Do you have any recommendations for “growing” a love of cooking in a set-in-her-ways adult? I’m a competent (if impatient) cook, learned the basics from my mom as a kid, but my adult interest in cooking is almost nil. A few times a year, I get the urge to make ginger snaps (autumn), spaghetti sauce (winter), chicken and vegetable soup (later winter, during cold season), pecan pie (Thanksgiving), and occasionally scrambled eggs and French toast. I love these foods and can make them without really having to concentrate. My husband has his pet meals too, and makes them once or twice a month (black beans and sopa or rice, salmon with steamed broccoli).
We have no kids, live in a neighborhood with great, walking-distance restaurants, and have enough disposable income that eating out frequently is not a hardship. Also, when we do cook, we both find it annoying to eat the same food for 2–3 days in a row, and we’re super lazy about actually batching up, freezing, and reheating foods. (First world problems, I know.) So we have almost no external impetus forcing us to cook if we don’t want to. Yet! Yet… I feel like I’m missing out on something. We watch cooking shows A LOT, but mostly they just make me want to go out for a great meal that someone else slaved over and cleaned up afterwards. Still, restaurant food, no matter how organically and locally prepared, is much too rich for us to eat so regularly. Have you encountered any good ways to increase one’s interest in cooking? Should I just relax, order the salad now and then, and enjoy my lot in life? Am I whining about something that’s not actually a problem? Thank you!
Dear (Maybe) Missing Out,
I love this question! Thank you, so much, for writing. I think a lot of us have areas in our life in which we think we might be missing out, and wonder what it would take to learn to love something new.
When I went to university in France, and had only one year to get as much European traveling in as possible, my French classmates and professors would often say, “Il faut en profiter,”—“you must take advantage”—whenever I would mention I’d be missing a day or two of class around an existing school holiday so I could burn a few more days off my Eurail pass. Sure, I was there to study political science, and I would have to take exams just like the rest of the students at the end of the year, but I was also going to be in Europe for only one year, and I needed to make the most of it. Thanks to generous friends, I got a lot of help with my notes and studying during my final weeks of term, and my trips to places like Barcelona and Bruges didn’t trip me up too much.
As I see it, you live in a place with walking access to amazing food, and you have the means to eat out without worry. Il faut en profiter! Many of us don’t have, and may never have, this kind of luxury. Enjoy it. Don’t fret.
There are going to be no cooking exams at the end of term for you, you don’t have to balance out your desire to visit restaurants with a need to learn cooking. If you want to become a great cook, it will primarily take practice. You already know you are capable of making some yummy dishes, and you’ve practiced them enough that preparing them takes little to no concentration. You likely experience joy when you cook and prepare these items because they don’t tax you. Learning to cook new things will build off of your existing capability, but will involve a lot more trial and error, and will require focus and attention.
You didn’t ask me how to become a good cook, though—you asked me how to develop a love of cooking. The truth is, you might never love it. You might continue to love making just a few favorite dishes, and that is completely okay. You don’t have to make meal plans every night, teach small children to recognize nutritious meals, or stockpile batches of food to watch your budget. Cooking can always be a hobby for you.
It sounds like I am discouraging your quest to love cooking, I know, but I’m not, I promise! With stakes this low, there is no reason not to try fun new dishes, and in the process, develop a love of cooking as a hobby. What can go wrong, really? If you make something and it doesn’t work, you can walk to a favorite restaurant, after all.
My true passion for cooking began during my year in Provence, not surprisingly. When I wasn’t studying or traveling, I was often at the outdoor market just outside my apartment, perfecting my French by buying seasonal produce, cheese, meats, and herbs. I cooked a little bit more during my last year of college back in Wisconsin, but then really started learning to cook when I moved to DC upon graduation. Looking back, I can’t tell you the moment cooking became a true love, but I can say that it must have happened when these things gelled:
1) I knew enough techniques that I could look at a recipe and understand why certain steps were being taken at certain times, and what those steps would do to enhance the flavor/texture/appearance of my dish.
2) I could synthesize ideas and flavors from all over—different cuisines, different dining experiences in my past, etc.—and turn them into my own quick, easy-to-make dishes. This also allowed me to take leftovers and never serve them the same way twice. Taking Chinese noodles and pairing them with a tex-mex brisket doesn’t sound like the development of a classic dish, but when I figured out how to make them taste good together, cooking got very fun.
3) I was increasingly curious/I was tired of food routine. Even going out to eat, you can get in a rut. As my skills increased, I was more capable of trying fun new dishes. For example, my favorite cuisine is Korean, which I discovered at age 22 when I was taken to a Korean barbecue restaurant by my first office-mate at my first job in DC. With one taste, I could not believe this cuisine had been missing from my life. I have gone to great Korean restaurants for years, but it wasn’t until a decade into my cooking that I got confident enough to buy Korean ingredients and start making it on my own—I had enjoyed it for so many years, I knew I could practice and make those tastes, myself.
