This week, and Wednesday in particular, the food blogosphere was filled with posts honoring what would’ve been Julia Child’s 100th birthday. Lots of people cooked her recipes, shared them online and wrote about how she’d inspired them. This short article includes some hilarious clips of her with whole chickens sitting in a row and a burnt souffle. I have enjoyed what I know of this legendary woman. I admire her no nonsense approach and willingness to fight for a woman’s place in many male-dominated scenes, all the while taking herself lightly. But what I like most is that she encouraged more people to enjoy cooking. I am sure that in some tiny, indirect way she is responsible for helping me learn to love making food.
My journey with cooking has been relatively short, with the biggest exploration period occurring after I had children and became a stay at home mom. Feeding kids four to five times a day will lead one to either embrace or disdain cooking. (Or buy a lot of processed food. Lord knows, we’ve bought our share fruit bars, bunny crackers and the booty of pirates.) I don’t recall cooking or baking much of anything while I lived under my parents’ roof. We were never expected to and I don’t think I had much of an interest. I had a few close girlfriends in high school who could bake pretty well and I was intimidated by their skills. My mom faithfully cooked us dinner every night, almost always putting out a “rounded” meal of meat, veggies, starch and fruit. (Bless her. The amount of work and commitment to satisfy three growing children and a tall active husband, all while running her own business, astounds me.) It was very special and unusual for us to go out to eat. We packed sandwiches for every long outing and vacation lunches were almost always pulled out of the packed cooler. I really appreciate that I grew up with this example. While my parents were primarily committed to the budget, they inadvertently spared us a lot of fast food and provided more nutritious meals.
I very clearly remember my trepidation when I was asked to cook dinner during my first months as an exchange student in the Netherlands. I only knew how to cook from recipes and wasn’t even really comfortable with that. So, give me a recipe written in Dutch (which I was still very new to), different standards of measurement , someone else’s kitchen and you get a seriously nervous 18 year old whipping up a barely edible plate of spaghetti for a family used to regularly consuming amazing gourmet meals. (Oh, what I’d give to spend a few months in that home now. Mussels every weekend! Delicious wine! Outstanding company. Aaaahhh. I had no clue how good I had it.) While they ate the meal and were incredibly kind, that family and my future host families never asked me to cook again. Word must’ve traveled through the village pretty quickly.
Harry and I spent the first half of our marriage eating a lot of pasta doused with jarred sauce, frozen gyoza over rice covered with jarred teriyaki sauce, canned soups and other frozen, prepared meals that one could buy in bulk at Costco. We rarely cooked anything of substance from scratch. We made salads, but always bought the dressing. I made occasional cookies or brownies that weren’t from a box, but admittedly even home baking was rare.
The stats on American food consumption let me know that chances are exceptionally high that many reading this eat like that now. Maybe not all of the time, but most of the time. I truly do not judge you. I’ve been there and I understand how high the first few cooking hurdles can feel. And how disappointing it is when you trip over one, ruining an expensive piece of meat or vegetable dish you labored over. I also know that many people are stretched to the max these days and it’s hard to imagine cooking delicious ingredients as something possible when you’re living paycheck to paycheck. (If this is the case for you, have you seen this? Maybe it provides some encouragement.)
Prior to having Charlie we got a lot of our higher education debt paid off and felt a little more financial freedom, so we went out to eat a little more often and began exploring places with fresh ingredients put together in unique ways. Our friends began to cook better. We began to try more complicated recipes when we had friends over. We were developing our taste for freshness and depth of flavor. (I consider this period the beginning of our “palate cleansing.” I really think we needed to be free of all the additives, obscene amounts of sugar added to food, preservatives and other chemicals to fully appreciate the nuances of fresh food.)
Then, we moved. We left the diverse, delicious beauty of Seattle’s food world and entered suburbia, surrounded by chain restaurants. Time and again we were disappointed by our meals coming from those places. We stopped going, saving our pennies to only eat at more expensive places in Boulder. I also longed for fresher ingredients for cooking. My master gardener father-in-law built me raised beds at our new house and mentored me through my first seasons of vegetable gardening. I had vegetables coming out of my ears, thanks to him. Colorado heat and sunshine were helpful, too. (My cherry tomatoes are still not ripe, folks.)
Our Colorado home softened with some veggies. The first planting: cool weather crops in front.
Then the economy crashed, Harry had started a business that didn’t provide us any income and I only worked part-time on-call. His job hunt ended up taking months. I worked as much as possible, we depleted our savings and had to borrow money from family. It was a stressful time yet we knew that we were very privileged to have a wide safety net that eased our burden. We had tightened our belts as snug as they could get. Clearly, no more restaurants or outings for entertainment. We stopped buying juice, alcohol, meat, coffee, and lots of other “extras” like chips. I wanted to prioritize healthy food in our budget and not eat Ramen noodles. Plus, we had a child to think of and I wasn’t about to feed Charlie tons of junk. So, I began to cook a lot more. The first year of our vegetable garden yielded enough vegetables for us to not buy any from mid-summer until mid-fall. Additionally, this forced me to expand my zucchini repetoire from sweet bread to actual meals of substance. (Zucchini fritters, zucchini gratin, zucchini fritatta, grilled zucchini…need more ideas?)
This marked the beginning of my journey as a home cook! I am really proud of how far I’ve come and everything I’ve learned. I still get nervous trying new techniques and dishes, but I’m much more willing to try my hand at them. I’m also able to wing quite a few dishes now, building a meal from what we have on hand. Hitting that point has been incredibly satisfying because I waste less food, spend less money and get to experience cooking as more of an art than a science. I really love that creative outlet in the midst of what could otherwise be a monotonous “task.”
