Teaching Myself some Cooking Skills

Frankly, I’ve never really enjoyed cooking. I’ve always secretly hoped that I’d marry someone who loved to cook and never have to bother.

Well, we all know how that worked out for me.

Here are some things I’ve noticed about people who love cooking, as well as some theories about why I’ve never taken to it:

  1. People who love cooking often also love eating. I enjoy good food but mostly see eating as kind-of a bother that takes a lot of time and often doesn’t agree with me.
  2. People who love cooking often take one recipe and make it multiple times until they can make it just so. I get bored of this and always try to tackle fancy new recipes.
  3. People who love cooking understand the craft so well they don’t get lost if the recipe leaves out a step. I always get lost. I also have a hard time holding numbers in my head, so I’m constantly checking and re-checking to see if it’s two or three tsp. Or was it Tbsp?
  4. People who love cooking can whip things up, things like stir-fry or pasta sauce, without a recipe. I’m too scared to try. What if everyone hates what I made for them?

So you see, there are plenty of perfectly good reasons why I’m not great at cooking. But cooking is kinda like, I don’t know, driving. An essential skill, which you pretty much have to learn unless you have lots of money or a Very Devoted Spouse.

Neither of which I currently possess.

For a while I’ve been wanting to have a growth mindset about cooking. Even before I left Oregon I was learning how to solicit feedback from my family without feeling insecure, improvise based on what we had on hand, and ask people-who-love-cooking for their advice.

However, moving really provided the ideal scenario for some good old-fashioned cooking practice.

First of all, being alone in the kitchen is everything. Sorry, family whom I dearly love. I enjoy an occasional Sunday morning you-make-the-salad-and-I’ll-make-the-pie situation, but. Trying to get food on the table by 6pm while someone is talking loudly on the phone in the next room, someone else is walking through with their laundry, someone is leaving before supper so they’re just gonna make themselves a quick sandwich sorry if I’m in your way, and someone else wants to ask you about your day while you’re trying to remember if it’s 3 tsp or 4 Tbsp, is nightmarish and I hate it and I’m sorry but that’s the facts.

Besides mostly being alone in the kitchen, I’m also cooking mostly for myself, on mostly limited ingredients. So I’ve very quickly been picking up on the dump-things-into-a-pan-and-call-it-cooking method that’s seemed so magical and elusive when other cooks do it. It’s easier to innovate when you don’t have a lot in the fridge to begin with, and so much less pressure when no one is eating it but you.

I should add, though, that I do cook for Jenny sometimes. Particularly on Monday and Tuesday nights when she works until 9pm and is starvingly hungry by the time she gets home. And I must say that there is great satisfaction in feeding a Very Hungry Person.

Anyway. Since I don’t have much of a social life in Blacksburg yet, I’ve been using my extra time to read books. I live so close to the library I feel like I won the jackpot. So besides silly books and fun books I’m learning all the ins and outs of self-publishing, starting a small business, and now, cooking.

I really just checked out one book on cooking, and you’ve probably already heard of it because it’s rather famous. It’s called Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, by Samin Nosrat. I became fascinated by the idea of this book several years ago when I heard Nosrat on NPR talking about how she randomly learned to cook by begging to bus tables at a fancy restaurant and then begging the cooks to teach her, and about how there are all these women around the world who have spent countless hours cooking, becoming these unrecognized experts. She was super interesting.

I don’t have Netflix though, so I haven’t seen her cooking show. And I couldn’t really afford the book. But now here I am, with a library next door, so here I go! I’m gonna learn.

The basic premise of Salt Fat Acid Heat is that, instead of just blindly following recipes, you can teach yourself the basic chemistry of what makes food taste good. So if you have a pork chop, some potatoes, and a few random veggies on hand, you don’t have to try and find a recipe that tells you exactly how to cook them. If you know the correct ways to apply salt, fat, acid, and heat to those types of food, you can come up with several delicious ways to cook them, no recipes needed.

Or if you find a recipe, you can adjust it to fit your exact ingredients, and you can use your own skills and taste buds to ensure it comes out delicious even if it means deviating from the recipe.

I haven’t finished the book yet. I’m still in the “fat” section. But did I use the book to make my own mayo the other day, so that was cool. Much more delicious than store-bought mayo, I would say.

Then on Wednesday I was at the farmer’s market when I saw a strange vegetable that looked like a snozzcumber from The BFG. “What is this?” I asked the lady behind the counter.

