Two sisters, two coasts, one blog

The List


Awhile back I was suffering from a bout of writers block and my dad sent me a list of ‘things he would like to know about’. The list is wide ranging, from the every day to the profound, his thought was that any one question could be expanded into a post here on ETWT.  I tucked it away for a future moment where I felt stuck for a topic. Like today. So here goes, answer #1:

Cooking. How did you learn and what else would you like to know?

By osmosis. When Rucha & were in our teens, mom asked us to start making dinner one night a week each. The way I remember it, there wasn’t any instruction, she just kind of threw us in the deep end and said ‘swim!’. Which led to scrambled eggs and toast being on the menu on my night. Every week. For months.

My first year away from home at university I lived in a Halls of Residence, but the following year my friends and I got a flat. I can still vividly recall standing in the kitchen, sun pouring in through the dusty window pane, my mom walking me through her recipe for spaghetti sauce on the phone. That was the first real meal I made. I must have picked up enough basic skills from watching her to have the general outline of what to do, and I learned the rest from trial and error.

Most of what I make these days is pretty basic – salads, soups, tacos, roasts in winter, the occasional Indian inspired dish. I have my own tomato-based sauce recipe for pasta now, though it’s a vegetarian one. I discovered braising two or three years ago, which I love. I’m not much of a baker, though I went through a phase of making bread and muffins when we first moved to Raleigh and I wish I had more time to do that now.

I was kind of entranced by the movie Julie & Julia; the idea of working one’s way through a comprehensive tome like the Art of French Cooking, learning new skills along the way appeals to me. But if I’m honest I’m not much of a technician in the kitchen, more of an improviser, rarely making the same thing the same way more than once. Out of the two of us K is the one who has the drive to learn a culinary method and then perfect it by practicing it over & over, as anyone who has had his ribs lately can attest. I do use cookbooks (the first one I owned was The Enchanted Broccoli Forest by Mollie Katzen) but I don’t usually follow recipes exactly,rather using them as a kind of guideline (ala Mark Bittman).

This is one of the recipes that I’ve fallen in love with lately. It’s from the blog 101 Cookbooks which I turn to pretty regularly for dinner inspiration. I’ve made it a couple of times with brussels sprouts and a couple of times with napa cabbage and it’s equally tasty. When making it with cabbage I used apple cider vinegar instead of lemon juice; inverting the proportion of acid & fat to help soften and flavor the meatier leaf. Not having hazel nuts to hand I’ve also substituted pumpkin seeds or toasted pecans.

If I had a little more time on my hands I would love to learn to can and pickle. I follow Ashley English’s blog Small Measures off and on; her book Canning & Preserving is on my wish list but my friend Betty also recommended The Joy of Pickling by Linda Ziedrich and Ball’s Complete Book of Home Preserving.

What about you? How did you learn to cook? What technique or method would you like to try?


5 Responses to “The List”

  1. Fran Newcross

    Like you, I thot observing and being in the kitchen with my Mom gave me the necessary skills to cook. What I found was when I stood in our tiny apartment kitchen after the honeymoon and looked at my new shiny Farberware pots/pans and the stove I had no clue what to do about amounts and timing! I did have some techniques from Momma. I was amazed at my lack of know how so I went and dug out the Better Homes and Gardens Cook book, with the red and white checks, took off the cellophane wrapper and opened it up. It and I have gotten along for 44 years now. I’ve acquired other recipes, newspaper clippings and a couple other books. My neighbor, Suzy Dean, once happily thumped a BIG blue cookbook on the table we were sitting at, and smiled at me and told me to take it because she really did not like using The Joy of Cooking. It told her to go to too many other pages for total cooking instructions. That book you could take with you if you had to be the new Adam and Eve and begin the world again it is so very detailed. But, it has good bouillabaisse and rolled cookie recipes, which get favorable reviews. I do have to use little post it flags to mark the 3 other pages of instructions the bouillabaisse recipe refers me to, just as Suzy said. The rolled cookies are excellent vehicles for Christmas colored frosting and colored sugar sprinkles. Now those 2 cookbooks are spotted, have very decrepit spines, notations and post it notes. Pages slip out and the binding has come unseen in places. That could describe me some days. I used to sit at the counter on the stools where we usually had meals and watch Momma cook, I cannot count the hours I did that. She was pretty content to cook and let me do dishes. I would be drafted to help sometimes, but mostly she had her own routine. Then I’d go into the attached other part of the house where my Grandma Pearl lived and visit with her while she made bread or stirred something she was cooking up. Grandma was real pioneer stock. Grew a garden, made her own bread, made soap out, braided rugs and quoted in her living room. My Aunt Izaette made wonderful pies and she shared her Cram Pie recipe with me long ago.

  2. Betty

    For me, learning to cook was part of growing up. As my taste buds improved, I needed to learn how to satisfy them! I think I’m like K, in that I like to perfect a recipe so that it’s reliable. I don’t mind practicing. But I also love to try new things, even if it’s challenging. One technique I wish I was better at is frying, despite the fact that it’s unhealthy. My mom was an expert, and even though I think I’m doing it exactly as she did, it never comes out right. She made the lightest tempura imaginable and her fried chicken was perfection. I’ve given it up at this point. I hope you get to try your hand at canning, Oami. And thanks for the recipes!

  3. nerponline

    Thanks for answering your old dad’s cooking question. I love the bit where you invert the proportions of acid to fats to account for the “meatier leaf.” EastTwin, I’m convinced that that is a culinary technician yearning to be free! By the way, I began to believe cooking was a thing I could do 30 years ago when I bought a used drugstore paperback called “Cook Until Done” (by George Bradsaw & Ruth Norman). This thing was published in 1962 and it consisted, as I remember, of humorous anecdotes about batchelor cooking experiments and useful descriptions of the ones that worked. I learned that lemon juice and olive oil alone make a great salad dressing, and I baked a decent souffle after reading the author’s breezy account of how he learned to do it. That it was not a cookbook, but more like a memoir somehow really helped me to pick up a few basic ideas which are still useful. I wish I hadn’t long ago lost track of that little book.

  4. ruchapowers

    I don’t remember exactly when I started to learn how to cook, although I would say that I have a specific cooking style….my mom’s cooking style! I always feel her influence in the kitchen, especially when using LOTS of vegetables, incorporating them into just about anything I’m making. I rarely use a recipe or if I do it’s always as a ‘guide’ for cooking temps and times and for the basic ingredients. If I don’t have what is called for I usually make spontaneous adjustments….mostly it works and occasionally there is an epic cooking fail, and that’s when we end up having scrambled eggs and toast for dinner! I do have one strong cooking-related memory, that of being on a camping trip with Pop and sauteing a simple dish, starting as usual with the onions and garlic. I had just tossed them in the pan and given a few brisk stirs when I went to add the next chopped ingredient, some other kind of veg I think. “Whoa, whoa, whoa” says my dad reaching out to stop me, “you just put the onions in. You have to let them simmer a little, get the flavors to come out. Don’t throw everything in there all at once. Give it time” I’ve always remembered that advice, which now that I come to think of it applies rather mightily to the rest of life too.

  5. oami powers

    I’m so thrilled that this post started such a rich conversation about learning to cook, cooking techniques & styles. Thanks everyone!!


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