Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Cooking School

Growing up, I had zero interest in cooking. I never lingered in the kitchen just to watch my mom cook. I never asked her how she made things. I never offered to help out. The only thing I ever created in the kitchen was cupcakes straight from the box because it was something I liked and my mom wouldn't make.

My mom cooked my family a homemade dinner every single day. With the exception of the occasional pizza, we rarely went out to dinner at a restaurant or had take-out. Now, that's something I appreciated. When I moved to New York City seven years ago, I did not know one thing about cooking, but the idea of having a home cooked meal on a regular basis was imperative. I had no choice, I had to learn how to cook.

I began by cooking like my mother, roasting chicken legs, mashing potatoes, boiling string beans, using easy recipes she found for me on the Internet. I purchased Mark Bittman's How To Cook Everything, which I used as a reference guide.

It seemed strange to my roommates Meagan and Julie that I would come to home after a stressful day at work to crank out a big dinner. They usually whipped together something quick and whatever I was doing seemed like a lot of extra work. Sometimes I did not feel like cooking, but after a while, I began to notice how it relaxed me after a workday. Through the chopping, the seasoning, the sauteing, the mixing, the stresses of my day eased away and it become a pleasure to concentrate at the tasks at hand, be in the moment and create something from scratch.

It was my subscription to Martha Stewart's Everyday Food magazine that really taught me the ropes about cooking and baking and veered my repertoire in a different direction from the food I grew up eating. Don't get me wrong, I still love my mom's Polish-American food. But I usually cook Italian, Chinese, Mexican, and traditional/contemporary American cuisine.

For the last few years, I try (but don't always succeed) to cook dinner about four to five nights a week, taking recipes from Everyday Food,
Martha Stewart Living, Bon Appetit, my cookbooks and the Internet. I try to make new meals regularly, but I definitely have things I make over and over because it's easy. I do love restaurants and take-out, so we indulge in that on the weekends or when out with friends or when I am lazy. I like to bake from time to time, often bringing my baked goods to parties and gatherings.

It's kind of amusing to me that I have become the known "cook/baker" out of my group of friends. I still recall the day not so long ago when my mom and sister were laughing at me struggling to slice fruit for a fruit salad. I still feel like I am very much a beginner, and I have so much more to learn. I am still a recipe follower and don't have much confidence to create new dishes on my own.

I was in yoga class the other day and a student was asking the instructor how she could become a better yogi. The instructor simply said "Practice. Just keep practicing. Keep doing it more and more and eventually you will become better." It was simple advice but it struck me. There are many things in my life that I would like to be good at and really, when it comes down to it, all you have to do is practice.

With this in mind, I have decided that I want to become a better cook and baker, and so I am going to start practicing on a regular basis. I am taking it upon myself to really teach myself how to cook well, delve into the basics, try things that scare me, hone my skills, perfect my technique. My goal is to gain more confidence in the kitchen and come to a point where I can create my own recipes.

Because I love Martha, I have decided to use two of her books as my text books: Martha Stewart's Cooking School and Martha Stewart Baking Handbook. These two books will be my guide and curriculum, but I do plan to use other cookbooks and sources, too, where appropriate. My goal is to practice once or twice a week. (And no, this is not a Martha version of the Julie/Julia Project. This is more about practicing cooking rather than cooking every single recipe in a book for the sake of doing it. This can go nowhere or it can go anywhere. There are no rules.)

My first lesson today was making basic chicken stock. Usually I just buy chicken stock in a can, which I know from reading countless food magazines and cookbooks, is not a good substitute for the home made stuff. I have attempted making stock before. You just slice up some carrots, celery and onions, throw it in a pot with some chicken parts and water, and season with with pepper and a bay leaf and let it simmer for a long, long time scooping up the fat once in a while. It's not hard, just time consuming, a nice way to spend a Tuesday, a good first class.

I will blog about my cooking school from time to time, but you can watch my progress on my Flickr set.


Willytheprince said...

So fun. You didn't mention your cooking class to me! FUN

Ampelhead said...

This is very admirable, and I look forward to your food posts!