“It’s a bitter melon,” she said.

“How do you cook it?” I asked.

So she started explaining the various ways you can cook it, including the Chinese way (she was Chinese), and I whipped out a notebook and started writing down her directions.

I mean, look. The problem with me is that I still get bored with cooking and if someone is selling snozzcumbers and telling me the authentic Chinese way to cook them, you better believe I’m gonna try it.

So today I cooked the bitter melon the Chinese way, and then I realized that I had to taste the food before serving it because Salt Fat Acid Heat told me too. Over and over again.

I took one bite and started laughing. “You’re not gonna like this, Jenny.”

“Really?” said Jenny.

“Yep. It’s bitter.”

Jenny took a bite and made a face. “Yeah, I think I’m just gonna have the pork.”

I’ll confess though, I ate the bitter melon. Because first of all, food is food. And second of all, I get kind-of fascinated sometimes by weird food even if it’s kinda gross. Part of me wonders if I just cooked it wrong, but part of me is like, I mean, it’s literally called “bitter melon.” So, like, no one should be surprised that it’s…bitter.

Now I just need to learn how to make frobscottle I guess.

Anyway, if you enjoy cooking, please tell me your advice. Especially if you’re someone who used to not enjoy it, but learned how.

***

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7 responses to “Teaching Myself some Cooking Skills

  1. you should invest in an instant pot , they are really handy to make food quickly , there’s 3 qt , 6 qt and 8 qt , i have the 3 quart since i’m a widow and it’s really great ! i dont like cooking so much either , just a thot . Miriam

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  2. You are correct that reading recipes is a skill in itself and that recipe writers often make assumptions about your existing knowledge. I hate when people say, “Oh, if you can read, you can cook!” In my experience it is always women who say this and I just want to reply, “Please just admit that you have been practicing this complex skill set three times daily for the past fifty-three years now and as a result, you have a wealth of highly specialized knowledge.”

    Family recipes can be especially heavy on the assumptions. My husband’s people are Old German Baptist Brethren and their recipes are full of helpful instructions such as “bake until done” and “add spices.”

    Thankfully, we have YouTube! Seriously, there are hundreds of channels devoted to the preparation of any cuisine you can think of. You can pause and rewatch how exactly to braid the challah or press the tortilla or what have you.

    My other piece of advice is practice. I am a much better cook now than I was 20 years ago. It’s great you can start with hungry Jenny. Work your way up to other hungry people. Invite people over and feed them. You make the main dish, everyone brings a side. You get to practice, everyone gets to eat, maybe you make some friends in the process.

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  3. People who cook successfully without recipes do so based on much past experience. Good cooking is a skill just like writing. The more you do, the better you become. Was your first short story your best ever? Of course not. It’s a necessary part of the growth process. YouTube is very helpful. Seeing a person create food is much more helpful than a recipe. Best wishes on your cooking journey.

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  4. Good for you for making your own Mayo! I’ve been making my own for awhile now and it’s so good I can eat it right off the spoon!
    I could hardly cook when we got married but I learned and now I love it. I was pretty much a recipe follower and actually still am although I do tweak things to my taste. Just keep trying things, you’ll get it! I personally have never made a snozzcucumber!

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  5. I would get a 3qt crockpot so you can just through in ingredients to cook all day. You get get cookbooks for crockpot cooking from thrift stores but I would not get a crockpot from the thrift store.
    You can get make several meals from one cut of meat like tacos, soups, casseroles etc.
    I admire you for trying a new vegetable. Me, I’m too chicken to try new vegetables. I will stick to green beans and carrots!
    Someone suggested YouTube which is an excellent source of ideas and another lady recommended an Instant Pot. I don’t own one but I have heard good things about them.

    I think once you start cooking various recipes I think you may start to like cooking and adding special your own special touch.

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  6. I hear you! I didn’t even begin to think that I could like cooking until I was 19, which isn’t that old, but let’s just say I sure was planning on a not-picky husband. Learning how to enjoy cooking is just like learning anything else. You will have many things, like bitter melon, that don’t turn out and that’s okay! Laugh at yourself, cry a few tears and then try again. Find the balance between cooking comfort food and being an adventurous eater. Take note of the things that turned out well, and try them again the same way or with a new twist. And remember that as much as it may seem like it, being able to cook a delicious meal doesn’t make you anymore of a valuable woman in the ways that really matter.

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