Before I knew how to make my own simple meals and snacks from healthy, whole-food ingredients, I did a lot of standing in front of the open refrigerator wishing that I did.
I also did a lot of hungry wandering in the prepared-food sections of supermarkets, cruising through drive-throughs, patronizing takeout and delivery services, and so forth.
It just seemed like too much work and too much time to do anything else. I was attracted to the colorful vegetables in the produce section, but I’d look at a bunch of kale and think: “You are attractive, but you are a mystery to me.”
I’d pick up a head of cauliflower or cabbage or broccoli and think: “You seem inherently good, but I can’t imagine what I would do with you once I got you home.”
Much the same thing would happen in the meat and seafood departments, except that, because those sections smelled a bit stinky and everything in the cases looked either pale or bloody to me, I often felt a wave of revulsion even entering them.
I’d try to picture a raw chicken thigh or piece of hangar steak in some nicely cooked, appealing form, and I’d think: “On some level, I both need and want you. But right now, frankly, you are just freaking me out.”
The boxed, frozen, canned, and bagged sections just seemed so much simpler, so much “cleaner,” and so much less daunting.
Even when I did get good, whole-food ingredients home with me, I rarely produced anything satisfying with them. I just didn’t know how. Half the time, the fresh food in my fridge wound up going bad well before I got it cooked and eaten.
For a long time, the goal of learning to cook remained on my very long list of virtuous things I “should” learn to do (a list that also included a couple of foreign languages, a few stringed instruments, and calligraphy).
It wasn’t until I put my nascent cooking ambitions in a broader context that I was able to approach them with any real seriousness of purpose.
As I’ve written about in some of my previous Revolutionary Acts columns, I eventually got clear that my most important goal — the one that would make the single biggest difference in my life — was becoming a healthier person. And I had to admit that my lack of cooking skill (unlike my lack of calligraphy skill) was presenting a clear and direct impediment to that larger aim.
Somehow, reframing cooking as a critical step toward inhabiting my healthiest, happiest, most fully expressed self made it easier to elevate to a top priority.
From there, it was a matter of baby steps. Like most people, I started with recipes. My goal was to try a new one each week. I would find a recipe that appealed to me, and step by step (even if it meant I had to separately research how to “devein the shrimp,” “deglaze the pan,” or “reduce the liquid by half”), I learned to prepare it for myself.
Today, based on my experience of the past 25 years or so, I would take a somewhat different approach. I would focus on learning a few super-simple ways of dealing with various categories of healthy, whole-food ingredients, and reserve advanced “recipes” for when I had more basic skills under my belt.
I say this because what I eventually discovered is that cooking is all about transferable techniques and flavor combinations. And you can make those techniques and combinations as simple or as complicated as you wish.
Once you learn to sauté chard, you also know how to sauté spinach, collards, and a bunch of other greens. One you know how to sear a chicken thigh, you kind of know how to sear most any chunk of meat. Once you know how to roast cauliflower, you kind of also know how to roast Brussels sprouts, sweet potato slices, and a bunch of other vegetables.
Recipes can obscure that reality by making you think that every dish you eat is the product of some very specific set of steps involving some very specific (and often long) list of ingredients prepared just so.
That level of complexity and specificity can deliver lovely results, but it also presents obstacles for many beginning cooks — from not having all the ingredients on hand (and not being confident about which can be omitted or replaced), to not knowing what “blanch” or “julienne” or “whip to soft peaks” means, to not having the pictured equipment or the 45 minutes of required prep time — all of which can leave one feeling at sea before one has even set sail.
Don’t get me wrong, I still love and appreciate the value of recipes. I just don’t think they are the only way to learn to cook. So if I had to do it all over again, here’s what else I’d do.
Watch Web-based cooking videos. When I started out learning to cook in the early 1990s, this wasn’t an option because these things simply didn’t exist. Now, there are gobs of quick, informative videos that can show you how to do virtually anything, from soft-boiling an egg to steaming an artichoke.
Do you want to know how to cook kale, or even just separate the kale leaves from their tough stems? Google those terms plus the word “video.” Click on the results that look most appealing. Once you’ve watched two or three videos, you’ll have the gist.
I say watch two or three, because in my experience, every video has its great and less-great points. One kale video will tell you to cut the leaves off the stems with a knife, which is a time-consuming chore compared with the grab-stem-in-one-hand-and-strip-the-leaf-off-with-the-other method. You’ll develop your own methodological preferences over time, but it helps to have at least some small range of options right from the start.
Experience Life did a nice set of videos on how to sear, braise, and sauté (see “Revolutionary Resources” below) that will give you a sense of how much you can learn (and how ready you’ll be to try it yourself) in as little as a few minutes.
Claim your basics. I have tons of cookbooks, but I rarely use them. Instead, I tend to make certain simple “standards” over and over again, with simple variations. Take my massaged-kale salad. Almost always, there is olive oil, lemon, salt, and pepper involved. But sometimes I add a sprinkle of Parmesan, sometimes a smear of chèvre. Sometimes I smash an avocado in there. Sometimes I sprinkle toasted pine nuts or currants on top. Sometimes I drizzle on some hot-chili sesame oil. It just depends on what I’ve got on hand, and what I’m in the mood for. Same thing goes for frittata, salmon, soup, braised greens, roasted veggies, and dozens of other go-to dishes I work into my rotation on a weekly basis. By keeping the base ingredients and techniques simple, I can create tasty variety without needing a formal “recipe” of any kind.
Learn from friends. I got some of my favorite basics (including the massaged-kale salad — thanks, Courtney!) from watching friends make them.
If you have friends who cook, ask them if you can be their sous chef the next time they make dinner. Or just ask them to show you how they make one favorite dish.
Cooking is a great way to spend time with people. In part because it generally leads to eating together, too.
Whatever you do, don’t let “not knowing how to cook” prevent you from learning to cook — or from pursuing your own healthy-living goals.