Posts tagged learning to cook

Like her, like me (who knew?)

So, folks, I need to own up to something. I’m a woman without a repertoire.

I know, I know, I’m a grown up, of all things, with husband and kids. But other than our on-again off-again weekly burrito night and my homemade macaroni and cheese (truly an all-around favorite around here, one of those recipes friends always request), I don’t have a set of fall-back signatures, of dishes I can make with my eyes closed and/or my hands tied behind my back.

Oh, sure, some weeks it’s all easy with the penne and basil and lemon zest; or couscous and peas and mint; or salmon and Dijon and rosemary. But that’s just my burgeoning confidence with the more or less permanent residents in my frigo and pantry; that’s just me learning to wing variations on previous themes. All of that doesn’t exactly constitute a formula based on expertise, on the tried-and-true.

I’ve wondered when I’d come into my own, when I’d find my own versions of Meatloaf Night and Sunday Dinner Roast. Now I know that I may never fall into such a cycle, and I even know why: It’s because of my mom.

No, I’m not blaming her, the way so many people blame their mothers for any and everything that’s awry in their adulthoods. It’s simple enough, really, one of those like mother, like daughter things. I don’t have a repertoire because, it turns out, she never really had one either.

There are only a few dishes I remember my mom making with any regularity as a kid: beef stroganoff, oven-fried chicken, and a Chinese-inspired dish that involved water chestnuts (an ingredient I did my very darnedest to pick around without her noticing). But I wasn’t sure if I was just misremembering, thereby doing her a load of injustice, or if she has always cooked the way she does now, always trying something new.

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So when she came to visit last weekend, I naturally let fly a bevy of questions about her cooking motherhood. I was standing at the stove, stuffing acorn squash halves with a wild pecan-rice (just brought from New Orleans by my road warrior in-laws) mixture of dried cranberries and walnuts, the salmon marinating just feet away, and I wanted to compare notes. Mom sat across from me at the bar, my sixteen-year-old sister next to her, mocking the way we both talk with our hands, her own fingers a flurry on her cell phone keypad.

I recounted my memories of the things Mom served when I was little (the beef stroganoff she remembered – “I did make that a lot, because Dad really liked it,” she said – but she wasn’t copping to frequent service of water chestnuts). As we talked, I realized how much of the way I cook is reminiscent of the way she cooks, and that I’ve learned some habits more by osmosis than tutorial (although she did teach me the value of a plate full of color, and that you do no one any favors by serving two starches with a meal).

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For one thing, neither of us is particularly skilled at making recipes from memory. For another, she admits to not having a roster of staple dishes. Like me, she uses cooking as a creative outlet – it’s just one way she employs to prevent life from slipping toward the mundane (she always has thought bored moms were nuts to be bored – she’s great at coming up with intelligent things to do). She’s endlessly clipping new recipes and trying them, but even if something turns out well, she won’t necessarily revisit it. I’m the same way: so many recipes, so few meals.

For a mom of young kids, that way of cooking has a definite appeal. The days can feel both inexorably long and smooshed together, a series of units of time helped incredibly by a little novelty. A constant rotation of the same recipes would only make the routine more routine. When one’s always on the hunt for new flavors, ingredients and preparations, the act of cooking takes on the form of a learning process, of a cultivated hobby.

The question now is, what next to do with that wild rice?

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Oh, the joy (of cooking, that is)

I came around to the joy of cooking a little late. Here is the much-abridged sum of my mother’s early tutelage: ground beef browning, “fried” chicken baking, cups of flour leveling, brown sugar packing. But devoted as I was to Cheetos and to sneaking the sugary goodness from the Jell-O packets in the very back of the very high cupboard, food preparation and all it entailed (the recipe hunting, the shopping, the cleaning afterward) seemed absolutely fruitless. It would have been somewhere in the 80’s that I declared — if only to myself — my disdain for all things domestic, cooking included. Unless it got me and fellow slumber party attendees late-night cookie dough with M&M’s and someone’s training bra ended up in the freezer, the kitchen was no place for me.

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But a few married years into regular dinners coming from a box, from powdered something-or-other out of a foil-lined, direction-laden pouch, I decided to attempt the use of ingredients that could perish in four days, rather than in so many years. Early results were varied. My rotini with fontina, Parmesan and peas was a creamy, buttery hit. The peanut butter-laced noodle and carrot bowl from my impulse-buy vegetarian cookbook, however, was a spit-it-out grimace inducer.

I had to learn to cook. From standpoints both economic and body-conscious, I could no longer duck out to a restaurant last minute every time I wanted something other than toast, something decently representative of more than a single lonely food group and the odd condiment. Plus, I was growing more dissatisfied with the typical restaurant offerings. I’d had a kid, and with that somehow came a desire to know the very details of what my plate contained. I couldn’t shirk knowing exactly what was going into my baby daughter’s ever-hungry mouth, either, a more or less vital part of the maternal responsibility.

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And so, I started simply, having subscribed to a couple of cooking magazines, having cracked the few cookbooks I received as wedding gifts. There was some clumsy chopping, some overly enthusiastic simmering, some under-salting and over-peppering, along with some grossly errant substituting. But the realization that I could actually take a list of edible items and put them together to yield combinations of flavors and textures was dawning.

There was happiness in this, what I had perceived to be among the most mundane of activities. There was not just the satisfaction at the point of fork-to-mouth, not just the contented end to tummy rumblings. There was joy to be had in transformations: in steaming broccoli to shiny green; in the crunch of an onion while chopping, then sautéing it to translucent tenderness; in swirling together the previously independent entities of oil and vinegar, mustard and honey.

I was on my way.

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