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Mad Scientess Jane Expat

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On cooking [20150402|13:12]
Mad Scientess Jane Expat
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[the weather today is |tired]

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.

  1. Grilled cheese sandwiches
  2. Pasta with some form of ready-made sauce
  3. 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.

This entry was originally posted at http://nanila.dreamwidth.org/968808.html. The titration count is at comment count unavailable.0 pKa.

[User Picture]From: againstathorn
2015-04-02 15:43 (UTC)
Nice read, and I can identify. Actually, your first two to-go items are what I usually end up preparing for Colin when my wife is away. Sometimes for the grilled cheese I'll cook with butter instead of olive oil, just so it's extra tasty.

My god. Kids eat so much, and keeping them fed is a monumental task. Colin once shovled lasagna into his both using both hands, and he just went on and on and on.
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[User Picture]From: nanila
2015-04-10 10:34 (UTC)
You know, it never occurred to me to try making grilled cheese with olive oil instead of butter. I'm going to have to try it!

They eat so much, and yet they're also so picky. I can spend ages making something adults think is really nice and our kids won't touch it, so I have to make plain pasta and peas for them instead. /o\
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[User Picture]From: nanila
2015-04-10 10:35 (UTC)
...and yet there are also times when I'm completely shocked at what Humuhumu will eat. She's totally unfazed by really spicy dishes.
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[User Picture]From: dylsexia
2015-04-02 18:07 (UTC)
Hurrah! Congratulations on fighting the fear of cooking!

I think your observation that the fundamental elements of dishes tend to often be the same is a great step forward.

Learning to cook staples and staple components well is the most important fundamental to cooking well.

I like my steak medium rare -- I cook it with a knob of butter over medium-high heat for 4 minutes a side, typically the only preparation I need for it is to pat it on both sides with seasoning salt (a mix of paprika, salt, onion, garlic and a few other spices dependent upon brand.)

I prefer chicken thigh over chicken breast (I want to start cooking whole chickens soon, but haven't found the time)-- depending upon the dish I either batter it (seasoned flour and then egg and then seasoned bread crumbs) or I leave it fairly as is. If I'm cooking on the stove top I cook it over medium heat for 8 minutes a side. If I don't batter it, it's typically with onions and garlic, or a component of a dish that I need fairly plain chicken. Or it is in the oven at 350 degrees F for 40 minutes.

Battered chicken is good by itself. Or as a component in Balsamic chicken. Or as the basis of a sandwich. Or a chicken burrito. Or anything else I fancy with cooked chicken in it. My dad has a recipe for chicken wings that is made with similar components to tom-yum soup that is absolutely brilliant.

Fish is similar to chicken but soak in milk to remove the fish odour and substitute corn starch for flour.

There's a great variation on the garlic and onions theme that is a component of many French dishes -- onions and celery and carrots (with garlic, of course.) It is wonderfully fragrant and a great base for any dish.

But, the single greatest piece of advice I have ever heard about cooking is, "cook with what you like to eat." I dislike the taste of rosemary. I rarely cook with it.

The better you get at cooking one thing -- the better you are at cooking all the things that are exactly like it except different in that one simple way. It is a wonderfully modular exercise.

And crepes are beautifully easy -- 1 cup flour. 1.5 cups milk. 2 eggs. 1 tbsp sugar (or to taste). 1-2 tbsp oil.

But I am very glad to hear that you (and the bloke) have the confidence to feed and cook with/for your family. Cooking with and eating dinner with my family was such a core component of my childhood and I think, sadly, one of the first things most people let fall by the wayside when we are dreadfully busy.
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[User Picture]From: nanila
2015-04-10 10:45 (UTC)
Thank you! \o/

I tend to roast whole chickens, as Sunday roasts are a bit of a thing here. Once the chicken is stripped it's so useful. I shall have to try battering it.

Crepes and omelettes are staple "Emergency, emergency, everyone is hungry and there's nothing to eat" food in this house. I've not tried adding sugar - I'm sure Humuhumu will approve.
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[User Picture]From: mysterysquid
2015-04-03 03:15 (UTC)
I really don't enjoy cooking. I have friends who love it, which is great, but I wish one of my wife or I had gotten that gene...

Also, I'm with you on the rice. :)
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[User Picture]From: nanila
2015-04-10 10:47 (UTC)
The bloke loves cooking, but he also loves spending five hours making either one incredibly complex thing or a whole bunch of dishes for a feast, which he doesn't often have time or energy for with the kiddies around. :/

Hurrah for rice!
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[User Picture]From: nimoloth
2015-04-05 21:16 (UTC)
I have to do all the cooking these days - Gordon usually gets home too late. Sometimes I am all inspired and plan out the week's meals and shop accordingly, other weeks I can' the bothered with food and wing it. Thomas has at least got over his "don't make dinner Mummy!" meltdown phase (mostly). But he pretty much doesn't eat 95% of what I make :/.
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[User Picture]From: nanila
2015-04-10 10:50 (UTC)
I've found that doing a weekly grocery order makes it easier to cook at times when I don't feel inspired because I have a vague plan for what we'll eat during the week, especially once I've chosen the roast. I know I pay over the odds for groceries, but I figure if it helps, I should carry on doing it.

Humuhumu often refuses to eat what I've made. I try not to take it too personally, but it does make me sad. Some of it is that she eats quite a lot at nursery (more out of a sense of competition than actual hunger, I suspect), since she more frequently eats her supper when she's spent the day at home.
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