Learning to Cook

This evening as we sat down to a dinner (crockpot lentil soup, cornbread with honey butter, and a salad) I was reminded of my father-in-law, Stephen. Early on in our marriage Stephen asked Gavin “Did you know she could cook when you married her?” to which Gavin replied, “No, but she didn’t know either.”

We’d probably been married just over a year at that point as we were living in Sebastopol and I’d brought down some dish (probably a cheesecake, torte or sticky buns), and he was quite impressed by my culinary masterpiece.

I did not start out being able to cook, I started out being able to follow a recipe VERY WELL, which is more important than one might realize. Sure all it takes to make bread is flour, yeast and some water, but how much of it, and what you do with it is very important.

So where did I learn to cook? At the time I think my reply was “too many hours of Food Network,” but that isn’t entirely true.

To be honest, I didn’t learn to cook in just one place and most what I learned was NOT from the Food Newtwork. 

I learned how to chop, dice, and mince from my dad. How to slice watermelon, buy beans (he had a half-hour lecture on how to read labels on cans of beans), make chicken salad, and scrounge out of the fridge for dinner.

I watched my mom “dirty every dish in the kitchen” and then refuse to use the dishwasher (I love my dishwasher, it is so much more efficient than my Gavin at doing 98% of my dishes, Gavin does an amazing job on the remaining 2% of large pots that really need a good scrub). Prepare “planned-overs,” and host large groups for waffle breakfasts with grace. There was always space for one more person at “tea time” which was as good a reason as any to have friends over and indulge in a little something in the middle of the afternoon.

I hated tea then (and still prefer not to drink it now), but I miss the sense of community that accompanied the sharing of a plate of cookies (carefully rationed out), and a mug of something hot.

I learned very little from my middle school “cooking” class that I didn’t already know. I learned that group work partners were unreliable, and that when left to their own devices, middle schoolers make a mess in the kitchen. Hardly new stuff.

I picked up a few tricks from friends: a jar of tomato sauce, a pound of ground beef makes a decent meat sauce (although now I know it is not dinner, just a starting point). It helps if you thaw the chicken all the way before you cook it. Turkey from Thanksgiving will get freezer burn by February. Stoffers makes good lasagna if you want something for two, frozen broccoli keeps indefinitely in the freezer, and there is nothing wrong with the occasional box of mac-n-cheese (although now I go for the organic, instead of the electric-orange). And tasty food is better than amazing presentation.

My grandmothers also influenced my cooking. I have worked to reverse engineer Oma’s amazing rouladen with some success, but Oma still makes it better. Oma is also a huge proponent of tea time and makes her special blend of leftover loose teas put into one container. I have learned to politely sip, leaving it full enough to avoid refills. I have inherited several of Grandma Humphery’s cook books, my favorite so far is the Whitehouse Cookbook, although most of the recipes I’ve made from it have been dubious at best, culinary techniques have come a long way since Ford was in office.

I rounded off my cooking education watching countless hours of America’s Test Kitchen as I puttered around our little apartment in Somerville waiting for the temp agencies to call back. I also spent many hours in the kitchen which led to many failures and some successes. This was due in part to the horrible oven which wouldn’t (couldn’t?) maintain a consistent temperature, and my novice-level skills.

Thankfully by the time we moved to Sebastopol and I finally got an oven that worked decently well it turned out that I’d gotten pretty decent at cooking and baking. Then I went on a baking spree which led to Gavin’s co-workers putting out a tip-jar.

I read (and still read) food blogs, cook books, magazines, and articles (both print and online). I subscribe to Cooks Illustrated and have subscribed to Martha Stewart Living, Better Home & Garden, and Entertainment Weekly (yes, they occasionally cover food). I have a shelf full of cookbooks and cooking-related books filled with sticky notes and bits of paper to mark pages. I print out and photocopy frequently used recipes and helpful guides and keep them in a binder for quick reference.

I am not afraid to google or ask questions when I find myself in over my head. I also tend to take the “what’s the worst that could happen?” approach… so far the worst has been a small oven fire, but that happened within the first month of our marriage so I figure things can only get better. To be fair, we’ve also ordered a fair bit of pizza, and opened our share of annie’s mac-n-cheese on nights that dinner didn’t quite turn out as planned. Not every night hosts a culinary masterpiece.

I am slowly branching out and starting to improvise more, what can I tweak and where? Can I swap out wine for chicken broth? Pear sauce for apple sauce in place of butter? What if I want to cut the amount of sugar?

I am also trying to make more Oliver-friendly meals. I figure if he helps make it, maybe he’ll be more willing to expand his horizons. Sometimes it works. Does it matter how the vegetables are cut? If not, I can have O assist me. Is the exact amount of flour or sugar vital? No? Then O can scoop. Does it require exact precision timing? Then please keep O out of the kitchen.

I am also hoping including O in the kitchen early will give him skills that will be useful later in life. How to follow a recipe exactly, when and how to improvise, how to cook, set the table, and chop vegetables. After all, one day his future FIL might ask his significant other “Did you know he could cook when you married him?”


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