Every time I say the words, “I’m cooking tonight,” or, “I love to cook,” or any variation thereof, all I can see is this.
The word “cook” was ruined from the first episode on.
I do love to cook but not like that.
I know a lot of people who hate to cook, and I can certainly see their points of view. For me, though, the whole process is therapeutic. When I’m just short of pulling out my hair, I pick up some fresh vegetables and a good protein and create something delicious. It works 99.9949% of the time. Before I get into my justifications for loving what other people think is a burden, let me tell you a bit about what prompted me to write about this. These aren’t the kinds of things I normally like to write about because they don’t really offer much to you as a reader, but I think this case might be different. Just bear with me on setting the stage first.
Oh, there are also some recipes here. They’ll come at the end. Scroll on down if you don’t care about the backstory. You know I encourage this.
The spring semester has been chaos. From the moment the plane touched down from DC, life has been a whirlwind. I made the brilliant mistake of taking a history of constitutional law course along with a sports arbitration course while also teaching 2 online sections of public speaking, one section of interpersonal communication, and one of athletic training over accelerated semesters. This was in addition to helping my tutoring clients, keeping up with my director of communications job, and forging on with my ongoing attempts to move my operation to DC (read: find a job that pays me enough to only have one job).
That was crazy enough until my mom got word she needed her thyroid removed. Then chaos ensued. I won’t take up a bunch of room on the medical situation. She ended up being fine; there was no cancer. The weeks leading up to the surgery and the final diagnosis, though, were tough. Of course everyone in the family was alarmed, and we all started to put ducks in rows in preparation of the worst case scenario. We’re not maniacs, but in 2010 we did have a dad who went into the hospital for a routine procedure and did not return home. So let’s just say we’re overly cautious. We also knew she would need help around her house during recovery. All three of us pitched in, but my hours are a bit more relaxed (I do a great deal of my work from home), so I was unofficially nominated as the first line of contact during her recovery. So, in addition to tutoring, taking classes, teaching classes, looking for a job, and handling the existing job, I became a caretaker. I’ve increased my already deep respect for home health aides by 1000%. Thank you all for your service.
Funny thing, though. Mom is apparently a superhero whose superpower is rapid healing. The woman is freakin’ Wolverine. She was up and trying to do things by the end of her first day home, and our caretaking jobs turned into more of a “gently wrangle the woman with stitches in her neck.” For example, we would ask her if she wanted soup or tea, to which she would respond, “Oh, no, I’m okay,” and take a seat on the couch. Whomever was around would go about their business just to turn around within minutes and see Mom at the stove with the tea kettle. I caught her trying to do laundry and sweep the floor a mere 72 hours after she had her neck sliced open.
It’s been a little over a month, and she’s 100%. There’s hardly even a scar. I’m telling you guys – Wolverine.
In any case, something had to give. You can tell by the lapse in attention to this blog that something was cooking. Unfortunately.
I look for the up side in whatever life throws my way, so I decided to see this as a way to remind me why I enjoyed cooking so much. This break was something of a “don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone” kind of scenario. After about a month of half-assed dinners and creative leftovers, I came up with 5 reasons I enjoy cooking. They’re nothing groundbreaking, but it’s interesting that people who have the same hobbies might have completely different reasons for engaging in them.
Here’s what drives me to the kitchen
There is an art to creating one thing from another.
Food is a fascinating thing. In theory, it could be as easy as pulling a plant from the earth and taking a bite of it. Sometimes, a meal is just that: open the fridge and find something to consume. It could be a handful of carrots, a quickly assembled salad with some lettuce and a few random veggies from the crisper. Other times, it could be the full transformation of an inedible item into something magnificent. Take chicken. Raw chicken is a no-no across most of the world (Japan being one exception in some dishes), and the prospect of eating it without cooking it repulses a lot of people. Same with an egg. I don’t care how many of you suck down a raw egg like Rocky Balboa. I cannot do it. That all changes, though, when you introduce a couple spices, a good technique, and some appealing side dishes. Suddenly, that chicken or that egg becomes a decadence, with the flavors lingering in your memory for years sometimes (really, I’ve had meals that stuck with me for years). I love the art of it all. I love looking at a range of unrelated raw, unprepared ingredients and knowing my interaction with them will turn them into something beautiful and tasty. Look at the ingredients for a cake. Separately, flour, baking powder, sugar, and eggs are ordinary. Together, they bring extraordinary happiness to people celebrating birthdays, graduations, anniversaries, or just Tuesdays.
