Friday, October 09, 2009

Misadventures In Cooking (Epic Length Version)

I am frustrated by my cooking skills. I LOVE cooking. If I could do anything with my life, it would be related to cooking or food (or dancing). But honestly, I am not sure I'm all that great of a cook. My kids certainly don't think so. Unless I make them hot dogs or Kraft Macaroni and Cheese, they're not too impressed. (It’s my fault for ever allowing that crap to cross their lips; I know!) TheEx wasn’t always very appreciative of my cooking, so I asked him for a list of meals he liked. He gave me a list of seven dinners -- the same seven he’s liked for years: steak, baked chicken with BBQ sauce, chicken parmesan, vegan lasagna, salmon, sausage/beans/rice, and what we call ‘goulash’, which is elbow macaroni + stewed tomatoes + creamed corn. I like these dinners, but not EVERY WEEK. And not when I’m trying to have us eat vegetarian. Literally, he would have liked to have only these, every week. I need way more variety than that, but I made them as often as I could stand them (which frequency decreased as time went on).

Within the last year or so, TheEx got better at complimenting me or at least thanking me for cooking dinner, especially when I made these meals. Mainly the way it would work is that he wouldn’t even come to the table – he would just take his food to his computer and eat in there. In the last year he did start eating at the table, but would jump up as soon as he was done. When I informed him that traditionally, families would stay at the table until everyone was done and then help clean up together, he informed me that traditionally the mother would do the cooking and clean up afterwards. I am sure this has affected the kids’ understanding of how to be grateful for their mother’s cooking, and I will be working on that with them. Part of it is my fault – I let them skip dinner if they don’t like it, and up until the past couple of years, I would even make something else for them. Now, they don’t have to eat their dinner, but they can only eat bread or whatever else they can come up with on their own. I know I need to put a stop to that – it’s not compassionate parenting, it’s ridiculous, permissive parenting.

So anyway, why am I not as good at cooking as I’d like to be?

1 - I have a real problem following directions. I never follow the directions in recipes (or I just make them up entirely), and I usually pay for it. This is especially true in baking. I KNOW you cannot mess with the ingredients in baking, but I always do. EVERY time. I know that the adage “if a little is good, a lot is better” DOES NOT APPLY when you’re measuring spices. But I always ignore that and use more anyway. Maybe I'm just rebellious.

2 - I have little patience for or knowledge of aesthetic food presentation, so when I make something that tastes great, it doesn't look quite so nice. I am always just trying to get it on the table as fast as I can. For instance, I make great vegan lasagna (at least I thought it tasted great until I got sick of tomato products). When I started making it several years ago, it was a 3-hour recipe. I have it streamlined way down now, but even so, I get impatient and can't wait 10 minutes to let it cool after it is cooked. I end up just slopping it on to the plates, where it completely falls apart. Classy!

3 - I am easily distracted and I am always thinking about other things. I am not the best multitasker. I have very little cooking time and very ravenous kids. These three things combine to make me a very scatterbrained, rushed cook. That's just not a good combination.

At least 50% of the time when I cook, I burn myself. I think this is related to being easily distracted. It is also related to me having a trashy oven wherein the springs on the door are rusted, so the door doesn’t actually open all the way. And if you try to force it open without bracing it, the stove starts to tip over. It is also related to me being a cheap, forgetful procrastinator. I use ancient potholders and have needed new ones for years. I don’t even have oven mitts any more. 98% of the time I forget to buy them when I go to the store. 1% of the time I remember, but then see that it will cost $10, and I’m too cheap/broke to spend it. 1% of the time I remember AND have $10, but think I think “oh, well I might change the kitchen color scheme* soon, so I shouldn’t get new stuff!” (*The ‘color scheme’ includes the valance I made to go over the window. It’s not like I have a kitchen full of only one color.)

I have a row of scars on both wrists where I've burned myself getting stuff out of the oven. I circled the biggest ones in this picture:

I’ve burned myself in various other ways as well, thankfully never severely. I specifically remember two burns from this weekend. On Friday night, I was 'deep' frying 'scones' (fry bread) in my cast iron skillet, and then I decided to GRAB THE HANDLE to move it. I capitalized this part because I am blown away by my cluelessness. I have been cooking with that skillet for 3 or 4 years. Every single time I have cooked with it, the handle has gotten VERY HOT. Why on earth would I suddenly forget that fact?

My second burn of the weekend came about because I don't like to clean up cooked-on splatters. I was making gel Fels Naptha laundry soap (yes I know just as toxic as anything, but it’s CHEAP) Saturday night and decided to be PROACTIVE and clean up the spills as soon as I was done with the stove. Yeah, I grabbed the burner grate within a few minutes after I had turned the flame off. I am SMRT!!! (Also, I had to Google for at least 5 minutes to figure out the term ‘burner grate’.)

