WHY COOK?

A lot of people think that cooking is such a time consuming, difficult, and boring process but in fact cooking your own food is the key to freedom. Imagine a world where you can have food catered to your own tastes, where you can have the portions that best fit you, where you don’t have to worry about someone having spit in your food because you didn’t want croutons in your salad. Even the busiest of people can find time to cook. My mother was a perfect example! In Italy, it didn’t matter how busy you were, how much homework you had to correct, and that you had to teach Monday through Saturday — food was such an essential part of life that it just came naturally to find time to cook dinner for your kids. Thought my mother took us to school every morning she managed to feed us breakfast before we left, cook us lunch before coming to pick us up, and then go to work until 8 pm and come back to cook us dinner. Sure, maybe once a month she would bring back a couple of pizze al taglio, but considering we would have family and friends visit quite often, she had to also prepare multiple course meals including antipasto some days as well. Was she tired at times? Sure, but it never crossed her mind not to feed us properly. Not only that, but we had very few desserts in the house (all of which contained one tenth of the sugar and fat of American junk food) and we always knew to ask for permission to eat one, and of course, if the treat was too decadent (such as a Kinder Delice) we had to have finished our lunch, and if so, we had to have a glass of milk with it (without all of the hormones and antibiotics!).

Even when I was working 4 jobs and going to school I always found time to cook. I may have been dead tired and had little food in the house, but looking forward to eating food I enjoyed was worth the little bit of work it took. I began cooking on my own, really. For me, cooking has become a very entertaining part of life. Sure, I helped out a bit when my mom cooked all the meals, and I learned a few basics, but I never was interested in cooking until I was a teenager. Then, my mother had to drive two hours each day to work and even though she would still cook us meals, I decided I would start cooking myself. I started with a basic stir fry with ramen — not that difficult but people enjoyed it. Then I worked at a pizza shop where I learned how to make round pizzas. My mother had already been baking her own pizza since I could remember, and it was definitely delicious, but she always made them square! So after experiencing the overheated prison of Dominoes, I decided I was going to make a round pizza myself which I then barbecued on a pizza brick on the barbecue. It came out delicious! Then I lived in Japan for a while and learned how to use Japanese, Chinese and Korean ingredients. I knew how to make certain Chinese dishes since my mother was pretty good at it herself, so I took that information and tried to make it more authentic. Thought I initially learned to cook to try and get away a bit from my mother’s more Italian-style cooking, I eventually came back around to making it the main influence. Italian cooking is just so simple, yet so flavorful! But of course I love all food.

What is the key to cooking food you enjoy eating and preparing? I never think about food in terms of recipes, measurements and temperatures. Of course you need to know when chicken is raw, and how to avoid overcooking anything, but in my opinion, the best way to begin preparing delicious food is to make mistakes. When I was a teenager, I obviously made some mistakes cooking, but with time I learned not only how to avoid them, but how to fix them if I did manage to make another. Think about what you feel like eating that day — open the fridge, look through your cabinets and always keep in mind what foods will go bad first. For example: I want to make dinner and I have fresh steak and frozen chicken, I would definitely cook the steak first. One steak can become so many different things. You can grill it, or you can pan fry it with garlic and herbs, you can cook it in a tomato sauce with cheese on top, you can even cut it up, fry it with bacon and stuff it in steamed cabbage leaves — and then… you can figure out if you want to cook that in tomato sauce, or pan fry it, or even grill it! Whatever! You need to always think about what you like. Always experiment with your food and never think that something won’t go well just because you’ve never had that combination of ingredients before. Do you like curry? Try using curry on any meat, or mix it in with your tomato sauce to give it a bit of spice.

The best way to start cooking is to always have some basics in mind on which you can build on.

