Here I am, a day behind again. No worries; I’ll catch up by tomorrow.
I’m no chef, but I think I’m a more accomplished cook than I was five years ago. I owe a lot of this to my husband, who has not only introduced me to new tastes, but also helped me gain the confidence to go off-book (cookbook, that is). Plus a tip of the hat the Alton Brown, of course.
In my earlier culinary days, following a recipe was no big deal. I could follow a recipe. But I had no idea what flavors would blend well, which ones I needed to perk up a chili, what I might do if there was something I wanted to eat but I didn’t have any instructions. The cookbook was The Word when it came to making meals and desserts. My ex-husband considered himself a pretty cook, and prior to that I’d only lived at home or in the dorms. I remember one time when my ex was out of town, and I grilled a steak all by myself. I was very proud of myself.
That system worked for me for many years. Every now and then I’d pull out a recipe book and step-by-step whip up something that usually turned out tasty. But that all changed when I moved out on my own. Now I had to do my own cooking, or else eat baked potatoes every night. I do really, really like baked potatoes, but that probably would have been too much.
So now I was the primary cook in my kitchen, and still looking up recipes online and following them faithfully every night. I started dating my not-yet-husband, and while we dined out quite a bit, there were nights when we made our own dinner too. I started to notice a few things. For example, most of the time he didn’t use a cookbook. I was so impressed.
It took a while for me to gain more confidence in the kitchen. I watched a lot of Good Eats. I still followed recipes, but I was getting a lot better about efficient prepping and cooking, and timing it so that all the meal components were ready at about the same time. I learned that letting the pan heat up before adding the oil and saute ingredients keeps them from sticking as much as they do if you put them in a cold pan. That some knives are great for slicing but not so much for chopping (after all, if they were all interchangeable, why would professional chefs have a whole sleeve of differently shaped knives) That fruits and most root vegetables are better stored at room temperature–yes, this includes tomatoes–while other vegetables need to be stored in the fridge. (Tip: look at how a grocery store displays them, and follow suit at home.)
My first big advance was the day I decided I wanted real taqueria-style tacos for dinner one night, the kind you might find at a taco truck, only without the food safety violations. I had no recipe at all, but I’d eaten enough of them that I knew what ought to go in them. On my way home I picked up some skirt steak, pico de gallo, and cilantro, and pulled something together with no guidance other than my taste buds. This time it was my husband’s turn to be impressed.
These days I still often turn to recipes, but I’m not afraid to modify them as I see fit. I took Real Simple’s recipe for Fiery “Fried” Chicken and turned it into a chicken and pasta dish. With only a little guidance from the Whole Foods fishmonger, I turned out some lemon pepper Tilapia filets the other night. This past weekend I rescued a curry the night after I’d accidentally spilled way too much cinnamon into it. I’m getting really good at knowing which sides will complement a main dish.
Of course, I still have my mishaps. I was making an apple pie yesterday in an attempt to use up the apples on the table that had started to get past their prime. I needed six cups of apples. I ended up with eight. Instead of using six of the eight cups for the pie and figuring out something for the remainder, I decided to split it into two batches of four cups each. I didn’t even think to supplement with the additional apples I’d bought for that very purpose. And what I ended up with was this:
Oh well. They can’t all be winners. I bet it’s still going to taste good, even if it does leave us wanting more.