Last night I made pizzas using a stoneware pizza stone (thanks, Alisa!) and a stoneware baking sheet. The pizza stone doesn’t have any kind of lip or handle, so you would think I would definitely burn myself getting it out. I didn’t!! I was so proud of myself. But get this – I was wearing dangly earrings made out of a bunch of thin metal discs. I was leaning over the oven for a long time while I was switching the pizza pans from rack to rack halfway through the cooking time. I started feeling like my NECK was burning. It was! The heat from the oven heated up my earrings and they kept smacking into my neck. They didn’t give me an actual burn, but they were pretty hot. Crazy. Also, a couple hours after dinner, I discovered that I had shredded a knuckle while shredding cheese. Oh well. At least I didn’t burn myself directly this time.

I have shattered at least 3 glass baking dishes that I can think of. Each time it was because I was adding room temperature liquid to a hot dish. One time I was making a chicken or a turkey and basted the turkey with broth. It hit the baking dish, and CRACK! Another time I was making Chicken Parmesan and the dish shattered when I added the tomato sauce. A third time I was making squash and was cooking the squash flesh up, filled with butter. Apparently the liquid in the hollowed out squash was not as hot as the glass dish, because when I pulled the oven rack out, the squash tipped a little, and when the liquid hit the dish, it shattered. I think I did some of these twice, so I have probably broken more than 3 dishes.

The story of “deep frying” the “scones” is a good example of my unique cooking style. My poor MiddleSon had been sick all day last Friday. He slept 7 hours straight, except for waking up to drink water and go to the bathroom. About 8 pm, he was hungry and asked for scones (meaning UTAH scones, which is basically fry bread). I knew scones were not a quick recipe, but I figured I’d start it anyway since he’d been sleeping all day – he’d probably be awake for a couple of hours. Then I found a recipe that didn’t require rising time. Even better! A couple of years ago when I finally got a wheat grinder, I insisted on getting a steel burr grinder. I decided this was preferable to an impact grinder because it wouldn’t superheat the wheat. Why I thought this was essential, I have no idea! If you’re grinding wheat, you’re going to be BAKING it anyway, so who cares if it gets hot? I cannot for the life of me remember why I thought this was so important. There is the principle of soaking grains/flour overnight in an acidic medium before using them – maybe I thought it wouldn’t be effective if the flour had been heated? I don’t know. The other reason I insisted on getting a burr grinder is that it could be used in an emergency if there was no power. Now, that IS a valid reason, so I am glad I have it. (Mine attaches to my Bosch, but also has a hand crank for emergencies.) And I wanted to get a grinder that could do various sized grinds. Regardless of my reasoning, I now have a burr grinder instead of an impact mill. Unfortunately, the burr grinder does NOT grind finely enough for some things. It’s great for bread. It’s fabulous for making cracked wheat and farina (like Cream of Wheat), which an impact mill cannot do. But it’s no good for cookies and other pastries. Yet I insist on continuing to use it for those things.

So I had this sub-par recipe for fry bread, and coarsely ground flour. When your flour is the consistency of fine corn meal, guess what? Recipes aren’t valid! Coarsely ground flour doesn’t soak up near the amount of liquid as impact-milled flour. So of course I was improvising the flour amount. Then, I was supposed to deep fry the fry bread. Despite working at Burger Bar for at least two years, I have no idea how to deep fry. I was never advanced enough at Burger Bar to be allowed to work the deep fryer (maybe this should’ve been a warning about my future cooking skills). I know that you’re supposed to have a lot of oil, and you’re supposed to get it hot enough, but not so hot that you burn your food. Well, I was going to be frying with organic extra-virgin coconut oil, and there was no way I was going to waste even a drop of it. So I was trying to fry with probably ½-3/4 inch of oil. Anyone who has deep fried anything, particularly puffy fry bread, is probably shaking their head at my cluelessness. After it had heated up for a while, I tested a bit of dough in the oil and it seemed to be frying well – sizzling/bubbling nicely, and not burning immediately. I am not really sure what the problem was, but those fry breads soaked up TONS of oil. After they were done, if you tore a piece off, you could see how far inside the oil had soaked. Gross!! At least it was coconut oil, so it still tasted good.

Despite my cooking disabilities, I still love cooking, and I think I always will. I think the more I learn about cooking, the better I will get. I knew nothing about cooking when I went to college. My sister did a lot of the cooking at our house, and she made me an awesome recipe binder as one of her Laurel projects when I left for BYU. Everything I know has been self taught, from that binder, or other cook books. I would love to take a class or cook with other people and see how they do things. There are also a ton of scientific cooking books and cookbooks out there that I think I would really like. I am burned out on the recipes I have been making for the past 8 years, but I am always collecting new ones. Check out my highly-organized recipe binder. The stack of papers stuffed into it is almost as thick as the stuff actually in the binder.