4) I had access to great, seasonal ingredients. Working with tasty, beautiful ingredients makes it easy to feel joyful while in the kitchen.
5) I purchased the right tools. Does it make a difference to have a terrific mixer, or a pressure cooker that amplifies food flavor while reducing cooking time? Heck, yeah, it does. Can you cook without them? Of course you can, and you can make delicious things, for sure. Enjoying cooking, though, is much easier when you have the tools that make the work less onerous.
Given that you live in a place with wonderful restaurants in walking distance, and you have the budget to purchase meals out, I have no doubt that finding great ingredients and stocking your kitchen with excellent tools will not be a problem for you. If you do eat out a lot, you will likely be able to synthesize flavors and ideas from different cuisines, and as you’ve stated that you don’t enjoy eating the same things over and over, you can be fearless when reusing leftovers in new ways. All you need now is technique practice, so you can become as comfortable with new dishes as you are with your existing (yummy) repertoire. The great news is, the more you master new recipes, the easier it becomes to master the next, and the next, and the next…you get the idea.
I would also imagine that taking a food-making class would be a possibility for you, and I highly recommend it! Years ago, my Valentine’s Day gift from my hubby was a cake-making class at L’Academie de Cuisine, and learning those basic cakes, buttercreams, ganaches, and curds was life-changing. The class, itself, was also incredibly fun. I have taken several classes since, everything from vegetarian Indian cuisine to French macaron-making, and even when I don’t use those specific recipes, I take the techniques and ideas presented and pour them into new dishes. Try taking a class with your spouse, and enjoy learning together.
As for a recipe, I’d like to share my basic vinaigrette. I began learning this while in France, and it is a staple at our house. Given that your meals out are heavy, learning to make a wonderful vinaigrette will allow you to make salads whenever you please, and you can throw both home-cooked and restaurant leftovers into them.
While we have become a nation of “dressing on the side” eaters, dressing a salad with vinaigrette is so much tastier. That’s why we call it “dressing,” after all, not salad dip! While a nutritionist may call me out on this, I believe I consume less dressing when I eat a well-dressed salad, as a little dressing spread out across all the ingredients goes a long way. Most vinaigrette recipes call for a 1-3 ratio of vinegar-to-oil, but I prefer the lighter, tangier ratio of 1-2. If you don’t like vinegar as much as I do, adjust accordingly.
Make a small amount of this vinaigrette fresh each time you are making a salad in the bottom of the bowl in which you are going to put the salad, itself. Lightly coating all the lettuce and components makes a huge difference in the satisfaction of the dish, I promise. I have served dressed salads at many events, and it never seems to matter what elements I throw into them, I believe the diners most enjoy eating the salad because each piece has the flavor of the dressing, without being either drowned or dry. Eating a dressed salad, a once common dining experience, is now a modern-day oddity. Master this, and wow dinner guests forever.
My favorite fall version of this salad is lettuce, either mixed with spinach or arugula, then topped with glazed/spiced nuts (I usually purchase them pre-made), cut up apples, and chunks of gorgonzola cheese. You can also add roasted veggies (e.g., sweet potato, squash, peppers) and leftover meats (e.g., roast chicken, pork medallions) to make it a full meal, in itself.
The amount of the dressing you make is completely dependent on how much salad you are going to throw in, so start small—no more than a few tablespoons of vinegar and oil as the base. If you make too much, you can always pour some out of the salad bowl before adding the greens. Learning to make just the right amount of dressing takes practice, but I hope it is practice you will enjoy.
Best of luck as you explore new adventures in the kitchen!
- 1 part vinegar (apple cider, champagne, or balsamic are good choices)
- 2 parts extra-virgin olive oil (walnut oil is also delicious, and can be substituted for ½ of the oil)
- 1 small shallot, minced
- 1-2 tsps dijon mustard
- 1 tsp honey
- Herbs, to taste—I prefer tarragon, you may use anything you have on hand. Fresh is best, but a smaller amount of dried may be substituted.
- Salt and pepper, to taste
- In the bottom of a large salad bowl, pour vinegar, shallot, mustard, honey, herbs, salt and pepper. Whisk until well combined.
- As you continue whisking with one hand, gently drizzle a drop or two of oil into the mixture. Do not stop whisking. Once that first drop is incorporated, drizzle a bit more oil. An emulsion should begin to form, which will look slightly thicker in texture. Once this is established, begin pouring oil in a slow, steady stream, whisking continually. Taste to ensure flavor is to your liking; adjust herbs, salt, and pepper, accordingly. You may also add a bit more honey at this stage if you prefer it sweeter. Remember that the intensity of the dressing will decrease when eaten with the salad ingredients, so don't be afraid of big flavor.
- Add salad greens, vegetables or fruits, nuts, cheese, etc., and toss to combine, making sure each component is lightly coated, but not over dressed. Taste again, adjust seasonings as necessary.