Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Kitchen Catastrophic

It is a great sadness in my life that I am not a good cook. It's not that I'm terrible (though really, cooking is a bit subjective, yes? So some people may think I'm a terrible cook. No fair talking to my in-laws, though.) I definitely lack any sort of talent for the preparing of food.

Thing is, I love to cook. I truly love it. I love reading the recipe, looking at the photo, going to the store and buying the ingredients (especially if the monsters are not with me), getting out the pots, even the chopping. The whole process of it: the way you start with a clean kitchen, then get it completely filthy, and then get it clean again. The way you start with these simple ingredients--peppers, onion, mushrooms--and end up with a completely different animal--vegetarian chili.

When I was pregnant with Isaac, many things went wrong. The icing on the cake (as it were) was that 10 weeks before my due date, the doctor diagnosed me with low amniotic fluid. This led to almost daily ultrasounds, and also to bed-rest. For 10 weeks, I had to lie on my side and drink lots of water, making sure not to put any stress on my body by doing anything, not even something as simple as laundry. The highlight of my life at that time was the twice-weekly visit to the ultrasound tech. This was in the days before TiVo, not to mention the days before kids, and, not being a soap-opera fan, I quickly became bored. For the first few weeks I read a lot, but eventually I turned to television. One day when I just couldn't bear another Magnum P.I. re-run, I channel surfed and landed on The Food Network.

Up to this time in my life I had not been much of a cook. I didn't hate cooking, I just never did it. As a single person I was blessed to live with roommates who were wonderful cooks (you remember Heidi, right?) and I also lived in San Francisco. You know, the foodie capital of the world. Why cook when fabulous food was within walking distance whenever I wanted it? When Lance and I married, none of this changed. We went out to eat all the time, and if we stayed home we just snacked. Chips and salsa, cheese and crackers, quesedillas, hummus and baba ganoush from the deli down the street. Or we ordered: Thai, pizza, Chinese, Italian--all of it was available at the push of a button. Even when we moved to LA and settled down a bit, we rarely cooked. Occasionally Lance or I would try something out, but it's hard to cook for two people: you always have leftovers for weeks!

Since cooking was never something I cared about, landing--and staying--on The Food Network that day was definitely out of the ordinary. I don't remember what was playing that day, though I'm sure it was a recipe show (does anyone really watch those other shows? Like Unwrapped?). Whatever it was, it held my interest, and soon I was watching The Food Network every afternoon. This is the time period (December 2002) when Rachel Ray was just gaining in popularity, and I watched her show every day, sometimes twice a day.

I know Rachel Ray can be annoying; Lance and Heidi both cringe when they hear her voice. But for a person who has not spent a whole lot of time in the kitchen, her show was a really fantastic learning tool. What better way to start cooking then with a bunch of recipes that only take 30 minutes to prepare? If you screw up, you've only wasted 1/2 hour of your day.

Once I gave birth to Isaac and starting figuring out the whole newborn thing, I found I had some extra time. Since Isaac was such a good baby, he napped for hours at a time during the day, and now that I could move around without worry, watching tv quickly bored me. I started cooking and found that I enjoyed it, even though the results were not often what I'd want.

It's been 2-1/2 years now and I have a few recipes that turn out reliably. Things like spaghetti or chili. I have a marinade for chicken that people always like, and a couple pasta salads that usually work. But that's it. Other recipes I've tried don't turn out at all--or worse, they turn out great the first time but then I find I am unable to replicate that success again, no matter how many times I try. I am always looking for new recipes and trying them out, but my success rate hovers stubbornly around 35%. Not very good.

Part of me knows the reasons for this. I can be . . . shall we say . . . absentminded at times. (Yes, I am blonde. So??) I may forget an ingredient at the store and have to substitute. Or I'll skip a step and have to go back and try to add things when the entree has been cooking for twenty minutes. Also, I don't like to measure. So I'll chop up a bunch of herbs, but then I don't like to force them into tablespoons to make sure I have the right amount. I usually just throw it all in. I hate it when a recipe calls for 1/2 cup of chopped bell pepper, say--if I buy a pepper at the store and chop it up, then there will be too much, and what am I going to do with half a leftover pepper? Again, I often end up throwing it all in. Add to that the fact that I am decidedly un-crafty, not creative or arty in any way, and it's easy to see why I struggle in the kitchen.

Still, knowing these reasons exist does not cause me to change my cooking style. I like the freedom of not measuring, I like rooting around in the fridge and then finding--ah ha!--a substitute that might work. I like the sort of easiness to it all. I like being in the kitchen, in my own little world, creating something that I really hope will please my family.

But it would be a lot nicer if occasionally these creations did please my family.

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