It looked very nice and well organized when my sister made it for me. I’ve crammed it full of stuff since then. I’m not sure how I want to organize my recipes, but I think it might be good to have one binder of traditional recipes, one with healthier recipes (no refined flour/sugar, vegetarian/vegan), and one with all-raw recipes. That way, when I decide to go all raw for a week, I won’t have to be tempted by looking for a raw recipe and accidentally running across a Ribeye with Blue Cheese Cream Sauce recipe!

Here are my other cookbooks. I've tossed out tons of cookbooks, usually when I suddenly become committed to being vegan or vegetarian. I'd like to start up a new collection of instructional cookbooks and those that focus on whole foods (whether Traidition, vegan, vegetarian, or raw).

One resource for cooking that I LOVE is Cook’s Illustrated (also see Cook’s Country). I wish they had more color photographs, but I love their scientific approach to cooking. I started to get a subscription to the magazine, but I decided it was too expensive or something, so I didn’t go through with it. Every time I go to the library I check out at least one issue and love reading it, even if I don’t end up making any of the recipes. The magazine’s front and back covers are always gorgeous, which I really like. They have an extensive subscribers website (as well as a lot of free information), and when I have more time to spend on cooking, I’m definitely signing up for a subscription.

Another site that I haven’t checked out too much, but looks really helpful, is Cooking for Engineers.
Some of my favorite food blogs are:

Smitten Kitchen So beautiful, and she works in a TINY NYC kitchen. I was always whining and complaining that I didn't have enough space to cook properly. No more excuses -- her kitchen is TINY.

Kayotic Kitchen Beautiful pictures.

The Pioneer Woman Cooks
Most of her recipes are very unhealthy, but I have learned a lot from her picture-by-picture instructions

Whole Food Whole Family
Chandelle has blown up every blog she’s ever started, so seriously, copy the entire thing. I have a copy of her previous food blog on my computer. She hasn’t blown up Whole Food Whole Family, but she’s now posting at phytophiliac (LOWERCASE, people!)

The Sunny Raw Kitchen Carmella's raw food blog.

Adventures of Raw Goddess Heathy Heathy's raw food blog.

Nourished Kitchen I figured since I had some raw food blogs, I'd better throw in some Traditional food blogs. This one is a new find.

The Nourishing Gourmet This is also a new find.

Green Smoothie Girl You all know I love Green Smoothie Girl. Go there now and buy her Twelve Steps to Whole Foods program -- it will take you through a year of transitioning to whole foods. It's a $29 ebook now. Or you can wait - Robyn is beefing it up to a whole educational program with audios, DVDs, etc. But I assume that's going to be a lot more expensive.

Baking Bites Probably not a healthy thing on here, but IT LOOKS SO GOOD!!

Vegan Lunchbox Lots of good ideas.


Chandelle said...

"When I informed him that traditionally, families would stay at the table until everyone was done and then help clean up together, he informed me that traditionally the mother would do the cooking and clean up afterwards."


That's all I can say about that.

I don't make something else for my kids when they refuse to eat, but I won't force them to eat, either. I think that creates all kinds of issues around food. My parents made me sit with dinner until I ate it and sometimes I'd even have to eat it cold the next morning. It really created problems for me with food, I think - for one, I always had to clear my plate, and I believe that made me lose the instinct of fullness.

If my kids don't want to eat, I have them take a few bites and then I just let it go. I don't think that little bit of nutrition is worth making food a battleground or a struggle for control. I also trust them to know what they need, and I do try to make things that aren't too challenging for them, and to have several components to the meal so they have a few choices.

I never, ever follow directions for cooking. Most of the time it works out okay - well, it does NOW that I've had years of experience just using recipes for inspiration. I have the same problem with baking, though, as I've said several times.

I also hate to have the kids hanging on me while cooking. Nothing will ruin a meal faster than me being frustrated. I'll often set them up with a food project (cutting mushrooms with a butter knife, or peeling garlic - something relatively time-consuming). If the problem is hunger, I'll let them have a piece of fruit or some yogurt and that usually tides them over. But I admit that I'm not above letting them watch a movie while I cook, if Jeremy's not home and I can't handle having them in the kitchen.

I have never burned myself so much as I have since we've had a gas stove. That thing cooks so hot and all the handles, specifically the cast iron, end up blazing hot, and I'm the same with grabbing the handles. Since we moved I've begun burning myself at least once a week.

I shattered a baking dish just once, putting it down on a hot burner after it came out of the oven. A billion pieces of shattered glass EVERYWHERE have made me too paranoid to ever do it again.