This brings me to the issue of control.
I don’t mean control in the sense that it’s all mine and no one can have it. I mean controlling the outcome of events, having a measurable impact on their end. In the kitchen, I can predict the final product with rather high certainty. I know from reading a recipe if it’s going to taste good or not, if the people I’m feeding are going to enjoy it or not. I know this because I know and have full control over what the outcome ultimately is (even if I have no control over that moment of bad grammar). Cooking is my go to for times when I don’t have control over the rest of my life. When I was studying for my doctoral preliminary exams, I cut myself off every day at 5 PM so I could cook something and feel like I had a handle on my life because, frankly, from 7 AM to 5PM, I did not. At 5, I would look around the room at empty bags of carrots, dirty coffee cups, and the depleted gallon jug of water and think, “Has it been one day or eleven?” My poor dog somehow got walked and fed, but I did not. Going into the kitchen with a plan for what I was going to make for dinner allowed me to gain back some feeling of control in my own life and kept me from losing touch with my sanity completely. After the long break from cooking recently, I had that feeling of relief again when I set my vegetables and spices on the counter and just knew I had an idea of where I was headed for the first time in months. Cooking is a stress reliever for me because the element of life that stresses me out the most is feeling like I’ve lost control. When the rest of the world might be slipping away from me, I can always whip up a dish or two and have the feeling again that it’s all going to be just fine.
I also like to teach and share with people.
When I stumble on something that pleases the masses (whomever they may be at the moment), it’s exciting for me. I want to share food with everyone I can. I’m especially a fan of the joy people have when they try something new, weird, or different just to find out they love it. My sister is not a cook. It’s her choice; she hates it. I know I’m not going to teach her how to make my favorite recipes, but that doesn’t stop her from being my greatest champion. With the exception of onions and raw meat, she will try anything. The foods she’s discovered thanks to my culinary adventures have really stuck with her, and I take great pride in her enthusiasm for a dish. She has this “list” for my recipes. When she really likes something, she says, “Put this on the list,” which means, “You can make this any time.” Pretty simple but I look forward to hearing, “Put this on the list.” On the other hand, there’s Mom, who will gladly cook, but whose palate consisted of onions, garlic, salt, pepper, and sugar until I started cooking. She’s still not a huge fan of what she considers “weird” spices, but I have her using and enjoying things like thyme, cumin, coriander, and tarragon, and I think that’s a step in the right direction. Now, when my sister was in Orlando without me, she did try her hand at the kitchen, but it really just turned into her FaceTiming me fourteen times to ask, “Is this done?” I don’t know how she didn’t drop her phone into a boiling pot in all that time, but I always looked forward to her calls so I could help her out. Mom does it, too, now that I’ve risen to the level of “family expert.” She doesn’t ask me if something is done, but she does say, “I’m making this. What do I need to put in it?” or, “Taste this and tell me what it’s missing.” Then I get to introduce her to more and more new things that she has long assumed she didn’t like. I’ll turn her on to sage and rosemary yet. Mark my words. I sneak it in (like in the beets below) more often than she knows…maybe one day I’ll tell her. For now, I just enjoy sharing tastes with people and knowing they enjoyed them, too.
I believe in taking back the kitchen.
If I could do one professional thing with cooking, it would be teaching a class to younger people who think they can’t cook but want to eat better. I don’t know if that class would attract college students, working parents, young professionals, seniors hoping to maintain independence, or people trying to balance a low income with good nutrition. I hope it would attract all of these people and more. Controlling what goes into your food and thus into your body is a powerful tool of independence, and that’s a big part of why I love to cook.
I get exhausted with lingering references to food preparation and kitchen mastery as a “woman’s thing.” It’s an everyone thing, and I’d like to think that’s not a foreign concept anymore. Being able to create something to nourish and please the people you love (even if it’s just yourself) is an empowering thing and should be celebrated. This Jezebel article talks about this far better than I can, and this piece really stood out.
One problem with Prince’s piece is that she’s misplaced the blame. If people have stopped cooking the kind of time-intensive fare she describes, it’s not because every woman in the Western world suddenly burned her apron on a pyre of feminist ideology. Ever-longer work weeks and the increasing necessity of a dual income are more likely culprits. And at least in America, the popularity of convenience foods over whole foods has a lot to do with price — and with farm subsidies that privilege corn syrup over broccoli.
