Learning to Cook, Part 2

Determined to never again serve “booger food”, I searched out recipes for healthy side dishes.  I collected piles of recipes from magazine, the newspaper and the internet.  We lived close to an historic farmer’s market, which I jogged to a few times a week in search of food.  The Market is one of my favorite places in the city – I salivated over plump blueberries, gorgeous bouquets, and perfectly fresh salmon.  I’d fill my backpack with food – whatever the recipe called for – and powerwalk up the long hill home.

One week, an advertisement in a weekly alternative newspaper caught my eye.  It was a coupon for a new organic produce delivery.  I was into organic food – mostly for environmental reasons – and decided to take advantage of the deal.  Every other week a box of assorted fruits and veggies would arrive to our building.  I had some room to substitute certain items, but for the most part, the weekly delivery was a grab bag.  In other words, exciting!

I encountered foods I already loved and many I’d never had before:  kale, beets, winter squash, blood oranges.   Our produce came with explanatory notes, storage tips and recipes.  The company was aware that most of their customers were, like me, unfamiliar with how to prepare, cook, and store real food (e.g.: carrot tops should be removed before you put them in the fridge; otherwise they’ll get floppy).  I learned that beets were better peeled after they’re cooked.  (Not to mention crazy delicious – nothing like the weird canned beets of salad bar notoriety.)  Pumpkin pie could be made from, get this, actual pumpkins!  It was a treat to be have all this goodness delivered, but also a challenge to figure out how to use it before it spoiled.  Lucky for me, I work best under pressure.

With my fridge full of fresh food, I sought out recipes and found some favorites.  As I’d always known, I loved to cook.  And there wasn’t much to it:  just follow recipes.  Some recipes, I noticed, gave some flexibility:  salads, stir fries, fruit-filled baked goods.  I normally resisted substitutions (it made me nervous), but realizing there was a framework to work within allowed me to break free and utilize both my creativity and the local bounty.  I started to see that recipes were based on formulas.  Once you learn what tastes great together, what takes the same amount of time to cook, you can use what you have or crave to create something unique.  I slowly developed a repertoire.  Our meals were still skimpy on the protein.  I relied on boneless, skinless chicken breasts  (BSCBs), tofu, and salmon, mostly.

By studying recipes, learning to cook whole foods (eschewing things in packaging, using fresh produce), and tentatively testing the waters of substitution, my cooking skills improved.  My first Thanksgiving as a wife was a blast.  Determined to serve all the holiday dishes we’d both grown up with (I in the South, he in New England), I cooked an even more ridiculous amount of food than I would have otherwise.

Clockwise from Top: Dirty Rice, Oyster Dressing, Mashed Potatoes, Pumpkin Pie, Green Bean Casserole, Asparagus Casserole, Sweet Potato Patties, Cranberry Sauce. Center: Roast Turkey Breast, Yeast Rolls. To Drink: Honey Mead, San Pellegrino, Some Sort of Red Wine

That’s for two people, folks.  I cooked all day.  I cooked so much (for P.F. and I) that he had to plug in a mini-fridge for all the leftovers.

My interest in organic agriculture led to an awareness of local, seasonal eating.  I am still amazed at how long I’d been eating, cooking, and caring about the environment before I realized that enjoying strawberries in January wasn’t natural.   A book I came to love,Simply in Season, became indispensable.  A Farmer’s Market opened in our neighborhood (we’d bought a house) and I realized it was my favorite place on earth.  I experimented with canning and preserving food, first turning the wild blackberries that grow on any vacant space here into jam.  I made just about every kind of fruit cobbler, pie, and sweet bread you can imagine.  Baking became my specialty.  A friend who baked bread regularly, encouraged me to make bread-baking a weekly occurance.  It really didn’t take much time and kneading felt good.

I bought a lot of tofu.  We probably had tofu and multi-vegetable stir fry once a week.  This is due, mostly, to my continuing trouble with meat.  I don’t know what was so intimidating about it.  It just seemed too easy to mess up.  Too bloody.  Tofu was easy.  And crazy-healthy, I thought.  I cooked meat on holidays (turkey, duck) and steak for Dave’s birthday.  Eventually, salmon became a frequent treat.  That was as easy as BSCB’s, except quicker and much tastier.

We’d been doing a lot of reading about sustainable, simple living.  The DIY aspect of growing and cooking one’s food appealed to me.  I often thought, “How can I make this myself?”, “How can we skip the packaging?”  We turned our rocky, tiny yard into a rocky, tiny garden.  I started out with a potted cherry tomato plant, but soon (as I am wont to do) planted every square foot.  It was (and is) too shaded, and rarely produced more than snack-sized servings, but I wanted to make the most of what we had. I absolutely relish the chances I have to dig in the dirt.  To put tiny seeds in the ground and harvest actual food as a result never ceases to seem miraculous.

Wanting to ensure goodness for The Boy, who’d come along by then, I took on the task of making his first foods.  Now that a growing little person was dependent on me to provide good stuff for him to grow on, I got even more serious.  Eventually, PH bought me a grain grinder for my birthday.  Obviously, milling one’s own flour is crossing some sort of threshold into health nut/survivalist territory.  I was into the arm workout, too (it’s human-powered).

I thought I had pretty much fully evolved as the family cook.  I cooked mostly local, organic foods for my family.  I was a sucker for sweet baked treats, but kept things low fat for the most part.  In mid-2009, I was hit with another paradigm shift about eating and cooking.  In Part 3, I’ll share how a cookbook recommended by my midwife blew my mind.

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