  • Garlic and onions fried up in a pan are always a good basis for anything. Add in herbs of your choice, and even bacon or salt pork and you can make a sauce, a soup, gravy, or even stir fry some vegetables and/or meat!
  • Olive oil is your friend. Though at times butter may be a better choice depending on your tastes, I tend to use olive oil to fry up vegetables, meat etc… especially if I’m making a sauce or soup. Not so much when I’m making a stir fry, though it still tastes better than vegetable oil.
  • I usually don’t marinate my meat because I like to taste it, not the marinade, but when I do, I usually focus on flavors that enhance instead of cover up the meat. Try using garlic chili pastes, sesame oil (very very little!), onion and garlic powder, various herbs, even vinegar (I love caper vinegar). I tend to stay away from sweet marinades unless I get my hands on a really good teriyaki sauce.
  • When making any sauce, whether it be white or tomato, or even soup, it will always benefit from added vegetables, especially after being sauteed with the usual garlic and onions. It doesn’t matter what vegetables, whether it be bell peppers, spinach, cabbage (and its many varieties), or even water chest nuts.
  • Experimentation is one of the most important basic ingredients you can have. If you’re afraid of trying new combinations, you will never be able to find out what you like best. Remember that only you can cook the perfect food for your tastes.

Always practice your palate. You don’t have to remember exactly what each ingredient tastes like, but if you can recognize the ingredients in your food you’re more likely to be able to reproduce it. You don’t need professional training to be able to recognize that there are onions and garlic in a dish. You don’t even have to make the dish exactly the same way every time since many things can be often substituted. Remember that you don’t need a ton of salt and a thousand ingredients in your food for you and your family to enjoy it. Once you learn to taste each ingredient, such as the lamb, the potatoes, and the carrots, then you will be able to enjoy food a lot more. The rewards are tremendous!

Love cooking, and it will love you back tenfold. Nobody can resist such a rewarding relationship that can only exist between a home cook and cooking. It is something even the busiest of single mothers can learn to enjoy doing. In fact, I know several friends who had hard working single mothers that never went one day without cooking their kid a good meal. I know some people who have single mothers or fathers who managed to work low paying jobs, while still cooking every day, and even be able to put enough money aside to send their kids to good schools and even college. Learn to own the kitchen and you can learn to own your life!

Just have fun. When preparing the ingredients, think of what you want it to look and taste like. Enjoy the process of creating something special and unique. Try to imagine what stages you will go through to cook a specific dish. Involve your family and friends — let them come up with their own versions of the dish! Start off simple by letting them come up with their own burrito or taco filling, or even let them experiment with dumpling and pot sticker fillings. Why not cook up some apples with sugar and stuff them into a won-ton skin and fry it up! No won-tons available? Why not shred some cheese on a tortilla, fold it in half and fry that up or bake it and sprinkle with honey? Delicious!

Cook when you’re hungry. The best motivation to cook is to do so when you’re hungry. Once you smell that onion frying up in the pan you can’t help but finish cooking the dish!

Don’t rely on salt. Salt is only meant to enhance the flavor of the food, but too much can exacerbate it. Allow the natural flavors of the ingredients to come through, and you can always add salt at the end if you think it’s too insipid.

Try to minimize the use of the microwave. One way to ruin perfectly good left overs is to microwave them. It only takes a few minutes to reheat food and microwaving should really be reserved for popping corn and microwaveable prepared food that wouldn’t benefit from alternative methods of cooking. Microwaving food usually dries up meat, makes pasta and bread chewy, and leaves the center of soups and sauces pretty cold. In the end, you put less effort in pouring that soup into a pot and letting it simmer for a few minutes than you do by placing it in a bowl in a microwave for two minutes stirring periodically.

Every ingredient has infinite potential. The greatest thing about cooking is that with even three ingredients you can come up with an endless variety of dishes. Instead of eating the same tired dishes (all of which tend to taste the same) at a restaurant and end up with a bored stomach ache, try making  your own chicken dishes. You can fry it, you can bake it, you can grill it, and there are so many different things you can eat with it.

This doesn’t mean obviously that you can’t enjoy a meal with your friends or family at your local restaurant, but cooking helps give you the freedom you need so you don’t have to constantly resort to having someone else cook for you. I myself like to make sushi, but I would rather go to a sushi bar (hopefully clean) to stuff myself silly! Unfortunately, these days, I just can’t afford it. So cooking is really a good way to save money and maybe set it aside for that special trip to the restaurant, or even Taco Bell.

Forget about measurements and following recipes to the letter! Now, let’s get cookin’!

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