Wednesday, December 2, 2009

How I Learned To Cook

Back when I was a kid, my Dad did all the cooking. He was a fantastic cook. He'd make these really wonderful fancy dishes for company and family that would have everyone raving. I never paid much attention to his cooking, and sadly, he passed away when I was 20 years old. I never learned to cook from the master, and I only have two of his recipes. People still talk about how great such-and-such a dish was, and I often wish desperately that I had the chance to ask him or a recipe box or even a cookbook he owned. But I have nothing. Anyway, he would make tempura, and huge salads, and all kinds of delicious things. I remember him making turkey rice soup with the turkey bones, which is something I still do but with my own recipe since I don't have his. And he would make me breakfast often: eggs fried in the center of bread, or maybe french toast. Good stuff.

When I was little he would ban me and my Mom from the kitchen so he could make us a "surprise." We would hang out in the living room until it was ready, and then walk into the kitchen with a nice appetizer spread on the table. He'd make fun things I loved as a kid: little slices of hot dogs with dabs of ketchup and mustard on little toothpicks; Ritz crackers topped with cheese and a pickle slice and broiled; mushroom caps stuffed with cheese and baked. Fun times!

My Mom, on the other hand, could not cook. She just couldn't. Never learned, I guess. She tried to make carrot cake for my dad but it had CHOPPED carrots in it (crunch crunch). She would make "spaghetti and meatballs" by rolling balls of plain raw hamburger and dropping them into a crockpot filled with Prego. By the time I was a teen, I could make myself a bowl of Ramen noodles, or melt cheese on bread in the broiler. We didn't have a microwave so cooking was trickier back then.

So, to get to the point. How did I learn to cook? No parents teaching me, no baking with grandma (ever). No cooking classes. Yet now I am a darn good cook if I do say so myself. And it was pretty much all self-taught!

When I was a newlywed at 20, I was thrust into the role of wife and mother. My hard working husband and my stepchildren all needed to be fed, and I had to figure it out pretty quickly. I'd been away at college for a year and had survived on plain cream of wheat, Ramen, and peanut butter. I remember many a night with my new husband and stepkids sitting around the table as I brought a huge steaming pot of Ramen out for dinner!

After a few days of Ramen or scrambled eggs, my husband took it upon himself to show me a recipe or two. "Here," he said, "fry some hamburger, and then dump in a can of beans and a can of tomato sauce and some chili powder, and you have chili!" We ate a lot of *that* chili in the early years. He also told me how to throw a roast in the crock pot all day, then make mashed potatoes and a simple gravy and a can of vegetables for a hearty meal. He was a meat and potatoes man, so we had a lot of roasts/potatoes/gravy, too. To this day I make killer gravy.

I got a couple of cookbooks and started trying new things. Once, I followed a recipe for "Peanut Butter Soup" that told me to fry an onion in butter, then add chicken broth and a heaping amount of chunky peanut butter. THAT was pretty horrible... oniony, runny, chicken-y peanut butter with soggy peanut chunks in the bottom of the bowl. Another time I tried my hand at "fried calves' brains," being a farmer's wife and all, knowing my father-in-law had loved to scramble cow brains in his eggs every morning. I cubed the brain, dredged it in breadcrumbs and fried the chunks. I proudly served it to my family, who wondered if it was chicken nuggets or turkey or tofu, until I told them what it was and my stepson promptly threw up in his plate.

I got the hang of baking rather quickly, following recipes from a book I got for Christmas when I was 21. Talking to other wives and mothers who were older than I was helped a lot. I asked people for recipes when I liked something they made. And over time, I got really good at cooking just about anything!

Nowadays, I use my talent to make delicious *healthy* meals for me and my family. I am good at tweaking recipes, substituting ingredients, or even taking the best parts of 2 or 3 or 4 recipes and melding them into one of my own. I love doing this. It's fun!

I am telling you this because so many people say they can't cook, when in fact they can LEARN. It is not hard. It just takes time. I'd say it took me about 5 years to be a decent cook... ten years to be an excellent cook. No classes, just some cookbooks from the library and reading recipes with reviews online and trying over and over until I get things right. And once you get something right, you can make so many more things!