My first rustic tart: Kim Boyce’s apricot boysenberry galette. I even made the apricot jam for it- my first! I procrastinated starting the dough for days because I was so nervous.Two hurdles jumped! Woo-hoo!
Earlier this week, inspired by that fantastic tomato sauce I’ve mentioned before, I created my very own stovetop lasagna dish. I realize that this isn’t some amazing invention, but I’m proud that I was willing to attempt something completely new to me without a template. It wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t been forced into a corner a bit. I had fresh lasagna noodles on hand but didn’t want to turn the oven on because it was hot in our house. I have no idea what I was thinking buying fresh lasagna noodles in summer. It was a definite impulse buy. Seattle’s having a heat wave. Unlike the rest of the nation, this is our first steady set of days in the high 80s and low 90s. We all get excited, people skip work to soak in the sun. But, after a few days we bitch and moan about how hot it is and long for the cold, gray days of fall so we can drink our delicious hot coffees without sweating. I’m not kidding. I join the chorus now and then.
Anyways, I had everything needed for a roasted vegetable lasagna. My garden is finally starting to donate produce on a regular basis. So, I poured two jars of my favorite strained tomatoes into a big pot, added several large globs of butter, salt, pepper, very finely diced onions, garlic, zucchini and some basil (all from the garden- yay!). I let that simmer while I mixed ricotta with an egg, parmesan, chives and basil from the garden (double yay!), salt and pepper. Then, I rolled each noodle with the cheese filling. Plopped those suckers into the sauce, topped it with some mozzarella and let it gently simmer away until Harry came home. Miles must’ve told me fifty times how yummy dinner was while he covered his face and body with the sauce because his bites were so huge. The whole family loved it. Charlie wanted to know the name, so I called it lasagna roll soup. That needs help, but the dish was a success!
I probably wouldn’t be this adventurous with guests, but I am hoping to get past that. I need to channel Julia’s attitude on a more regular basis. Just why are so many of us fearful to enter the kitchen? I think there are a lot of companies, particularly Big Food, who are heavily invested in making us think cooking is too hard and we “deserve a break.” The advertising messages are sometimes subtle, often not. But they all say essentially the same thing: Cooking is really difficult, not fun, and a burden. Let us make it easier for you. I bought into these lies for a long time. Additionally, I really didn’t believe I had it in me to cook or bake well because I hadn’t practiced in my younger years and had experienced enough flops to feel frustrated by it all.
Below are some cookbooks and websites that I have found helpful during my cooking journey. If you feel bound to the ideas that cooking is too hard, too time consuming or too risky, I hope these help you feel a little more excited and prepared to dive in. Remember Julia. She started without any professional experience, just a love of delicious meals, a desire to learn and a commitment to improve her skills. By the end, she could even handle a burnt souffle with grace. We can see our flops as a failure or choose to be proud of ourselves for trying. The first steps on the journey are the initial reward and the food keeps giving after that. When your kids happily eat vegetables and shout praises about your food, that will be a nice pat on the back, too.
Bon appetit! (Say that like Julia. If you didn’t, try again.)
Cook’s Illustrated cookbook: The recipes in this cookbook do not concern themselves with nutrition. Not even in the slightest. I like that it shares why certain techniques or recipes were more successful than others during recipe testing. It helps new cooks understand why something works well. There are thousands of recipes, so if you don’t own a cookbook, check this one out from the library and see if it should be your first. It will guide you very gently through all of the basics, like how to grill a burger, make salad dressings, or fry an egg. It also shares a wide range of other interesting dishes, like how to make a simple Indian curry or thai stir-fry. It’s a great launching pad and reference to have on hand. The more comfortable I get in the ktichen, the more likely I am to pull it out for some brief recipe guidelines that I can tweek to my own liking or ingredients on-hand.
In Praise of Leftovers: This food blog launched right when my cooking interest was sparking. Sarah is friends with many of my friends, so I followed along. She first introduced me to the idea of cooking from bits and pieces left on my counter and fridge, helping me move away from recipe dependency. It was her guiding hand that helped me understand I could throw some random raw veggies alongside soba noodles, toss them with a delicious homemade sauce and be thrilled. This was the beginning of my realization that if I had the pantry stocked appropriately, it would always take less time to cook at home than to go to the store, return home and “prepare” a frozen meal or even to buy something already made. She also introduced me to the emergency fritatta. I cook fritattas as a basis for using up aging veggies quite frequently.
Michael Natkin’s Herbivoracious series on making food pop dramatically changed how I approach seasoning. Reading this helped me really begin to understand why certain dishes were so wonderful and others were lacking. I began to use much more salt, including salting my pasta water. (Do it, people! It’s not about keeping pasta from sticking, it’s about taste. Make that water taste like the sea. And buying good pasta will help a lot, too.) I also appreciated his kitchen confidence post.
I love fish but it’s scared me a lot as a home cook because it’s frequently expensive and it’s often delicate. I have found Becky Selengut’s Good Fish book and online videos to be detailed enough to make me feel comfortable. Under her tutelage I’ve successfully shucked oysters, seared scallops (one of my favorite foods), cooked clams, and taken apart squid. Bonus: if you follow her recommendations, you can be sure you’re eating sustainble fish.
Food 52 has a whole series on kitchen confidence and frequently posts interesting recipes and different tricks of the trade. I found today’s post on various pestos an inspiring read. If there’s one thing that grows well in Seattle, it’s kale.
Cover this with a little bit of fat (oil), vinegar and salt and it will taste divine.