I absolutely love it when I can convince my friends to cook more at home or persuade anyone that homemade is better than from a box. I guess I was born with a kitchen gene, so when a few friends mentioned they were downright afraid to try and cook I was flabbergasted. I can’t understand it. Cooking is just very natural to me, because when I was about 12 I had to start helping out in the kitchen. In middle school I loved to watch Emeril Lagasse’s cooking show, before the food network was The Food Network. I continued to watch cooking shows throughout high school and pitch in at home, then research recipes on the internet in college, and finally we have arrived at the glorious age of food blogs. Now, if you’ll allow me to be so bold, I just like my food better, haha. I know what is in it; I like the taste; and I feel great eating it. But the last thing I want to do is discourage anyone with my blog posts!
So I have been trying to think of ways to take the fear out of cooking. I haven’t found a magic answer yet, so I would appreciate any feedback in the comments. But one thing that seemed to encourage my friend was actually hearing about all the times I have messed up in the kitchen. “Even you?!” she said. Oh my Lord, you have no idea. I’ve been making mistakes in the kitchen since 1998, and it is only because I kept going that I’ve come to be where I am today. And please don’t think I assume to know everything about cooking. Not at all. I just love to do it, so what I lack in skill, I make up for in enthusiasm and the desire to try new things.
Everybody makes a mediocre meal once in a while. Everybody Googles “How to chop onions…” or something to that effect – that is what the internet is for! Just yesterday I had to Google “cooking chickpeas from scratch” because I hadn’t done it in a while. Everybody fails at some point or another. The difference is you can either go back to eating in such a way that sucks all your energy and resources (convenience food, fast food, etc), and the planet’s resources, or you can take your mistakes/flops/failures and turn them into what I like to call “learning experiences.”
The kitchen should be a fun place, a place of laughter and openness and creativity. Successes are memorable, but flops are funny too and they make for great memories. One of our favorite past times at Johnson family gatherings is to reminisce about Grandma Mary’s extreme standards in the kitchen. Numerous times she wanted to throw out entire roasts or pans of sticky rolls because they were “terrible”. Luckily we saved her from the trouble on a few occasions – and those sticky rolls were some of the best I’ve ever had! My grandma had high standards in the kitchen, and so do I, but sometimes you can’t take yourself too seriously. I believe in holistic health, nourishing body and soul, and if you are stressed about your food or cooking or think your reputation as a cook is dependent on one meal or dinner party, STOP WORRYING (I’m guilty of the latter). One meal is not a make or break situation. Getting back to the cutting board, no matter what, defines your character as a cook. And everyone can cook something!
So, what follows is a sampling of memorable flops for me. This doesn’t even include all the mediocre meals or so-so things that didn’t come out right. I’ve only come as far as I have because I’ve been working at it for many years, and making mistakes all the time. That is how you learn:
- When I was 13 or so, I made my first meal completely on my own for my family. And the chicken wasn’t done – totally pink in the middle. Everyone sat down to eat and my dad pointed it out. Whoops! We just ate the sides until the chicken baked through a bit in the oven. No big deal. Buy a meat thermometer. It takes out the guess work/hacking into chicken.
- Last spring’s terrible, awful, soggy quinoa chickpea crockpot soup. I shudder to think of the texture. I tried to bake it and salvage it by turning it into a casserole, a technique which has worked for me in the past, and it was still awful. I couldn’t even make myself eat it. Luckily as of last year I had a pretty rockin’ compost pile going. You can’t save them all. Also, the first time you make a crockpot recipe, be home in time to check it when it is supposed to be done.
- Ah the memorable summer where I messed up banana bread THREE TIMES IN A ROW. First I forgot the baking powder, then I forgot the baking powder AGAIN, and then finally I burned the last loaf. They were all edible ~ the first two were only 1.5 inches thick, and the last one I crumbled down and baked into a trifle of sorts. But honestly, three times in a row?! Next time I will make a recycled brownie smoothie to save a dried out baked good.
- Adding WAAAAAY to much oregano or rosemary to a number of pork or meat dishes. Those two herbs, dried or fresh, are particularly strong. I tend to be heavy-handed on the spices, but I’ve learned I need to dial back on those two.
- Last week I dropped a cake. Rushing around before work, I was transferring pans and SPLAT. Luckily the partially cooked cake (testing failure!) fell into another pan. So I turned it into a crumble – threw some topping on and baked again until it was done. Not an ideal way to make stuff, but it worked. You just have to be flexible and open to, er, creative possibilities. And not be in a rush!
