Have you ever had one of those “a-ha!” moments about your own psyche that gives you an unusual view into the workings of your own personality, as if a small window into your brain suddenly unshuttered itself and allowed you a rare view of how you work? I seem to experience more of these over the past few years and each time I’m struck by not only the revelation itself, but also the feeling that I should have known — and was perhaps on the verge of knowing — this about myself for some time.
Take, for example, my recent realization about cooking.
Specifically, I (finally) realized that I do not actually detest cooking in spite of the fact that I have spent years believing I like cooking about as much as I like cleaning litterboxes, getting lost while driving or going to a sports bar. Cooking, in my life, has long been a necessary evil, something I wished I could perpetually pay someone else to do for me. For years I tried to make the best of my dislike. I theorized I just didn’t know enough about cooking, wasn’t good enough at it, hadn’t yet amassed enough years of experience to have learned to like it. This theory prompted me to purchase cookbooks, search the internet for recipes, doubtfully request cooking tips from friends.
My tastes have often danced in the domain of gourmet vegetarian, but I found the recipes with 36 ingredients (many of which must be purchased at this or that speciality or ethnic store), requiring 18 distinct steps and a combination of 27 dishes and utensils (including a few I had never heard of and would probably never use again) to prepare intimidated and frustrated me. I could read one such recipe, lose all nerve and motivation and shamefully admit defeat by cooking some pasta and drenching it in a jar of pre-fab marinara.
Okay, I thought, I need to curb my tastes to accommodate my present skill set, patience and supplies. Cue more cookbook purchases, more internet recipe searches. Entering the least intimidating and quickest of these into my gorgeous and friendly recipe software (Now You’re Cooking). Categorizing all of the ingredients, generating an item-by-aisle shopping list and trying this again… Simpler recipes certainly made cooking easier, physically speaking, at any rate. And recipes with short (15-45 minute) prep and cook times satisfied my desire to be in the kitchen for as little time as possible. Limiting my grocery shopping to no more than one grocery store decreased the onerous nature of shopping for ingredients.
Yet, still…I HATED cooking. No, really. It took a tremendous effort to convince myself to shop, prepare, cook. My overwhelming disinclination to perform each of these steps lead me to associate with each of these suffer, agonize, writhe. In spite of what I felt were my best efforts, I had not yet succeeded in even abide, tolerate, acquiesce.
Incidentally, I have always resented authority.
Though I am oddly willing — even delighted — to anticipate and proactively meet the needs and expectations of others (making me quite popular with my clients), I bristle and bridle over being asked to do something. That said, my self-control and desire for income preservation are sufficiently strong that others rarely find this out about me. Rob is certainly aware of my, ahem, feature, but I’m not generally known in the circles through which I frequently pass as “that issue girl who constantly rebels against authority.” I keep THAT girl tightly inside, locked in a little cubical room, smacking violently from wall to wall like a self-propelled super ball. She rarely escapes, and when she does, I’m quick to retrieve and re-imprison her while cleaning up the devastation she left in her wake, apologetically offering excuses for my (her) extreme behavior.
But what on earth does this have to do with cooking?
This summer while Rob was out of work and after he had been diagnosed with extremely high cholesterol and triglycerides, I realized I would have to spend significantly more time cooking because our budget and his health couldn’t afford for us to eat out nearly so often. I largely tried to ignore my feelings of being abandoned by the life boat of restaurants and focused on a this “opportunity” to try cooking with new and different ingredients, including the meat substitutes I had largely avoided foisting on my family (I’m the vegetarian, so why should they suffer through nearly unpalatable fake meats? Vegetarianism is my choice, not theirs).
Predictably, I bought another cookbook. I performed more internet searches for yet more recipes.
Our friend Jason has been, for years now, encouraging me to try Quorn meat substitutes. I had tried the somewhat turkeyish flavored loaf-like product, serving it with buttery mashed potatoes, green beans, buttered croissants and vegetarian mushroom gravy. Rob and the kids ate it without complaint, but I would have to eliminate the mashed potatoes, butter and croissants (i.e., the yummiest parts of this meal) given Rob’s dietary restrictions.
A search of the Quorn website yielded little in the way of recipes I wanted to — and felt I could– manage. So I resorted to something I could handle: Chinese stir fry with Quorn chickenish chunks. I didn’t even need a recipe to prepare this meal, but we couldn’t eat it every night. Next I tried substituting fake chicken for pasta in some of the recipes I already knew, and this lead me to experiment with what was essentially Italian stir fry. Oddly I wasn’t minding this cooking much at all. Again no complaints, but we were all getting the slightest bit tired of stir fry of one flavor or another.
Slowly, as I began to trust this new fake meat product, I wondered how it would fare in traditional chicken recipes. What about cinnamon chicken, orange chicken, chicken and rice with cream of mushroom soup or curry chicken? I searched for more recipes, this time real chicken recipes, but I noticed something interesting: the very thought of following a recipe brought back the old bristling and bridling. Yet, if I could find answers to specific questions (what other standard ingredients appear in orange chicken recipes? How is coconut rice made? How much rosemary is added to a pound of rosemary fake-chicken? Do you need to dip fake chicken in egg before breading it in light cinnamon breading?), I could scrap the recipes and trust my own developed/developing cooking instincts. And, shockingly, I actually enjoy this new cooking method where I creatively combine ingredients without the safe — and stifling and dominating — presence of an official recipe.
Holy shit! I don’t hate cooking; I hate following instructions.
Since this realization I have been in the process of refining how I cook. I’m not the least bit inclined to purchase cookbooks. I found a great site with lots of trustworthy chicken recipes (RealSimple.com) and most of the recipes take significantly less time to prepare when substituting Quorn (though the olive oil or other cooking oil must generally be increased to avoid burning the fake chicken). Sometimes I follow a recipe (…mostly) to prepare something I’ve never cooked before, but for the most part I use the recipes to find out what spices combine well together in cultural foods with which I’m not very familiar, or to identify rough baking temperatures and times or preparation methods of new ingredients.
Honestly? Questioning authority has served me well throughout my life. Questioning cooking authority has been no different, and my approach is the same: find the elements of the authoritative direction that are beneficial or must be adhered to in order to avoid problems and rely on myself for the rest.