How I Came to Love (and some would say be decent at) Cooking

Somewhere my mother has a picture, I am sure, of my sister and I standing on chairs in the kitchen so we could reach the stove. However, I didn’t really learn to cook until well into adulthood. I can remember an awful meal I made for my mother right after I moved into my first “grown up” apartment. I was 17, and I basically knew how to make things that came in a box or had the word
“instant” in the name. But I wanted to show what an adult I was, so I baked some boneless skinless chicken breasts seasoned with thyme. I don’t recall if there were sides, but I am pretty sure that was the driest meat I have eaten in my life. My roommates and I did, however, get pretty good at making grilled cheese and bacon sandwiches that year.

Fast forward a couple of years and I had picked up a couple of recipes from a friend’s mom or a couple of adults I knew. I could make a pretty good fried chicken leg and mashed potatoes. My ex-husband can tell you a beautiful story about the meatloaf I made him when we first started dating. Let’s just say he wasn’t craving salt for a while after that one. Oh and that time I decided I wanted to make a lobster dinner at home. I carefully selected some pretty little critters from the store. I took them home, still alive, and steamed them. What I did not know was that one should crack the shell prior to plating. We ended up with some very soupy mash potatoes and salad on our plates.

Around 2005, I got hooked on cooking shows. It started with some GMA clips, and then PBS, and then I became addicted to Food Network. I recall Tyler Florence was my first real cooking idol. Sorry Tyler, there have been and are so many more now, but I still love you. I made Emeril’s chicken wings and Tyler’s enchiladas, and I was a lost cause. Back in those days, we didn’t have DVR or such, so I would sit and write down every ingredient and direction while watching my favorite chefs make the most beautiful dishes. This was still back when I could be trusted to actually follow the recipe.

My cooking quickly improved from all my televised education. I still occasionally had an oopsy. My girls would definitely tell the story of my first attempt at vodka sauce. Trust me, no one wants to relive that dinner. Luckily, I’ve learned to make a version so good, my Katie loves it. I amassed recipes. We began hosting Thanksgiving, because it gave me an opportunity to show off.

Then I went to law school. Needless to say that for the most part, my major contributions in the kitchen for those years was when I ordered take-out from Chili’s or Famous Dave’s and picked it up on my way home. Occasionally, I still did something special, but it was rare. Of course, for several years after law school, I would say it was still only an occasional thing for me to make something complicated and fancy.

Then, I met my now husband. The man loves good food. I would say he is as much of a foodie as I am any day. It became fun to cook again. But this time, I veered right off the path. I used recipes as guides or inspiration. Yes, I will sometimes make a recipe per the instructions , especially if it’s the first time I am trying the dish. But most times, I don’t use recipes. If I want to make beef Wellington, I’ll look at 5-10 recipes for the dish, note what I think I’ll like or won’t like, and then I create a dish based on all those tips. Every meal in our household sounds like an episode of Chopped. We are critiquing and deciding what I would do next time to make it better. And I’ve even started just making up some of my own recipes. This is especially true of my rubs.

Oh, let’s veer off course here. My cooking has not only veered off the recipe path, it veered right out the door. About four years ago, give or take, we moved into a beautiful apartment with a very nice deck. I got a whim and decided I wanted a grill. So, we got a Weber…cuz is there any other kind? I think I grilled on it once before I figured out I could turn it into a smoker. These days, it is generally used for smoking meats, though we do occasionally grill burgers or hot dogs or mushrooms for the non-meat eaters.

While I’ve been cooking and experimenting with food and recipes for several years now, I will say that pandemic life definitely functioned as a catalyst in my obsession’s evolution. Coming up with ways to keep meals interesting and to feed my creativity need has led to all sorts of interesting experiments, as well as some improvements on old favorites. Add to that a need to avoid going to the store too frequently, and I got super creative to use what we had, which could be it’s own Food Network show I think. Not my experience personally, but so many of us experienced the “make do with what you have,” especially early on during the more stringent shutdowns. However, I would say my Alfredo sauce today compared to 2012 is apples and oranges. Also, I’ve added vegan and a lot more frequent vegetarian cooking to my repertoire over the last 4 years. For my next trick, I’m looking to play with the sous vide option on my instant pot!

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