As we inch closer to the day when we will be able to cook again in our new kitchen (!), I want to reflect on one of the real game-changers for me when it came to learning how to cook in the first place.
It’s crazy: I come from a family of women that worked and cooked. My grandmother is an amazing cook and so is my mother. They cook very differently, but my whole life until I went away to college is a tapestry of memories of sitting down to eat with my family at one household or the other over a home-cooked meal.
And so I’d often wondered: Why is it I didn’t know how to cook when I became a grown up? My mom has told me the following: “You were never interested.” Huh. Looking back, I have to admit she’s right. I have always loved to eat — but I didn’t even remotely care about cooking until I started dating my now-husband.
At first, neither Manny nor I was much into cooking. I had lived alone through most of graduate school — a real luxury on some level but not terribly conducive to great culinary adventures. It’s maybe no accident that I studied the Middle Ages either, as my self-cooking tended toward monk-like fair: super simple meals with very few ingredients — no guts, no glory kind of stuff. Manny was also living by himself in NYC — and a very consistent customer of Seamless. He was, in fact, so consistent a customer that I remember him saying, after we decided together we were going to cook more and make cooking a priority: “You know, I’m a little offended they never sent out a search party for me when I stopped ordering.”
If Manny was the great turning point for me, the great tool that taught me was a certain cookbook by a guy I’ve come to really admire: Mark Bittman. When I decided I needed to learn to cook better, I asked a friend I consider a talented home cook for some advice on how to get started; she suggested I check out Bittman’s classic How to Cook Everything.
It’s a big, red book — over 1,000 pages! Maybe it speaks to my early dedication to learning how to cook that, after getting my hands on a copy, I read it cover to cover. Silly, I know — but what a difference this made. I honestly think it’s fair to say that before reading this book I didn’t know how to cook and after reading it I did.
I am also a huge fan of Bittman’s How to Cook Everything Vegetarian. We’re not vegetarians at the SB, but this book is nonetheless an essential reference for us when it comes to cooking veggies and grains.
Bittman’s philosophy in his How to Cook Everything cookbooks is fairly simple. He presents encyclopedic entries about foods as ingredients — telling you what to look for when you buy, how to prep and flavor, and a variety of ways to cook. The recipes result in good, real food — simple enough for novice cooks — and most are weekday friendly.
Hands down, what I love most about Bittman’s cookbooks, though, are his discussions of variations to each recipe — perfect for someone like me who likes to improvise. In all honesty, I will probably never be a good or even decent baker because of this strong and bizarre trait in my character: I hate to be told what to do by a recipe! That’s what they’re there for — I get that — but still, I cannot stand to be bossed around by my food. So… I am an inveterate improviser. Even when I know the recipes know better than me, I still can’t help myself.
Bittman’s books are practically made for people who like to be able to switch things up and improvise and add or subtract. He explains how ingredients go together and how flavors work and harmonize.