My mother is a jungle woman, born and raised in Puerto Rico. When she was a child, if chicken was for dinner, someone went out and snapped a chicken’s neck. If someone wanted mangoes, you went mango vine chopping. So growing up, my mother was very practical in the kitchen, and she was always winging it. She was always incorporating new methods, primarily Mexican, into her Puerto Rican cooking, which was always superior to her baking, because cooking is much more forgiving in experimentation. Everything was fresh, and everything was from scratch. My mother never used measuring devices, timers, or recipe books of any kind. Everything was muscle memory for her, and she was health conscious before being health conscious was a thing. There were always greens, especially salad, and a slice of avocado with every plate. Little did I know, as a passive observer, my brain was laying down the groundwork of neural pathways for my own future cooking.
However, my venture didn’t officially start here: twas born of necessity. Away at college, I learned immediately that the cafeteria had an ulterior motive. Contrary to the “feed the student body” one presupposed by the administration, the cafeteria desired nothing more than to pass food-like substances through students’ bowels at alarming rates. Preparing my own food became an act of desperation. My first meal was macaroni and cheese, made in the single kitchen meant to be shared by over a hundred clueless teenagers. Boiling pasta and melting American cheese felt like rebellion.
Over time, my disemboweled, zombified roommates joined in, witnessing the blessing that is cooking and preparing your own foods. We delighted in pre-made guacamole packets squirted over generic tortilla chips, and more heaping bowls of cheesy macaroni. I have come a long way since then, but like any endeavor, most start with humble beginnings. Here’s how:
1. Start cooking
Forget confidence. Forget skill. Just start cooking. Cook anything you already know. Cook anything you think you know. Start with boiling. Ignore sautéing, and blanching, and any fancy cook words. You have to start somewhere, and what better time than now.
2. Make your favorite dish ad nauseam
Find that meal you can’t get enough of, and make it, as much as possible, all the time. You’ll find that you get way better at it, and may prefer it over the original establishments.
3. Read ingredient lists
No one taught me how to make hummus. No one (that I know of) in my immediate family is from the Middle East. I just picked up the container of hummus I was eating, and read the ingredient list. Then I bought those ingredients and went for it. Try to see how much of your favorite prepared or process foods you can actually make, and watch the savings shoot out of your asshole.
4. Be curious
Anytime I eat something someone else prepares for me, I want to know how it got there and why. Not only can you learn some interesting family food traditions, but potential new recipes as well.
5. Cultivate a discerning palate
If your favorite meals are cheeseburgers, chicken fingers, and fast food pizza, your taste buds are in for a rude awakening (you too vegans, with your soy slabs, chik’n chunks, and TVP). The world of food goes way beyond salty grease. There are more nuanced flavors than hairs in your armpits.
Now, you might think this is all about trying new things. Not necessarily. Actually, I encourage you to explore the spectrum. For example, don’t be a take-out slouch, and order a different ethnicity every time. Instead, try different things from within that particular ethnicity. Figure out which dishes are your favorite and why. You’ll realize that there’s only a handful of combinations of food items, and just a few seasonings that they frequently use. True variety is an illusion.
6. Avoid the death box
I’ve worked in many restaurant kitchens and I can tell you this: any cook worth his kosher salt, does not use a microwave. And while I know there are conflicting scientific accounts, I’ve gotten by just fine without them. I’m all about practical, but they’re just too easy. They encourage you to shut your brain off, skip the cooking (and learning) process, and only focus on results. In the end, you lose, because you have learned nothing and have destroyed life.
7. Recipes are guides, not manuals
One exception: baking, where success hinges on precision. Otherwise, use recipes as strong suggestions and ways to learn some basic cooking techniques. Don’t be afraid to modify the recipe based on what you have on hand. Avoid recipe books (or blogs) that claim making dinner is easy quick and then tell you to buy 20 ingredients costing 20 bucks or more. Especially avoid if you have to scroll down twenty times through a photo essay to reach the actual recipe.
8. Grocery shop regularly
Yes, you need to have food on hand in order to cook. Buy staple goods once or twice a month. Buy fresh stuff every couple of days. Empty cupboards equals succumbing to the takeout monster, and you’ll never learn to cook through Seamless. Learn to live healthfully on a budget.
9. Keep it simple
It’s tempting to get overwhelmed with everything you think you need to do; the labor intensive process of filmmaking has taught me this. My favorite film professor advocated for the use of the KISS method. “Keep it simple, stupid.”
Cooking isn’t just about setting everything on fire. Some of the best dishes are hardly cooked, or not at all. Guacamole? That’s an uncooked meal, if you eat everyone’s portions. Sometimes only one thing needs to be cooked. Don’t saute or boil everything. Figure out ways to add flavor from readily accessible ingredients like fresh chopped herbs, a squeeze of citrus, or pulverized pungent roots like ginger or turmeric.
Cooking is a process. If you only care about end results, just buy TV dinners and accept defeat. But if you are process oriented, or want to be, cooking can be very rewarding. And you’ll make lots of friends. The gesture of cooking for someone is hard to top, which is how I manage to keep my post-modern girlfriend.