Teaching myself to cook: It’s not so scary after all!Posted: September 5, 2012
For the most part, learning to cook seems pretty straightforward. If you can read, you can read a recipe. If you can follow directions, you can follow the directions in a recipe. But cooking is much more complex than that. And yet it’s one of many things we can do to benefit our family. I have written before on the importance of eating dinner as a family, and I mentioned in that post that cooking is not something that came naturally for me.
For as long as I can remember, my mom has worked long hours at her job. She works hard to provide for her family, as my dad became disabled when I was in middle school due to his Type 1 diabetes and kidney failure. He was at home, and my mom was at work, so it made sense for him to be the one to cook. I always joke that my mom is a wonderful cook… three times a year. She goes all out for the big holidays, cooking and pouring love into bowls and pots and pans all day long for Easter, Thanksgiving, and Christmas family meals. I always loved those homemade meals, and the leftovers never lasted long enough. Her oven-baked ham or turkey, sweet potatoes, and corn casserole were dishes that I looked forward to every year. I still look forward to them.
The rest of the year, my dad was in charge, and while the food always tasted good, and I rarely complained (as far as I can recall…), he relied mostly on convenience foods: canned veggies, Hamburger Helper, tuna sandwiches, spaghetti, and frozen dinners were the meals that made it to the table most of the time. He could whip up a delicious beef and vegetable stew and my favorite, sauerbraten meatballs too, but most of the meals he made came in a pre-packaged, heat-and-serve form. When I left home, this is the only way I knew to cook. I didn’t know how to chop an onion, or grate a chunk of fresh cheese, or how to use just about any cooking tool besides the microwave.
My college roommate was the start of coming out of my cooking shell. She was a much more skilled cook than I was, and started to learn a few things from her. But when I met the man who was going to eventually become my husband at the age of twenty, I still mostly relied on spaghetti or a box a Kraft macaroni and cheese with a can of tuna and a can of peas (that is still delicious to me!). He thought it was silly. At twenty years old, he knew much more about cooking than I did. When we moved in together, he was mostly in charge of the meals, and he was adventurous! He would whip up a batch of hamburgers to throw on the grill… without a recipe! This was insane to me! Amazing! And as I was amazed, I was also scared. But I wanted to try it.
Slowly but surely, I started relying less on pre-packaged foods, and more on recipes. At first, I stuck with recipes that sounded simple and ingredients with which I was familiar. Chicken. Beef. Spices. Oils. Pasta. Sometimes they were a hit, and sometimes they flopped. I didn’t yet have the knack for it. Even if I followed the recipe precisely, it sometimes failed. Why? Through my husband and a variety of cooking shows that I began to watch, I observed a common trait. The chefs tasted their food as they cooked! Brilliant! I taught myself to taste as I went, and if something didn’t seem right, that I could add things to the recipe. This may sound silly to some of you culinary experts, but I always took a recipe as if it were a law. You couldn’t just change a recipe. But when I finally taught myself that it was okay to use the recipe as a guideline, but add my own flair to it, I began to really see an improvement in both my confidence in the kitchen, as well as the way the food turned out. I got many more “Mmms” (isn’t that the best sound a cook can hear?) when I would taste and add as I went. Less cooking, more creating.
I’m still by no means an expert, but I have taught myself to branch out and buy wholesome ingredients, and put them together in a delicious meal for my family. I still use some convenience foods. Some meals, I go mostly by a recipe, but like tonight’s menu, buffalo chicken wraps (and a plain chicken wrap for my son who prefers his tongue to not be on fire), I’m simply winging it! Some meals turn out more delicious than I could have imagined. Some meals are a total flop. And I still don’t have the knack for making “pretty” food, but my boys know that nine times out of ten, it’s going to taste good and fill their bellies with nourishment and a side of love.
If cooking scares you, I really encourage you to just dive in and give it a try. Start with the simplest recipes you can find, build up some confidence, and you’ll be on your way to Head Chef status quicker than Gordon Ramsey can call you a “donkey!” (Hell’s Kitchen is a must-see for the husband and me. We never miss an episode!) 😉
What’s your cooking style? Do you use mostly fresh ingredients? Convenience foods? Or a combination of both?