Twelve years ago, or thereabouts, I decided to learn to cook.
It didn’t go well.
I’d been living in a basement with no real kitchen. I had a little hotplate, a refrigerator, and a microwave, but we mostly lived on bread, cheese, fruit and yogurt. I’d cook the occasional meal, but pasta with grated cheese sprinkled on it counted as a meal to me. But I’d moved into an apartment with a real kitchen and I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life needing to go out to restaurants to get a decent meal.
So I experimented a lot, but I followed recipes precisely. I made shopping lists and bought ingredients and made fancy concoctions like pork chops with a cherry Marsala glaze. That was delicious, by the way, which is why I still remember it, but R won’t eat pork, so it was also frustrating. I tried to make eggs benedict, which meant learning to poach eggs first — so much harder than it sounds — and then making hollandaise sauce. I gave up on that one. I made innumerable pasta sauces, most of them mediocre, and I tried to master making decent rice, but failed. (R makes rice when we want it and has since he was 8.)
Still, eventually, I finally developed a little repertoire of foods I could make and consistently expect to turn out well: stir-fried beef with spinach, meat loaf, chicken piccata. And I kept trying. I mastered holiday meals — cranberry sauce is by far the most fun, but I can pull together a basic Thanksgiving dinner with a few interesting elements without stress or fear. Eventually, I became someone who liked to cook.
Not a cook, though. I didn’t know what the difference was but I knew there was one. I wasn’t a cook, just a person who knew how to make a few meals.
Yesterday, I made my way to the kitchen around noon, hungry and feeling grumpy for no real reason. I opened the fridge door. Nothing to eat. Sigh. We have apples but they have that squishiness of fruit that was frozen or has sat for too long. Yogurt, but it was Greek and I wasn’t in the mood for the tang. I thought about nuking a hotdog, but both the buns and the hotdogs were frozen. But there was a big thing of leftover cold spaghetti, no sauce.
I pulled it out. Not much, but it was food. Did I want to eat it cold or nuke it? Then it occurred to me that I could saute it to heat it up, like turning leftover rice into stir-fried rice. That’d be interesting, and give it a little more flavor. Olive oil? No, I didn’t want to be able to taste the oil. I don’t like fried rice made with olive oil, so I pulled out the canola and put a little in a pan and started it warming, then started rummaging through the drawers. No garlic, I really need to pick some up. No ginger, no surprise. A red onion, though. I chopped up a little red onion, tossed it into the pan.
When I went to put the oil back into the fridge, I had to shift a few things around to angle the bottle just right. Ouch, leftover veggies from the tray at the wedding reception. Those wouldn’t be in good shape, I knew, and they’re weren’t, with edges brown and carrots dried and white. I picked through them, anyway, chopping off the bad bits and pulling out some broccoli, cauliflower and cherry tomatoes. Threw those in the pan, too, and pitched the rest.
And then I was starting to feel creative. I’ve made pad thai before, but I didn’t have anywhere near the right ingredients. I did have cilantro, green onions and lime, though. I pulled those out. And an egg, because even though I have no idea why you need to add a scrambled egg to stir-fried rice, it tastes better when you do. And then I grabbed the srirachi bottle. Perhaps I’d test our theory that everything tastes better with a little srirachi. (It is an awesome ingredient to add to homemade chicken soup, incidentally.)
Ten minutes later, I was eating lunch. It was yummy. So good that I wish there were leftovers so I could have them for breakfast.
I think I might just be a cook.