A couple years ago, I had a roommate who loved to cook and one who did not. The one who loved to cook was from France, so learning from her was a blast (more on that in a moment). The other roommate simply did not have time for the kitchen, opting instead for smoothies and salads. My French roommate (who is likely to guest for this some time…*ahem*…Kate, you hear that?) and I liked to have cooking nights. Once, when we were deep in some beer cheese soup and crab cakes, our other roomie came out and said, “I’m so glad you guys have decided to keep up feminine domestic traditions. Someone has to, and I simply don’t have time. I’m too busy fighting for inequality and focusing on the bigger issues in the world. It’s just good to know someone is still okay with domestic chores. I’m just glad it doesn’t have to be me.”
Now. I was a doctoral student studying feminist theory and sport at a university riddled with gender issues. Kate was a professor at that same university, studying identity issues in the American South. The other roommate was a French teacher who had some friends who liked to talk about how unenlightened the people around them were. I chose not to engage in a fruitless battle, but I had to give Kate a paper bag to breathe into. When the other roommate left, I explained that her archaic view of cooking was much more short-sighted than our decision to enjoy it. Hers was a dangerous stereotype that belittles an activity that, when broken down, is at the heart of our ability to survive. The only difference between blending up some perfectly good fruit into a cold, mushy paste and what we did for fun on Friday nights was that our shit smelled so good the neighbors wandered in. My take on cooking is this: If you have to do it, you might as well do it well.
I can explore the world even when money is too tight to do it for real.
Food allows you to sample bits and pieces of places you might not be able to afford at the moment. Take Kate’s French cooking. Through our sharing of recipes, I was able to connect with her culture and what was valued in her family, and she told me all about the reasons she chose some ingredients and not others, her obsession with bisques, her frustration with the sweetness of American bread, and (perhaps most importantly) the art of patience in the kitchen. In exchange, I taught her about the history of some American cuisines (her favorite being the origin story of Cajun food), and we talked about why American cuisine still continues to be a mixture of influences from our immigrant history and why the processed food “revolution” was able to dig its clutches so deeply into our food industry (thank you, long ass work week). Our cooking nights were often explorations of a world we were both too financially insecure to explore like we wanted to at that moment.
Once, I dated a baseball player from the Dominican Republic, and on an off day, we decided to have a cookout. The players and their wives and girlfriends came from several different parts of the US as well as the Dominican, Puerto Rico, and Cuba. There was a guy whose wife was Pakistani and another who was Swedish and so was his girlfriend. That was the best cookout in the history of time. The spread included everything from Swedish sausages and mojo pork to samosas and empanadas, grilled shrimp and lime chicken to three varieties of potato salad. There were at least five different avocado dishes from five different places. It was the most food I’d seen assembled in one place, and it was all influenced by each person who brought it.
I like to think if you can find a way to sample the flavors valued by other parts of the world, you can become a more respectful and enthusiastic visitor to those places. What a country or a region enjoys eating can teach you a lot about the people themselves, and while it certainly can’t replace actual travel, it can keep your mind at ease until you save up for that next trip.
So what makes the kitchen special for you? Please let me know in the comments. I’d love to hear your experiences.
Now, as promised, some recipes!
This meal was my triumphant return to the kitchen after the Spring from Hell. Enjoy!
NOTE before you get started. Please don’t oversalt your food. You’ll notice there is sea salt and pepper in almost every bit of this. When I say to use them, I usually only mean a pinch of salt. While sea salt may or may not be better for you than table salt, it’s still not a food you should overdo. You can add more later if you need to, but you cannot unsalt food that’s too salty. Besides, if you haven’t discovered this yet, one of the best moments in your cooking adventures is when you learn the fine line between salt that brings out the true taste of food items and their accompanying spices and herbs and salt that carries the taste. You definitely don’t want the salt to carry the taste.
Herbed Oven Roasted Beets
- 6 fresh beets, either all one color or mix ’em up like I did
- 1 1/2 tbsp. olive oil
- 1 tsp. dried thyme
- 1 tsp. dried rosemary
- 1 clove garlic (very finely minced)
- Sea salt and cracked pepper to taste
- Preheat oven to 425.
