Sunday, November 18, 2012

Cooking With Jayne

I never learned how to cook when I was growing up. I wanted to learn, but my Mom shooed me out of the kitchen every time I asked to help. Mamaw, my paternal grandmother, would let me mix things if I asked, but it didn't really teach me anything about cooking. There was no Internet - for me, anyway - and I didn't dare just start messing around in the kitchen, for fear of setting the house on fire.

At university, I could make mac and cheese, or frozen pizza, or a bowl of cereal. Otherwise, I ate out at a school cafeteria (or, if I was really lucky, Taco Bell!). It wasn't so bad - I lost 25 pounds my freshman year, mostly because I was getting exercise for the first time in my life (walking up and down the highest point in central Kentucky 2 - 4 times a day) and because I couldn't afford to eat more than one real meal a day. After university, living on my own, I made anything out of a box that had explicit directions on the box and didn't require anything more than pouring one thing into another thing and cooking it on a burner for a few minutes (and I still managed to screw it up half the time) - or spaghetti. 

The first thing I ever really cooked was a turkey for a Thanksgiving with friends. I have no idea why I decided to do it, but I did, and the directions on the package, and the Internet, were explicit: it came out perfect, and I made a turkey almost every year after that, even if it was just me. Given how easy I discovered Stove Top stuffing was to make, and how much I love it, I was content to eat turkey and stuffing for a week.

In my late 20s, I complained in a rare phone call with my mother about my lack of cooking skills, noting that I have no idea what it really means to even sauté something, how I don't know how to buy fish, let alone cook it, and on and on. She said I should buy Betty Crocker's Cookbook. She ended up buying it for me for Christmas or my birthday (probably for both, since they are just three weeks apart). And she was right: it was the perfect book to use to learn to cook. At 30, I moved to Austin and it became my cooking bible. It still is - I use it not only for meal ideas, but also with other cookbooks, when those others don't provide enough detail on how to prepare something (for instance, when the direction is "roast the such-and-such before mixing", I had no idea what they meant by "roasting").

I didn't get a microwave until I was in my 30s - another gift from my Mom. And I rarely used it. I used it for popcorn, for the most part. I think I was afraid if I started using the microwave to cook, I'd never stop - and never learn to really cook. 

While I was in Austin, I got the best cooking advice ever while having lunch with a woman I was woo'ing to give my project money; in her spare time, she taught cooking classes, and her favorite was a class that catered to divorced and widowed men. I told her I had no idea what to cook, that I looked at recipes and they just seemed completely overwhelming. We were eating at one of my favorite restaurants, Mother's -- which is also one of only two vegetarian restaurants I've ever liked -- and she pointed to my plate and said, "You like to eat. Start with just two things you like to eat together, and make that. Keep it simple." And she was right: you don't need to make a five course dinner - a two course dinner can be just dandy if it's prepared well.

Once I figured out how easy it was to steam veggies, I steamed my favorite vegetables two or three times a week. The microwave started getting used more - for re-heating leftovers, which I always had, cooking for one. 

In Germany, I was introduced by the man that became my husband to Maggi, a German brand of dried spices that you combine with cream and pour over meat, potatoes or noodles. Maggi is to German cooking as Campbell's cream-of-whatever soups are to Southern and Midwestern working class cooking: fantastic short-cuts to more-than-decent meals. I realize that last sentence makes the heads of foodies explode, but there it is. Throw in some green beans and or onions and or mushrooms during the baking process and it's even better.  

I definitely prefer baking meat and steaming veggies - or throwing everything into a crock pot - than any other form of cooking. It wasn't until 2004 that I learned how to cook brown rice properly (thank you, Internet), and I still get any kind of rice correctly made only about 50% of the time. Frying is too hard. I have yet to fry anything properly and have pretty much given up on it. I also can't fry fish - I have messed it up three times now, so I bake it, period. I can sauté meat and veggies in a sauce, but almost always end up over-cooking one or the other. I leave the grilling to Stefan, though I torment him with new ideas and food he doesn't like ("Here, honey, grill this egg plant for me.") Even with my various cookbooks, I couldn't cook at all without the Internet - I often have my laptop in the kitchen while I cook, for easier referral.

I don't cook at all like my mother or grandparents, except when it comes to a Sunday roast. I don't know how to fry chicken (and my husband doesn't like such anyway - he doesn't like anything still on the bone - but he does really like Shake and Bake!) and I don't know how to cook chicken and dumplings (he doesn't like that either, actually). I use various herbs and spices when I cook, something my mother or grandmothers never do, as they flavor everything with pork or other meat (and I don't eat pork). I love things in a cream sauce, something I never grew up with. I love trying to cook Asian food, and my resolution for 2013 is to try to cook some Middle Eastern food. Unlike when I was growing up, I don't have meat at every meal - and as a result, meat has become a more special event than it was when I was growing up, helping with my budget and health, and also making me really enjoy a meal with meat more than I ever did before.

Another thing that has helped me become a better cook has been cooking while camping. We camp while motorcycle touring, and cook via a one-burner back packing stove that has two settings: high and off. Being able to cook on that has made me a far better cook at home. It's super easy to sauté veggies - yes, we eat veggies while camping. I don't at all understand why people buy those crap MRTE (meals ready to eat) at REI or Bass Pro Shops or wherever for camping. Instead, just buy some Farm House flavored rice or pasta, particularly the ones that don't need milk (although, if you have a cooler bag, you're all set to have some milk), take some oil to substitute for the butter, and you can buy the ones that are in a cream sauce as well. Buy a can of tomatoes or green beans at a gas station convenience store when you stop for gas and throw that in there as well. Or buy the fried chicken breast at the same gas station convenience store, take off the skin (and, if you're me, eat it while you cook), take the meat off the bone, cut it up and throw that in there as well. Learning just how easy it is to have a good meal while camping - not that we don't still sometimes just buy a couple of cans of ravioli - has made me a much better cook at home.

What I still don't know how to do: to easily cook any kind of burrito or enchilada. I can cook those things, and they are really good, if I do say so myself, but they are sooooooo complicated - I really don't like using four pans to cook something, but I can't seem to find any other way to do it. I also don't know how to cook a really great homemade pizza. What I make I like okay, but it's not anything I crave - I cook it more as part of an ongoing quest to try and try again.

I'm not a great cook. I think Anthony Bourdain or Gordon Ramsay would run screaming from my house if they were served a meal here. I get it wrong - a lot. But at 46, I can, at last, walk to cabinet and the fridge, and pull together a meal that has at least three food groups in it and that's more than edible. And that's a huge accomplishment.

Also see:

Jayne's crockpot pumpkin soup

Crockpot garlic veggies - something missing?

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