You don't have to lean on frozen meals or fast food or prepackaged crap to lose weight. I hope this story encourages someone to *decide* to learn to cook. Yes, you will burn some things. Yes, you will have some flops. Your kid might even throw up in their plate once or twice. But over time it is SO worth it to get to a place where you can cook just about anything you want... and make it as healthy as you'd like it to be while still tasting great!

If you haven't looked at the recipes over on the left side of my page, now is a good time to start! Taco soup is easy, so is Cabbage Roll Casserole. Try your hand! Freeze the leftovers for healthy "frozen meals." It is never to late to learn a new skill.


karen@fitnessjourney said...

It is so generous of you to take time to post recipes. I'm not much of a cook-but I am an excellent chopper! That's why my family eats so much raw produce. LOL!

Taryl said...

Our stories are really similar on that point! My mom was a great cook, but she never taught me, and when I got married (6 days shy of my 20th birthday) I had to learn really quick!

Now I am a fantastic cook and love it, so you're right that one can absolutely learn. The Internet is actually a great way to get information for that sort of thing. I didn't know how long to boil eggs, or how to brine a turkey, but some basic googling solved those and many other mysteries :)

Kylie said...

Hear Hear!!!!
I have spent the last 2 years learning to cook (I am 37 years olf btw) and I am now a pretty decent cook by any standards. I still rely on recipe books a lot of the time, but more and more I can "throw" things together and they turn out pretty great!
What a great post.

Ironlady said...

Love the recipes! I tried the cabbage casserole and the butternut squash and both dishes were fantastic! Keep cooking!

screwdestiny said...

It always kind of bugs me when people say they flat out CAN'T cook. Like you said, it's a learned skill. But I think a lot of people see their amazing grandmas or parents or chefs or whatever, and they think they were just born that way, turning out perfect roasts and soufflees and whatnot since they were old enough to reach the stove. Like anything it takes practice. I'm working on becoming a great cook right now, and the process is really fun, I think! Thanks for sharing all your recipes, by the way. I'll have to try some someday.

rachel said...

I have made your butternut squash mac n cheese and it was EXCELLENT! Even my picky 2 year old ate it. I love to cook, I just hate the clean up. After work, school and Ben, I'm dead tired after I get home. :( But I will try another recipe very soon! :D

Steelers6 said...

Some of the first recipes I rec'd are almost humorous to me now. They were given with shower gifts I think, and were exactly what I needed at the time. Now they are a bit too basic, or unhealthy! (things that call for cans of soup, or velveeta cheese, or y'know, maybe 3 ingredients. =)

I used to almost revere those who didn't even cook w/a recipe. "A dash? Until it looks like enough?" What do you mean you can't really give me a recipe, it's all in your head?

Uh, yeah, after having to cook for many years, I now know what that's about.

Are you trying to include, encourage, & teach [the boys especially], so that they are not heading off feeling like they have to learn all? (Like a lot of us did.) I had at least learned some basics while living w/my parents.

I am enjoying learning from YOU. :) After our turkey was carved on Thanksgiving, I decided to make stock again. My dh sort of felt like we had enough going on, skip it, but I did it anyway. A day later maybe, he was making salmon chowder that called for ... yeah, guess what? Stock. He was very pleased & grateful. And maybe a dash sheepish. ha. Thanks Lyn!

Marste said...

De-lurking to nod vigorously. My mother DID cook, so I had that advantage, but I'm always amazed at how many people really, truly believe that they will never EVER be able to learn to cook. There's definitely a learning curve to it, but most of that curve is just because people don't know what spices they like yet. (They know by taste, but don't know whether that taste they like is basil or cumin, for instance.)

And I'm always a little sad when people really don't think they can ever cook; frozen dinners and canned soup get REALLY tiring after a while.

Maude said...

I tried the cabbage roll casserole! Very tasty! Even the husband liked it

Anonymous said...

Thanks for posting this. I'm one of those people who thought people were just naturally talented at cooking but I will keep trying! I echo someone else's recommendation for your butternut man n cheese - it's the bomb diggity!

Mary said...

Great post. I am in the process of learning to cook, and a cookbook that has helped me immensely is "How to Cook Everything Vegetarian" by Mark Bittman. He has a non-vegetarian book I've heard is equally good.

What I like about that book is that it's not just a list of ingredients and instructions -- he talks about substitutions and really makes you start to think like a cook.

I hope this doesn't sound too spammy -- I have absolutely no connection to Mr. Bittman or this book -- but it was just one of the best finds I've made in years!