- Clean beets and cut into 1/2 inch cubes.
- Toss with olive oil, thyme, rosemary, garlic, salt, and pepper.
- Let sit for 15 minutes.
- Toss again.
- Spread beet and herb mixture onto a cookie sheet. Try to spread them so there is one even layer of beet cubes.
- Cook for up to 45 minutes, depending on the size of the beets. They are done when they are tender to the fork.
- Wash your hands in paint thinner (Disclaimer: Don’t. Please don’t).
Garlic & Lemon Brussels Sprouts
- 1 lb. Brussels sprouts
- 2 to 3 cloves of minced garlic
- 2 tbsp. olive oil
- half lemon (you’ll need the other half eventually)
- sea salt & pepper to taste
- Clean and prep the sprouts. I like to remove an outer layer and cut them in half. You are free to cut and trim as you prefer.
- Heat oil in cast iron skillet over medium high heat.
- Add garlic to hot oil.
- Add sprouts to pan and salt and pepper them.
- Sauté sprouts until browned on the outside and cooked thoroughly.
- Reduce heat to very low and squeeze lemon half over sprouts.
- Stir and let simmer for about two minutes.
Parmesan Browned Butter Orzo
- 2 tbsp. butter
- 1 cup orzo (I use whole wheat)
- 4 tbsp. white wine
- 2 1/2 cups chicken broth
- 2 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese
- Cook butter in small saucepan over medium-low heat until browned. Be careful not to burn it.
- Add orzo and cook for 1 minute.
- Add white wine. Cook over medium-high heat for about 1 to 2 minutes, until orzo is browned to your liking.
- Add chicken broth. Bring to a boil.
- Reduce heat. Let cook until liquid is mostly gone and orzo is cooked through but not mushy.
- Stir in Parmesan cheese.
Almond Crusted Fish with Cream Sauce
Breaded fish fillets
- Fresh white fish (your choice)
- Olive oil
- Sea salt & pepper to taste
- 1 cup Panko bread crumbs
- 1/2 to 1 cup sliced almonds (see note below)
- Two eggs, beaten
- Fresh or dried parsley
- 1 tbsp. olive oil
- 1 clove chopped garlic
- 2 tbsp. white wine (not cooking wine, people)
- 1/2 tsp. dried or fresh thyme
- 1 cup heavy whipping cream
- 1 half lemon
- 2 tbsp cold butter
- Sea salt & pepper to taste
- 1 tsp. cornstarch
- 1 tsp. cold water
- Preheat oven to 375 (note: When I make this fish with the beets, I plan for the beets to take longer and drop down the temp on them when they have about a half hour to go. That way, they can cook with the fish).
- Add flour to a bowl. Add eggs to a second bowl and beat them.
- Using a food processor, pulse almonds until they are a coarse crumb texture. Mix them with bread crumbs and parsley. You can adjust the amount of almond to bread crumb to your taste. I like more nut, less crumb so I go half and half. This is not a rule, but I do 1 cup nuts and 1 cup crumbs. Sometimes, if the fish are large, I need to make a second batch, but to avoid wasting nuts and crumbs, start with a cup each. That really should do it.
- Pat fish fillets with paper towel so they are dry.
- Spread thin layer of olive oil in a glass baking dish.
- Lightly season fish on both sides with salt & pepper.
- Dredge fish in flour. Then egg. Then coat generously with nut/crumb mixture.
- Place the fish into the baking dish and drizzle with olive oil (this is important).
- Allow fish to sit for 5 minutes before putting them in the oven.
- Cook for up to 30 minutes, depending on the thickness of the fish. It is done when it is white and flakes easily.
Cream Sauce Instructions
- Heat small sauce pan or cast iron skillet.
- Add oil to heated pan.
- Sauté garlic in oil for 30 seconds.
- Add white wine and thyme. Reduce by half.
- Add cream, squeeze lemon juice into mixture. Bring to a boil and immediately reduce heat to low.
- Add butter and stir until melted.
- Whisk cornstarch and water in a separate bowl.
- Add cornstarch mixture to sauce bit by bit. Add a bit and stir. If it’s not thick, add a bit more and stir again. Do this until it is the consistency you want.
- Season with salt and pepper.
- Run sauce through fine mesh strainer. Drizzle over fish and orzo.