FOOD FOR THOUGHT : A single writer’s kitchen adventures
Author: Denise K. James
Etched at the top of my perennial to-do list—along with write for Vogue, lose the extra weight and visit Europe—is the vow to cook for myself more. It’s a friendly reminder that not every meal has to involve champagne, tipping someone or some other element of excitement. Sometimes, we adults should just buckle down, save the dough and dine at home. And, mind you, plenty of adults cook at home with far more gusto than it takes for me to whip out my credit card at the umpteenth restaurant of the week. These lucky foodies have cooking absolutely nailed. Me? I’m still working on it. But I’m getting better.
I was never encouraged to learn to cook. My mom’s array of interests never didn’t include cooking, and, as a child, food did not intrigue me. It already seemed to be what it is now: a reason to socialize. I’d eat my stews and soups as a small girl, but by my teenage years, a box of French fries with my best pal Kristi was much more enticing than learning to boil rice.
But the years marched on, and those same friends who joined me at the drive-thru or pizza parlor evolved into grown-ups with spouses and children and the need—or the desire or both—to eat at home. I, meanwhile, was evolving as well, not into a wife or a mother, but into a more sophisticated eater. French fries and pizza were replaced with sushi and steak. I had to stop, or I’d risk eating my retirement. Thus, I’ve finally conceded that making food might be a necessity. The adventure has begun, for better or worse.
Let me backpedal a bit. There were a few experiments in my 20s, but these were mostly failures, like the time I ran milk through the coffee maker in the attempt to make hot chocolate. Actually, if I had to name the top issues that caused me the most kitchen anxiety over the years, they would probably be using fancy appliances (like coffee makers), wielding sharp objects and not knowing how to season things or time things properly. I mean, aside from salt and pepper, or garlic and olive oil, I’m pretty darn stumped. This is where I have to politely disagree with those who say that anyone who can read a recipe can cook just fine. Making something turn out delicious is an entirely different story. And deliciousness, not edibility, is my goal. I’m spoiled; I admit it.
Fortunately, I’ve discovered a few tricks that have made food preparation in my 30s not so awful. I’m proud to share them with you here, in case you are not a gourmet chef.
Get inspiration from your own skill level. I was recently at a friend’s house and found her book about jazzing up cake mix. It literally had hundreds of ways to make “fancy” cake from a box, and I was intrigued because I knew I could get a lot of use out of the book. That said, it’s a good idea to stick to cookbooks, websites, magazines—even classes and lessons—on your current cooking level. You’ll feel empowered rather than intimidated, which is essential when learning to make food.
Use and keep the easy recipes. Don’t understand what a recipe is talking about? Seek out another one that speaks your language. When you find recipes that you can master without issues, keep them around. I baked an epic peach pie last summer, and I certainly didn’t use a recipe that called for fluting my own from-scratch crust. But when the time came to cut a warm slice of pie and pair it with ice cream, no one knew my recipe had been the easiest one on the Internet. They just knew it was good!
Dress up instant cuisine with fancy touches. So you have to bring dessert to a potluck brunch? I guarantee a frozen pastry that you baked then doctored up with hazelnut spread and berries is more impressive than boxed doughnuts from the supermarket. I’m also a big believer in bagged salads, as long as you don’t forgo nice extras such as chopped fresh tomatoes, peppers or exotic nuts. And those pull-apart cookies are so much better if you grace them with a candy topper. The key is to make your extra touches a little bit gourmet.
Get good at something and reformat it. One of the first things I got a handle on was pan-searing a piece of fresh fish. I’d pair the fish with mashed potatoes and a bagged salad for a simple dinner. Then I realized that I could also make fish tacos! Just add a little bit of salsa and cabbage and voila! The next thing I knew, I had another meal under my belt. Ask yourself what new dish you can make with the skills you already have.
Keep ingredients around that make you feel comfortable. Certain ingredients still make me feel a little uneasy (fancy onions are an example), so they’re not in my refrigerator or pantry. Instead, I keep a variety of things I know how to deal with (eggs, cheese, pasta, chicken) so I can whip up something tasty without too much stress.
Don’t experiment at group functions. Last Christmas, I made the mistake of baking lime icebox cookies that I’d seen in a magazine (admittedly, they were above my skill level), then bringing them to a holiday party. They were terrible, and although my friends never admitted it, we all knew the truth. Parties, dinners and other functions are not the time to try out a new recipe. Stick to that dressed up pastry. Trust me, the guests will appreciate it.