I have an organized mind. I’m a planner, a strategic think.
I don’t reserve strategy just for the big things in life; there is strategy behind virtually every decision I make. The order in which I tackle piles of laundry, for instance. (Oh, you didn’t know this was something you could strategize? That means you’re doing it wrong.)
This endearing (?) personality trait lends itself well to one of my favorite hobbies: baking. If a recipe says you cream this and separately mix those ingredients together and then gradually blend the two together? That’s what I do. I measure ingredients carefully and exactly. Ninety-nine percent of the time, this yields something very tasty.
However, what this trait does not lend itself well to? Cooking.
I view baking as precise; cooking as artistic. A good cook could look in their fridge at the end of the week, take stock of what needs to be used up and create a recipe on the fly.
I cannot do this. After all, how would I know how much onion to add versus how much garlic versus … whatever. (See? I can’t even come up with a third ingredient in my fake meal.)
One of the first times I ever cooked for Mike, I made him one of his favorite things — grilled scallops. But I’d never made (or eaten) scallops before, so I bought the wrong kind, let them get too warm in my car in the Arizona heat and ultimately gave us both food poisoning.
Mike continued to date me, but he took over the cooking responsibilities.
When we made the decision that I would stay home with Ryan this year, fear slowly began to build … the cooking fear, that is.
I hated cooking. I wasn’t any good at it. I wasn’t creative enough. And, whiiiiiine, chopping vegetables is so annoying.
I knew I’d be cooking, though, at least during the week. For two reasons: 1. I couldn’t very well roam through my house all day doing zero dinner prep and then pounce on Mike when he came home from work with questions about what and when we’d be eating and 2. I knew by 5 p.m. every day, I’d be ready to hand Ryan over to his father while I spaced out in the kitchen.
Luckily, we lived with my in-laws for four months, which gave me a buffer period before I had to start performing regularly. My mother-in-law is a fantastic cook. She is the type who will glance in her freezer in the early evening and randomly decide we’re going to have stuffed peppers. Most of the time, she doesn’t cook with a recipe — she cooks from the memory of how her mom made it.
Our favorite joke while we lived together was that I was going to teach her how to get organized and she was going to teach me how to cook. True to word, we spent two full days rearranging her kitchen cabinets into a configuration that made more sense (at least to me). And I sat in that newly organized kitchen every night and watched her make dinner.
I didn’t take notes. I didn’t copy down ingredients. I just watched and talked to her about what she was making. “Oh, this is easy,” she’d say. “The mushrooms and sausage are already cooked, and the salad is chopped. I’ll shred some cheese now and when we’re getting ready to eat, we’ll just cook the pasta, throw it all together, and that’s it. Easy.”
No matter what she was making or how complicated it looked, she always described it that way: “… and that’s it. Easy.”
After four months of watching her cook, I realized it’s not as much about innate ability as it is about attitude.
It’s also about cooking in phases. If I’m home all day, I use the whole day. I make the salad while Ryan is napping. Chop the vegetables while he’s playing with his dinosaurs. Heck, sometimes I cook the whole darn meal while he’s watching Dinosaur Train, cover it and set it aside. When we’re ready to eat, I warm it back up and it’s not just good, it’s actually better because all those flavors were spending lots of time snuggling on my stovetop.
The other key for me has been finding one go-to cookbook I really love. Before I left Phoenix, I begged my friend Kelly – who is an amazing cook – to print me out some of her
easiest favorite recipes. She did that and then went one step further, buying me this Ellie Krieger cookbook, which I use at least once a week. (If you like making soup, get this book.)
In the 2-1/2 months we’ve lived in this house, I have only repeated meals a handful of times. I wanted to spend a few months trying tons of recipes to get a handle on what I like to cook, what I’m good at and what turns out well. Today I made the slow-cooker turkey chili pictured above; tomorrow will be chicken cacciatore (new recipe); and later this week, a healthy variation of macaroni and cheese (Ellie Krieger). On the other nights, we’ll eat leftovers or something quick and easy like grilled cheese sandwiches and soup.
Staying true to myself, I even found a way to make it strategic. I scour the grocery store ads every weekend, plan meals for the week and shop on Monday morning while Ryan is at preschool. I want to eat as healthy as possible for as little money as possible, so that means shopping sales and making sure nothing goes to waste. It’s a challenge, but I think I’m getting pretty good at it.
This year has been a big year of learning and growing for our family. We’ve stretched out of our comfort zones, tried new things, taken on new roles. The most surprising realization for me might be that I actually … like … to cook.