Reluctant Cookery

I used to feel about cooking the way I still feel about gardening — I was really bad at it, and because of that I didn’t like it, didn’t feel confident about it, and therefore shouldn’t really be doing it.

Did I mention I still feel that way about gardening? Luckily our lot is tiny and there’s not a lot of room for me to fail at this. But this time of year I go crazy with envy looking at all the beautiful plants, bushes and blooms on everyone else’s property.

Since I’ve been working from home for the past seven years, and since we’ve added two mouths to feed during that time, most of the responsibility for cooking has fallen to me. To avoid eating badly (i.e., largely packaged/processed foods), I’ve ventured into actual meal creation. Magazines like Real Simple and Whole Living publish some really great, easy recipes, as it turns out. It also turns out that if you actually follow the directions — something I’m really good at doing — you too can make a decent meal, even a yummy meal, one that your kids and partner will rave about and eat right up. (Yes, I serve the same thing to all four of us at dinnertime. All I ask is that the girls try it. Mostly, they like it.)

Of course, sometimes I make a less than delectable dish. Too mushy, too dry. Too spicy, too bland. Or something we just don’t like very much. But along the way I’ve also figured out how to make really perfect, juicy chicken.

As with anything else that you practice, you get better and better at cooking just by doing it. And when you get comfortable with certain recipes, you start to feel more confident about your ability to make them without measuring everything down to the micro-ounce. You might even change up some of the ingredients sometimes. Crazy stuff.

And that’s when you realize it’s actually quite fun and even satisfying to cook. You get to see exactly what’s going into your meal, you try out new produce and different cuts of meat, you use all kinds of spices, some you didn’t know you and your family liked. You take a shot at different ethnic cuisines, and you realize it’s not always impossible to cook them well, either.

It helps that I have several close friends who are truly excellent cooks. They make it look effortless, and their food is amazing. So I try to channel them when I cook.

Of course, I would love to have a bigger, nicer kitchen, nicer pots and pans, better knives, a refrigerator I don’t detest (don’t get me started on my fridge — how I wish it would just die so we’d be forced to get a new one!). And time — lots of time to plan amazing meals and then make them might turn me into an actual Cook. Though doesn’t have to take hours to make a good dinner. It doesn’t even take a ton of time to clean up afterward (another thing that always stopped me before — it all seemed so messy).

I really appreciate the sense of accomplishment I get in the kitchen now. Taking the time to consider what we should eat, shop for the ingredients and then make it can actually be a creative experience. Slowing down and noticing that, instead of looking at it as an unavoidable chore that I always did badly, has made a difference.

Most food stories, of course, include recipes. So here are a few of my current favorites. You’ll notice they are all one-pot or one-pan meals — my favorite. They are also fairly winter-ish; I’ve got to hunt down some good spring stuff.

Moroccan Braised Chicken with Carrots and Golden Raisins

Spicy Coconut Chicken Casserole

Lamb and Chickpea Tagine

Baked Eggplant Parmesan

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