- The time our freezer went out and I forgot about the frozen chocolate chip cookie dough I had in there. I baked the balls a few days later, but they were so skunky and nasty they went right to compost! What a waste of time and energy, all because I left a simple job until too late.
Things I’ve learned:
1. Read the recipe thoroughly before attempting anything. Make sure you have all the ingredients. Double check. As you add ingredients, especially when baking, triple check that you haven’t forgot anything. I like to assign my youngest brother Jake as project overseer when we are cooking or baking together in the kitchen.
2. From the cookies: don’t leave it to the last minute. Don’t leave food in the back of the fridge or waste ingredients because you avoided the situation. Man up, find some gloves, even a mask, and tackle that mystery substance in the back of the fridge. Regularly take stock of your fridge and freezer and note what should be used first. Follow the first in, first out rule.
2a. The banana bread failed for several reasons. I was distracted, rushing, and didn’t check my ingredients. I’ve also made dinner parties way more hectic by buying the ingredients in the morning, realizing I didn’t have everything, rushing inefficiently to several different stores, and then making a huge mess in the kitchen because I didn’t have time to clean as I went. Don’t get in your own way.
3. How? Set yourself up for success. If you find recipes daunting, take it one step at a time. Go grocery shopping Friday – then double check that you have everything. Maybe do your prep work on Saturday: roast squash or vegetables, chop onions, celery, and carrots for soup, or even wash and dry lettuce for your salad the next day. On Sunday, take your time cooking or baking– play some tunes, call a friend over for moral support/dishes assistance, and take it one step at a time. Just break it down into mini goals and manageable pieces. Start small, think big.
4. Plan ahead. But what about when it is midweek and you don’t have the time? Use staple recipes, or very simple ones. Chop ingredients Sunday night so you can make stir frys quickly at the beginning of the week. The same goes for having a healthy lunch. Rushed in the morning? Pack it the night before. It will save your kitchen from looking like this in the morning.
5. I also don’t like doing the dishes. At all. And I usually make a big mess in the kitchen. My comedian of a brother even made a song about it once, set to “Matchmaker, Matchmaker” from The Fiddler on the Roof. So clean as you go ~ don’t leave a big mess for yourself to face at the end of the meal.
6. Maybe it isn’t as bad as you think. Things won’t always go the way you want to – when I experiment with recipes the outcome is often not what I desired. But I like really strong flavors, and often my dinner guests tell me it is really good and they genuinely seem to enjoy it. Don’t get too worked up about things – it isn’t the end of the world if your soufflé flops or your carrots are cut in a dice rather than julienne. Laugh it off and try again. I remember I tried to make a “fruit brownie” (it worked in my head, but in practice brownies without chocolate? What was I thinking) and I didn’t think it would be very popular. I brought it to my cousin’s snowmobile race and they guys loved it! I believe “out of this world” was the phrase used. I agree, it was an alien brownie.
Another time, I spent an entire morning making donuts on a whim, and coercing my flat mates to help make them too. When it finally came to fry them, I couldn’t get the oil temperature right. I was tired, covered in flour, and in desperate need of a shower and non-carby food – all of the sudden it seemed like an incredible responsibility to be group donut leader and I felt horrible for letting every one down and failing. I was ready to give up and throw in the towel, but a dear friend convinced me that, hey, it wasn’t the end of the world, people would still be my friends sans donuts, and, most importantly, to give it one more try. We finally figured out the oil situation, and they were the best donuts we had ever made. Don’t give up! You can do it. I believe in you. Sincerely. I want you to love being in the kitchen as much as I do, creating wholesome food that will make you feel your best.
7. Ask questions – talk to bloggers, produce workers, butchers, farmers, pot luck hosters, your dad, your Grandma, your rabbi’s cousin – there are people out there who want to help you. I’m one of them! All you’ve got to do is take the initiative. Choose to be in control, intend to create great food, and share with others. I want to hear your success stories! I don’t care if it is making a smoothie or peeling a kiwi. If you conquered your fear of the kitchen, share with us and help others do the same!
I’ll be sure to keep posting both successful recipes and flop stories in the future. Until then, happy experimenting!
Need more help?
Find a mentor – and check out my blogroll for awesome websites!
Stop procrastinating (not just in cooking but in life!)
How to fix 17 Basic Cooking Mistakes : I wish I would have had seen #11 five years ago!
Jump on the healthy cooking train! More American families are cooking than we thought, and Mark Bittman can show you how to do it simply. The man isn’t called the Minimalist for nought!