Mad Scientess Jane Expat
Since having children, a slow but quiet revolution has been occurring in my domestic habits.
I've always been a tidy person, so keeping beds made, laundry done and put away, and kitchen sink clear were never a problem. My major stumbling block has always been getting dinner on the table*.
I knew how to cook well enough to survive graduate school, which, I'll grant you, isn't a high benchmark. I subsisted largely on three "dishes", which were as follows.
- Grilled cheese sandwiches
- Pasta with some form of ready-made sauce
- A plate of steamed rice, vegetables, and grilled fish
As I was generally only cooking for one person, me, this worked out just fine. I could also nip over the road to Baja Fresh or Whole Foods for cheap fish tacos or ready-made organic macrobiotic somethingorother that I assumed was probably good for me.
I liked baking and would occasionally make a chocolate cake, banana bread, or chocolate chip cookies. But I rarely deviated from these, mostly out of fear. This fear, I've determined, had several components, which I've gradually overcome.
Fear #1: Too many ingredients. When faced with a recipe on which the ingredient list ran past ten items, my mind would freeze up. It wasn't until I started cooking daily that I realised most (British) dishes are essentially a variation on meat, carrots, green vegetable and potatoes. (I tend to substitute rice for potatoes unless the potatoes are mashed, but that's because I grew up eating rice and still find whole or chopped potatoes relatively unappealing.) Making a roast on Sunday, particularly a roast chicken, means you have the "meat" part sorted for the rest of the week once you've stripped the chicken or chopped up the leftovers. Also, most baked goods, including bread products of all types from standard white loaves to crumpets, are essentially comprised of flour, butter, eggs, yeast, milk and sugar in varying proportions. And finally, making your own sauces to put on things, whether it's pasta, rice or potatoes, generally has the same set of steps: fry garlic & onions, add tin of tomatoes/beans, add pepper and salt, chuck in chopped vegetables, add prawns/chicken/leftover roast and swish round until it's all warm.
These things are probably blindingly obvious to a lot of people who have grown up being decent cooks, but honestly, they were revelations to me. There's also the gulf between theory and practice. Even if I'd been told the above, I don't think I'd have properly understood it until I had the experience I have now.
Fear #2: Not possessing the correct ingredients. If I looked at a recipe and saw there was even a single item that I didn't have in the refrigerator or the spice cupboard, it was usually enough to put me off making it. Overcoming this fear evolved in parallel with the previous one, as I started to realise that the fundamental elements of dishes are often the same. Of course if you're looking at a chicken and leek pie and you have neither a chicken nor leeks, that's probably a non-starter. But, for example, I decided to make a simnel cake to take to the bloke's parents' for Easter this weekend. I found a recipe. I didn't have glace cherries, candied peel or currants. But I did have pitted dates, chopped dried apricot and raisins. So I forged ahead with the substitution, and the resulting cake seems to be edible, although I imagine the liberal application of marzipan probably helps with that as well. Anyway, my point is, three years ago I would have given up after reading the recipe, and instead now I've got a nice homemade cake to contribute to the Easter celebration. Plus, Humuhumu will enjoy helping me decorate it with more marzipan when it's time to eat it.
Fear #3: Getting the timings wrong. Since I've never been a skilled cook, I've always assumed that it would take me at least an hour and a half to prepare a meal from scratch. It also made me very nervous to have more than one burner going on the hob, not to mention the oven going at the same time. I often had to make one or two elements of a meal sequentially instead of simultaneously. I'm now much better at chopping things up and my preparation time has decreased considerably, as well as being able to manage multiple pots without panicking. Frankly, there was no single moment that marked overcoming this fear. It just took a lot of practise. There were many burnt or undercooked items that suffered the consequences of my ineptitude.
The acquisition of a slow cooker a couple of years ago marked an uptick in my cooking repertoire. In the morning, I could spend half an hour chopping up a bunch of stuff, adding liquid (particularly leftover wine or beer), turning it on low heat, ending up with something delicious at the end of it and having enough left over for the week's lunches or another supper. It was a monumental discovery, and I probably inflicted a few too many stews and chilli dishes on the bloke and Humuhumu before calming down. It also means that there are portions of these in the freezer for the times when we are sick or busy or tired and can't muster energy to make something fresh. This is a level of preparedness I'd never aspired to, let alone believed I could achieve.
Fear #4: Spoiling the dish. When cooking for myself, it was never a problem if, say, I accidentally burnt my last piece of toast and had instead to go to the noodle restaurant and get myself some pho instead. With two other people to feed, one of whom is in no state to be in a restaurant past 6:30 PM, getting it wrong is more of a problem. Naturally it's going to happen sometimes. Things will get overdone, taste bad, or turn out to be so far past expiry that they render a dish unfit for human consumption. And thus, you get out the frozen pizza, or you have porridge for supper. It's funny how terrible the fear of doing this was until it actually happened. As we munched on iced lollies, I let go of it.
I'm hardly ready to become a contestant on Masterchef, nor would I ever want to be, but it's nice to have the confidence to feed myself and my family regularly and well, and to cook with my children. It's an accomplishment worth celebrating. I've put a lot of effort into it and largely failed to acknowledge its success to myself. So this is me, patting myself on the back, for coming along as far as I have.
* Please note that when we're both working, the bloke and I share this responsibility equally. I really wish I didn't have to spell this out explicitly, but I fear that the automatic assumption would be that I always do the cooking when in fact for most of the relationship until now the opposite has been true.
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