[This is a guest post I wrote for Hello Vancity]
I still remember setting the table with my heart pounding and palms sweaty, silently praying that my parents and their friends would genuinely like the food. I was in Grade 8. Making a meal from scratch and serving it to guests was my final project. My grade for Home Economics was dependent on their review. What exactly I served, I can’t recall anymore. I think there was a stew and some vegetables. Of course, my mom, being very proficient in the kitchen and known among her friends as a great cook, helped me put most of the dinner together. But she still bragged to all her friends that her 13-year-old cooked for her. She would half-jokingly remark that I could now do all the cooking for our family. The prospect of which was truly frightening.
Ten years later, when I lived on my own in university, I was glad my mom had taught me some basic cooking skills. Granted, I ate a lot of instant noodles, yogourt and tuna sandwiches, but at least I could sustain myself.
Getting comfortable in the kitchen was a slow process for me. It started way back in elementary school but didn’t really take off until I got married. Maybe it was the fact that I now had someone who promised to at least try everything I made (a.k.a., a husband). Maybe it was that I had a kitchen to call my own that I could organize however I wanted. Or maybe it was because by then, I’d had a good number of years’ cooking experience under my belt. Experimenting with food became more fun as time passed.
I never thought I’d get to the point where I would be known as a good cook (at least with our family), but looking back, here’s what helped me get there:
1) Keep it simple.
Pasta with tomato sauce and baked salmon were our go-to meals in our initial days of marriage. Slowly, my cooking repertoire expanded to include chili, curry, pork chops and stews. My food might not be featured on the Food Network or make its rounds on Pinterest, but keeping it simple gives me courage to cook.
2) Use ingredients you’re familiar with and/or have on hand.
I usually buy meats that are on sale that week and look up ways to cook it if I don’t already know what I want to do with it. When I browse recipes, I ignore the ones with ingredients I don’t recognize or directions that look too complicated. Part of keeping it simple, I guess.
3) Try one new thing at a time.
For inspiration, check out recipe websites or think back to something delicious you ate at a restaurant. When we were planning to announce to our family that we were expecting a baby, we wanted to do a “baby” themed dinner: baby back ribs, baby carrots, baby bok choy… the only thing was, I’d never cooked baby back ribs before. After searching for a suitable recipe, I gave it a whirl. I was pleasantly surprised at how easy they were to make and how tasty they turned out. What’s even more amazing is that sometimes they go on super sale and for about $20, I can get enough ribs to serve 6-8 adults! You can’t even order ribs for one person for that price at a restaurant.
4) Don’t be afraid to make mistakes.
A huge part of learning is simply trying. You can search for recipes for days on end, but if you don’t just go and cook something, you’ll never really learn. One time, I found a slow-cooker recipe for sweet potato garlic pork. It sounded fantastic so I decided to try it. In the four years we have been married, that was perhaps the one time an experiment totally flopped. We couldn’t even salvage the meal and had to toss it. But hey, I now know never to make that dish again.
5) Have people over.
Cooking for one or two people is limiting. Unless you’re planning to eat the same thing for half a week, having guests over allows you to cook a larger variety of things. You want to invite people who will be gracious, of course, especially if you’re just learning to cook. Cooking for others for helps me enjoy the cooking process more.
These days, eating at home is the norm for us. It’s better for our health and easier on our budget. My husband is quite a picky eater and I have a dairy allergy, so when we go out to eat, we have to be pretty careful with what we order. I also find that if we’re on a trip and we have to eat out every meal, I can handle about four days before my stomach begins to complain and I get stomach aches. Cooking at home may not be as convenient as eating out; it takes a bit more time and preparation. But I’m often surprised at what I can make for myself at a fraction of the cost of ordering the same thing at a restaurant. And I have the advantage of knowing exactly what went into our food and the satisfaction of being able to say I made it.
What practical tips would you give to someone learning how to cook?
photo credit: 27147