Learning To Love To Cook

Growing up, I was never much of a cook. While my sister whiled away the hours making her famous “rock” cakes (we dubbed them “rock” because they were as hard as one, but bless her she kept trying) I spent my time doing other things.

I guess I did have one specialty– fudge. I used the recipe from the red Betty Crocker cookbook and, since we didn’t own a candy thermometer, I winged it. The result was a buttery, sugar-laden product that somewhat resembled fudge. Sometimes it came out the right consistency, other times not, but it was the one thing I kind of knew how to make, regardless.

Growing up in a large family in the 70’s, we didn’t have a refrigerator full of snacks and junk. The only cereals in the pantry were Cheerios, Corn Flakes and Wheaties and snacks consisted of apples and oranges. I suspect this is why my sister liked to make cakes and I liked to make fudge–it was our sweet tooth talking.

Still, we certainly didn’t starve. My mother made a roast chicken and rice every Sunday, and we had homemade meatballs and spaghetti at least once a week. Vegetables and a starch were served with every meal and everything was made from scratch– pancakes, mashed potatoes, spaghetti sauce–my mother didn’t believe in boxed mixes or jarred sauces.

When my mother began working nights, my dad sometimes made dinner. I still have memories of eating tomato soup and black beans and rice. Dad’s other specialty, the Cuban dish piccadilo, consisted of browned ground beef and olives (I think he needed a good Cuban cookbook to get the recipe right). I thought black beans were the grossest thing on earth and I refused to eat them.

When I was first married in the early 1980’s, I still didn’t know how to cook. My husband and I dined on hotdogs just about every night, with the occasional pizza-ordering thrown in for good measure. We sure loved those hotdogs, especially those cheese-filled Oscar Mayer ones, and we had the pizza delivery place on our telephone speed dial. Our weekly trips to the grocery store took all of 5 minutes.

By about 1986 I realized that we could really use a good meal. On a rainy Sunday afternoon, I had an epiphany: I would cook dinner. I dashed off to the store and bought all of the ingredients to make a homemade Italian meal– spaghetti, meatballs, garlic bread and salad. I went home and looked through the red Betty Crocker cookbook that I had pilfered from my mom. I wasn’t ready to brave homemade pasta sauce so I used a jar of Ragu instead. I followed the meatball recipe almost to a tee, although I may have been short one or two ingredients (I didn’t know that garlic was a staple in every Italian kitchen). And the meal turned out… okay. It was better than hotdogs, at least. But I realized I had a lot to learn about cooking.

From that point on, I was determined to teach myself how to cook. The next dish I tackled was chicken divan, a chicken-broccoli-cream of chicken soup- cheese covered casserole recipe given to me by an old neighborhood friend. After a few attempts, my chicken divan was actually edible– so much so that my mother in law asked me for the recipe. I’ll top that– when my husband left me for another woman, he actually called to ask me for my chicken divan recipe– so he could make it for her! Being the kind hearted person that I am, I gave him the recipe, but I bet mine still tasted better.

Over time, I developed a knack for cooking. I started buying cookbooks and racked up quite a collection— Italian cookbooks, French cookbooks, Martha Stewarts “Menus for Entertaining” (a life-changing book, in my opinion), and all of Ina Garten’s Barefoot Contessa cookbooks.

Determined to make meatballs like my grandmother’s, I watched her prepare them one day and learned a few secrets: lots of parsley and parmesan cheese mixed into the ground beef mixture. And most importantly– I learned to brown the meatballs in some olive oil and vegetable oil mix or any other blend you love, then let them simmer in a pot of spaghetti sauce all day long.

Now, years later, I have developed a knack for cooking and have a few of my own specialties. I can whip up a roast chicken with lemon and garlic in a snap and my guacamole is to die for. And I make some mean black beans– yes, black beans, the things I swore I would never eat– I make them with garlic, cumin, and tomatoes and they’re divine.

The Food Network is my new guilty pleasure and even my pre-school aged daughter knows who Emeril and Ina are. Not only does The Food Network offer excellent cooking shows, but their companion website is a quick way to access the featured recipes–no more jotting recipes down while you’re watching the show. Any beginning cook should utilize television cooking shows– it’s a great way to learn and it sure helped me.

In fact, I’m so confident of my cooking that I host Thanksgiving dinner for my husband’s family every year (I remarried after the chicken divan guy). I spend hours pouring over cooking magazines and the Internet to come up with the perfect Thanksgiving menu– turkey, corn bread stuffing, sweet yams with marshmallows, cheesy mashed potatoes, green beans with onions, corn soufflé, etc. Every year I rotate the recipes and add in some new ones (Bon Appetit magazine’s November issue is always chock full of Thanksgiving menus and recipes).

Final Words

I’m still not much of a baker (I use the local bakery for that), but remember my sister who used to make the rock cakes? Well, she’s the best baker in the family now– whipping up cheesecakes and decadent chocolate desserts like there’s no tomorrow. Which just goes to show, that practice really does make perfect.

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