Cooking Freedom

Rarely in my life has food interested me. You know all those cookbooks that promise to teach the art of cooking? Worthless, most of them! (Unless you are one of those people who were born to cook.)

Here are a few of the books I have owned, thinking to educate my way around the kitchen:

  • The Joy of Cooking, Irma Rombauer
  • Martha Stewart’s Cooking School, Martha Stewart
  • Madhur Jaffrey’s World Vegetarian, Madhur Jaffrey
  • World of the East Vegetarian Cooking, Madhur Jaffrey
  • Mediterranean Kitchen, Joyce Goldstein
Public domain, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Actually, I have owned a lot more than these, plus a really elaborate one that showed you how to prepare every cut of meat and every kind of vegetable and fruit in existence. How much good did I get out of all these? I think I made a total of two recipes out of any one of them.

Do you think it might be time for a debriefing?

Let’s see what went wrong. First of all, most of the recipes in them send you on a scavenger hunt for a hundred different ingredients, some of them exotic or way too expensive. And you use them once — as in, “What do I do with these left over capers?” You see what I mean? You are just all over the place — even with the Martha Stewart book (which does have good info about tools you need for a well-stocked kitchen, but the rest is very complex).

One day I ran across a simpler book that purported to show me how to make all sorts of things in less that thirty minutes from common kitchen foods and box mixes. I tried it. The result was disgusting and tasted “processed.” Ugh. There had to be a better way that was healthy without the complications.

Tommaso.sansone91, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

I found some great online resources for certain kinds of cooking. But you know all those quick foods people show you how to make in the microwave? Many are great ideas, no doubt about it — but they don’t help you acquire long haul cooking skills or organize a kitchen prep routine that works day in and out for anything beyond a single person on the run.

THE ONLY TWO BOOKS YOU ABSOLUTELY NEED IN THE KITCHEN

Two books changed all that for me. They told me all I really needed to know to work with commonly available grocery products and ordinary kitchen tools to turn out decent meals in a reasonable amount of time.

They told me what I needed, how everything worked, what was important, what wasn’t. They cut straight through the fat and got to the point of why you should do this thing and not that. You can ask them any questions and they will tell you how things work. They will also steer you away from worthless endeavors that are more bother than they are worth.

E4024, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Fortunately I could follow a recipe already, but this was so much better. I could look up dishes my mother or grandmothers prepared and get some idea of how that general category of food was put together. As I got the hang of preparing foods like soups and legumes, I no longer required a recipe, for I was now improvising. *taking a bow*

I didn’t try to learn everything at once. I would try a recipe in one section of the book and then branch off from that to create other dishes that followed a similar prep pattern. In short, both books were building a logical schematic that I could internalize and re-work to my own needs.

GhePeU, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

During this time, I began learning what kinds of things kept longer than others. Soon, I was dividing up larger portions for freezing (saves time later) and learning that some dried goods actually cook up pretty darn fast. So I was learning how to cook according to the time I had available, and still managing to cut down on prep time. (The Cook’s Bible has an excellent recipe for polenta, by the way, that takes only eight minutes in the microwave instead of half an hour on the stovetop!)

I still have most of the other books mentioned above, and I still use online websites for certain things. The difference, now is that, I have a better fall back position for getting meals together if I can’t find all the ingredients a particular recipe calls for. Cooking has also become more interesting now that I don’t feel enslaved to an exact recipe.  (By george, you can leave tahini out of hummus and it will still taste great.)  Best of all, the food tastes better and is a healthier choice, because the choice is always mine.