learning to cook
February 22, 2011
I’ve spent the past couple of years making a concerted effort to learn how to cook. Sure, I’ve always been able to boil pasta and heat up fish sticks. But I didn’t know anything about how to get meat to turn out right, what spices and herbs to mix with what other spices and herbs, how sauces work, or what to do with a fridge full of ingredients and no real recipe. I’d watch friends whip up amazing dishes with seemingly little effort, but when I tried the same thing at home, it came out like mush. In the modern world, between pre-packaged meals and the microwave, you can get by without knowing how to really cook. But I was getting sick of pre-packaged. Fresh and home cooked just tastes better.
It takes effort to learn how to cook. Many recipes and cookbooks aren’t even helpful if you’re starting from a level of real ignorance. A recipe will say, “Saute chicken breast until done,” and if the only thing you know about chicken is that if you don’t cook it well enough you’ll kill your friends, by God you’ll saute that chicken breast for thirty minutes. Then you wonder why it comes out like rubber, and you decide you can’t cook and go three years before trying again.
It gets even harder when people tell you, “But cooking’s easy, everyone knows how to cook.” No, it isn’t, and they don’t. Cooking is its own language, and if you never learned to speak it, you can get in real trouble.
Two things finally helped me overcome my conviction that I couldn’t cook. First, my mom gave me a cookbook that speaks my language (this one — it’s fabulous). It says things like, “Saute chicken breast for three minutes on each side.” Oh God, thank you! Specific instructions! I can do this! The book is also comprehensive — instead of trying to pick something that sounds good out of limited offerings, like I’d been doing with other cookbooks, this book has everything. Do I feel like fried rice? It’s got it. Mac and cheese? It’s got two! Fried chicken? Steak? Taco salad? Pasta alfredo? Yup. Pomegranate mojitos? Yum.
Second, for the last couple of years I’ve invited friends over on Monday night to eat dinner and watch “Castle.” I make an effort to cook something different every week. Having the external motivation has really helped.
Here’s what I made this week:
The reason I know I’m getting better, and am actually starting to feel like I can cook, is that this isn’t from a recipe. That is, the original recipe called for spaghetti and brocolli. I went for tortellini and green beans. I’m improvising. (And no, the tortellini was not handmade. Baby steps, grasshopper.)
What’s more, the longer I do this, the more I’m able to tell how long to cook the veggies, how much oil a chicken breast needs, how big a tablespoon really is. Practice and experience are starting to pay off. Those people who think cooking is easy have been doing it their whole lives, and a lot of them don’t understand how much knowledge they’ve internalized. I’ve had to learn it, and I really appreciate it.
So, as I get a little older, there’s something I wish I’d figured out a long time ago. Well, it’s something I knew. I just didn’t know it applied to everything. See, I knew that if I wanted to be a writer I had to practice, do a ton of writing, and just keep practicing. But I didn’t apply that to anything else. These days, there’s a lot of things I wasn’t good at ten or fifteen years ago that I’m feeling much better about practicing now. Like cooking. And knitting. And putting on eyeliner….