ve probably seen the ads on tv) and she was groaning about how it seemed like it was mostly vegetables and the whole idea of cooking was just awful: “it takes such a long time and I don’t want to have to pick up groceries and then go home to cook them after working all day!” I tried to be as supportive as I could but another classmate sort of headed me off by commiserating with her. Sympathy is great, but it’s not a solution, and in this case, it just added to her dread and reinforced her reluctance to cook. When I mentioned that I go grocery shopping on Sundays and buy my groceries for the week, she countered me with ‘meal planning dread.’ This is actually something that Robb Wolf handles rather well in Wired to Eat. While he actually has menus and meal plans in his book, he offers some quick, on-the-fly ideas using five protein, five vegetables, and five spices. Using those fifteen total ingredients, he makes a variety of meals, none of them particularly complex or time consuming.
I do something similar when I do my Sunday grocery shopping. I make a grocery list, but I don’t make any meal plans or menus and certainly nothing complicated. I buy my breakfast and lunch items, usually just a protein and maybe a fruit or smoothie ingredients, and for dinner- my most ‘complex’ meal of the day- I buy enough protein to see me through the days I plan on cooking and whatever vegetables I’m in the mood for, which can be sweet potatoes, broccoli, brussels sprouts or bagged salad greens, and whatever else I want on the salad. Yesterday, I came home and threw a pork shoulder steak on the stove (cast iron skillet with avocado oil) and then I poured out half a bag of butter lettuce, threw on about ten grape tomatoes and in a my ‘salad dressing’ container (an empty spice jar), I poured two teaspoons of Trader Joe’s 21 Seasoning Salute, a tablespoon of balsamic vinegar and a tablespoon of olive oil. I let it soak for about ten minutes while I let my dog out and did some other stuff. I flipped the steak, poured the dressing over the salad and I ate the salad while the steak finished up. The steak obviously took the longest, about 20 minutes, and when I was done eating the salad and steak, I sliced some strawberries for dessert. The whole meal took about 30 minutes tops to make. It definitely isn’t fancy or complicated, but it’s real food and it’s foods that I like that are good for me. The only reason the salad wasn’t fancier is that I didn’t want to slice a bunch of radishes or onions (although I have shallots in the fridge- I put them in eggs) and most of the avocados I find aren’t worth the money. I cook what I like since I’m the one who has to eat it.
I think what puts most people off are the recipes they see in the cookbooks or diet plan books. There’s a lot of spices and ingredients they aren’t familiar with and they feel unsure. Usually, they are cooking for family too, so there’s the whole idea that the family won’t like what they cook. What if they screw up the meal? What if it takes too long? Cooking- like everything- takes a little practice. Accomplished cooks know that one side of the oven cooks hotter than the other; I know my favorite skillet is a little lopsided on one burner, so we just rotate what’s in the oven or move the food/ skillet around. Usually these little defects aren’t disastrous to what you’re cooking anyway. When you’re cooking for a family, just ask them what they like, if you don’t know already. If you have an “I don’t like carrots” person, either 1) don’t make carrots; or 2) make something in addition to carrots. For example, if you are roasting a chicken and one of your kids won’t eat carrots, make a medley of roasted veggies with it, like potatoes, brussels sprouts or veggies you know they do like. If you have someone that won’t eat beef, then when you make your pot roast, just make something that they do enjoy (toss a chicken in the oven- they can have chicken leftovers while the rest of the family has pot roast leftovers.) Usually it doesn’t take any longer to make one more part of the meal than it does to make the entire meal itself. When I lived with my dad, I did it pretty much every time one of us wanted something the other one didn’t like (lamb for him and goulash for me).
Don’t be afraid of your own inexperience. Remember when you were learning to drive? You only get driving experience by driving, so you had to get behind the wheel if you wanted to learn. Of course, on your first day, you probably didn’t get on the 405 in L.A., either! If you don’t have a lot of experience cooking, or you’ve been away from it for a while, then start simply with some basic meals. It’s a lot easier if it’s just you or your spouse, but if it is for a larger bunch, then make some notes. I know my sister really hates fish of almost all kinds, so nothing fishy on her menu. My mom doesn’t like anything salty. My dad is not a fan of lamb and I am not a fan of rice or most beans, so it’s simply a matter of finding the middle ground. Most soups, stews, pastas and other main dishes aren’t too complicated. Chicken stew is not hard (chicken, veggies to taste, spices to taste). This also has the advantage of something you can start in a slow-cooker and add some of the softer veggies later in the day. Even with a family, you don’t need to do complex meal planning. Sometime over the weekend, or whenever is convenient, make a list of what dinners you want for the week and make sure you have the groceries. It also helps to have a back up entree in the freezer just in case. If you do have a group you are cooking for, a meal suggestion box is a good idea. That way you’re not stuck doing all the planning and you learn more about what they prefer.
Don’t be afraid to experiment with your cooking. A good cookbook will give you some variations on recipes, but the more you cook, the more confident you will get. As a teenager, I used to make a lot of fruit pies for family holidays and the recipe in our cookbook called for 2 tablespoons of flour as a thickening agent (apple pie), which frankly was pretty icky, no matter how long you let the filling macerate or how much you mixed it. What works a lot better? Instant tapioca. I switched the tapioca for the flour with much better results. Recipes are basically a framework for the dish, and most experienced cooks don’t hesitate to switch one ingredient for something they like better. For a lot of foods, you don’t need a recipe- you just need the ingredients you like. My chicken soup is closer to a chicken stew: legs and thighs, barley, peas, mushrooms, onions and lots and lots of bay leaves. Macaroni and/ or noodles depends on my mood. This is why for some ‘traditional’ dishes, there are as many recipes as there are cooks. Ever ask a Texan how to make chili? Or a Filipino how to make adobo? How about asking a Mexican how to make huevos rancheros? The only wrong way to make something is the way you don’t like it.
I was living with my dad when we both decided we wanted enchiladas one night. The way we grew up making them was really time consuming: cook the meat, grate the cheese, chop the onions, warm the sauce, then soften the tortillas in hot oil, soak them in the sauce, stuff and roll them up. When we made them for family gatherings, we made a few dozen and it took an assembly line to make them for the whole family. This was just two of us. So we cooked the meat, bought grated cheese, and chopped the onions, then I stuffed two tortillas, put them on a plate, covered them completely with the sauce, and I microwaved them for two minutes! Were they ‘traditional’? Hell, no! Were they good? Hell yeah! and they weren’t a huge production and we had leftover filling for the next night to make more fresh enchiladas. This is the kind of recipe that you can prepare the filling when you have time and then have your dinner in ten minutes or less when you get home from work.
There are a lot of gourmets and foodies who think of ‘food as art,’ and in at least one way, they are right: one person’s art is another person’s trash. We like what we like, whether food or art. That’s why there are so many different cooking shows on tv: Martha Stewart’s mac & cheese might be fabulous, but I’m not going to make it! It’s just not my style, cooking-wise or eating-wise. My best friend loves refried beans and rice, and she can have my share because I won’t touch them. I can eat lamb seven days a week for weeks on end and my dad thinks that’s crazy. Cooking is about trying new things, and learning what things you like and don’t like. Yes, you will get a few things ‘wrong,’ but more often you will get them right. Don’t be afraid of finding your own style of cooking and don’t be afraid of getting it wrong. The more you cook, the more you learn about how to tweak things so they are a little more to your taste. (Why do you think I put 4 bay leaves in the chicken soup?)