How I Came to Cook

You may have gathered: I cook a lot. I think I can articulate why: miniature creative acts, done from start to finish during a relatively brief period of time (compared to say, writing a novel), and then you get to EAT THEM. My standards for what I’ll eat, both at home and out, have risen steadily in the six years since I got my first apartment and assumed responsibility for my own sustenance.

My first apartment (probably too dramatic a woe for this pleasant blog) was a hellhole studio with perpetually broken appliances, including the refrigerator. So my first month or so in Boston was dietarily stunted by the fact that I couldn’t keep anything perishable.  But even that obstacle aside, I wouldn’t say I “cooked” for the first six months toward a year: I merely grocery shopped and heated.  Most of my early grocery shopping was done at the Coolidge Corner Trader Joe’s in Brookline, and I would wander happily around the store for an hour, fill a bag with my purchases, and then go home and realize I hadn’t bought the components of a meal(s); I’d just bought individual items I liked or thought I should have.  Such a trip might have produced a haul of spaghetti, pickles, juice, tasty crackers, and chocolate covered cranberries.  All yummy, no dinner.

The staple of my diet that first year was unquestionably Trader Joe’s Potato Medley. It was a vegetarian, frozen pre-made meal of potatoes, peppers, onion, and salt, and you simply stirred it in a skillet until it  got hot. I could not get enough of this stuff, and my first culinary efforts came from first deciding I could add items to Potato Medley (meat, tofu, broccoli) and then that… sadly… I probably didn’t need to buy Potato Medley, but could buy myself some potatoes, peppers, onions, and salt, and replicate the frozen meal myself.

The next stage, as clearly as I can recall, had a bit to do with Real Simple magazine. Real Simple recipes tend toward a “fake it don’t make it” mentality, where you buy some premade components and then quickly combine them into a dish that, if you made the components, would have taken a lot longer.  These recipes also were prized for their short lists of ingredients.  One of my favorites was a scallop/ corn chowder (um- I used to eat fat a lot less scrupulously too).  The thing I somehow realized over time was that the more premade components I was throwing into a dish, the less healthy I was eating, and the more fresh stuff I was using, the more I liked the taste.  While I still find Real Simple an aesthetically pleasing publication, I graduated from there to Cooking Light for a year or so, and then ultimately to Bon Appetit as a major source for recipes and food inspiration.

I lived four years ago with a friend who was a consultant, made much more money than I did, and brought home Whole Foods takeout almost nightly.  I envied her financial liberty, whereas she seemed to think it was a wonder that I could cook a full meal in our crazy green kitchen (run-down building in Inman Square, but to this day the best kitchen I’ve ever had).  Somehow by this point I was becoming known as a cook among my friends, and I don’t exactly know why.  If I’m honest, a factor was having someone to impress (or try to).  My husband and I were dating, and I was attempting to show him there was more to cuisine than Felipe’s burritos alternated with Three Aces pizza.  It was a tough sell.

Having a wedding registry is a good way to jump start a kitchen, and although I was solidly against labels of wifely domesticity, I found myself after our 2007 wedding with a lot of fun new implements, a tiny galley kitchen, and a captive (hungry) audience.  I had sort of a culinary explosion, convinced I could carry off anything I saw on the Food Network, anything I read in a recipe book or magazine, including the pile of Saveurs I picked up from my chef friend Katrina. Saveur doesn’t seem to offer recipes that take less than half a day to make (or maybe I gravitate to the long ones), but I had arrived at my firmly held belief: I can follow instructions.  It’s the same trait that made me an A student in high school.  Unless there is some major piece of kitchen apparatus which I am missing, I can follow a recipe.  The major endeavors of Year 1 included Turkish manti with a yogurt sauce; a real, legitimate gumbo, and stuffed cornish hens with mashed turnips and crispy shallots.  Each of these took a whole day.

Each of them was awesome.

An additional influence on my culinary ambition has been travel. I’ve enjoyed the cuisines of various countries I’ve visited–India, Greece, Portugal–and come with a desire to learn the art of food as I ate it on my trip.  So besides receiving monthly cooking publications, I’ve picked up some international cookbooks.  And you can’t live in Cambridge without picking up on all things green, so most recently I’ve become concerned with local/sustainable eating.

Add all that up, plus now as a full time freelancer I work very near to my kitchen, and the result is a lot of output from a small kitchen (we don’t even have a full-size fridge or full-size oven).  Here’s a few pictures from a meal I cooked on Sunday. The beverage (na) is from Bon Appetit and it’s Agua Fresca, which apparently is a kind of Mexican beverage which can be made with a variety of fruits or veggies, but my recipe called for cucumber.  So it’s basically cucumber water with some lime and salt.  It was definitely refreshing but sort of bizarre, too.  Then we had a flatbread with sausage, onion, and manchego cheese… and finally just some Portuguese style beef on grilled kebabs.  That purplish sauce in a bowl in the beef picture was incredible– it was just the leftover marinade from the beef, heated and with some cream stirred in– I thought we wouldn’t want it but that was before I tasted it.

Agua Fresca

Agua Fresca

Flatbread

Flatbread

Beef Portuguese Style

Beef Portuguese Style

I should add (often I update my posts 5 minutes after posting them) that although I feel comfortable following recipes, where I want to go from here is to be able to create, to sense for myself which spices compliment which foods and how to incorporate them; which tastes and textures should be pared together.  I have this idea that I’ll get a cooking guru who will take me into her/his kitchen and teach me their ways… but barring that, I’ll keep plugging along trying things and maybe taking a course here or there.

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4 Comments

Filed under Cooking

4 responses to “How I Came to Cook

  1. Jo Ann

    Well, you have evolved, gastronomically speaking! I think the process goes one way, or the other: either apartment-dwellers become take-out junkies focused on the quick fix, or they get into the adventure (and the pride) of preparing unique dinners, which I think people appreciate…even the ones with goat cheese. Hey, how do you know unless you try??

  2. You go girl!! I’m in ‘create’ mode too….and my next thing I *really* want to learn is pairing food with wine/beer. That might have to take a LOT of tasting. Wish we lived closer so we could participate in each other’s explorations.

    PS: I feel famous that you mentioned me! Hee hee!!

  3. and what’s the deal with Saveur?? I am about to subscribe because I LOVE it but it’s true that most recipes seem to require about 12 hours of my limited time!

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