I keep my recipes on the computer, in my bookmarks or typed. I can't handle the clutter of having a hard copy, though I did do that for a long time. I actually envy you having a rotation of regular recipes. I have never had a rotation - I've made something original and brand-new for almost every single dinner for the past seven years. Now I'm in a terrible food rut, I have no desire to cook (maybe you've noticed the dearth of recipes?) or eat, and every night I get this desperate feeling of knowing that I need to make something and having no idea what to make but also not being willing to relinquish control of *my* kitchen to Jeremy.

I'm sorry that I keep quitting my blogs. I know it's frustrating. :)

I love Nourished Kitchen. You might also like Nourishing Days.

This concludes my epic-length comment.

Chandelle said...

(I should clarify that the baking dish didn't just shatter - it exploded.)

Katie said...

I definitely don't want to give my kids food issues. That was my main motivation in doing what I've done, but it kind of hasn't worked out too well.

You have good ideas about kids helping. I try to be gentle and patient when all 3 of them are trying to help/fight/make messes while I cook, but, um, it is a struggle.

I need to take some hints from you about clutter - putting it all on the computer is not a bad idea. But I think I would need to be able to flip through the recipes to decide what I want. I don't think computers will ever replace print.

Simply Mother said...

I think you are my long-lost cooking twin. I burn myself frequently (at least every other night, if only mildly) and for the exact same reasons. Your pot-holder conundrum? I laughed out loud. That is exactly why I still use the only 2 I have left from our wedding (not sure what happened to the other 3), even though they both have holes in them. I'm always so surprised at how much things like that cost. I am way cheap. (I'm also wearing holey socks.)

I am distracted, I don't follow directions, and I forget that I'm supposed to be going for "nice looking" as well as tasty until it's already on the table, sloppily.

I don't have any answers, obviously, but I, too, like to cook and hope I'm getting better.

I'm actually in the middle of making new, quick-to-look-through recipe books. I found those little $1 picture books at Wal-mart (they hold 36 4x6" pictures), and I'm printing all my most-used recipes to fit in the slots. It's really easy to look through them so I think it'll be helpful for menu planning, and then of course they are covered in plastic so they won't get messy while I follow them when baking. Right now I just have two and that is plenty. One for main dishes (sort of organized by type--soups close together, pastas, then everything else. (I tried separating out by type of meat/vegetarian, but those overlap too much with the soups and pastas so I gave up).

The other one has things I make all the time--bread, pancakes, muffins, granola, rolls, plus a few other breads, appetizers/side dishes, and desserts.

Only the recipes I actually use much go in these. I'm still keeping my other books, but these will be my main go-to books.

As for kids, we have never forced anything, not even a bite, or done much in the way of persuading them to eat anything (always backfires anyway), but we have allowed them to get something else quick, easy, and healthy.

BUT, I'm changing that slightly, as my older one will quite happily fill up on w.w.bread and apples, which are great, but I'm afraid she's becoming quite picky and not willing to even try anything. So now I'm going to make sure there's at least one thing on the table I know everyone can at least tolerate, and from there our attitude is, "What's on the table is what's for dinner."

There haven't been any big problems over this slight change, but I also didn't really make it a big production either. It's funny, when I act like "This is just the way it's always been, what? I don't see a problem," my kids seem to go right along with it. Weird, but . . . nice!

Simply Mother said...

Um...sorry for the novel. I'll go back to boring my own blogreaders now, kthxbai!

Katie said...

C - That's awesome that you're like me :-D It makes me feel more normal, ha ha!

I really like your idea of using the photo books. My binder is so huge that I never have anywhere to put it, and it's always getting knocked over. The smaller books is a fantastic idea.

Ramon said...

As far as the ex's idea as to how dinner is to be done.....well I have two four letter words for that. For the kids, if they don't like what you make for dinner, that's fine, don't eat. Maybe next time they won't be pushing their mother around or treating her like crap. If you need some recipes, I have about 105 cookbooks. No I'm not exaggerating, I have four shelves of cookbooks that I own, and I am constantly buying more. Though I'll admit I don't think it is a good idea about the vegetarian idea with the kids so young, but your the mother not me. If you want I'll invite you guys over for dinner sometime, that way your kids can try something different, but kid friendly.

Katie said...

You might be right about the vegetarian/kids thing. For someone like Chandelle, who has raised her kids since birth eating a huge variety of things, and who actually goes to the effort of making balanced meals, I think veganism is fine.

But for me. . . . you could be right.

I just get so dogmatic about things, it's hard to let go.

YES, invite us over for dinner! You've been talking about that since February. Put your money where your mouth is. I would love to see your cookbooks!