It’s two months-plus since my knee replacement and I’m finally be able to cook again — yay! In the last year, anything that involved standing or walking made me wince and have to sit down. I’d been relegated to a sous chef; I could chop things sitting at the table while Bob handled the stove and oven. I do like to cook and bake, so I missed it.
This new development has got me looking at cookbooks again. I do have quite a collection, some favorites, some I’ve never used but want to explore. Just looking at them has me remembering how I taught myself to cook decades ago.
I grew up in the 70s, and cooking with boxed and canned food items had become very popular. My mom was a good cook and would sometimes make stuff from scratch on the weekends, but it was the era of Boxed & Processed Foods. They were new, convenient, and exciting. Hamburger Helper, Kraft mac and cheese, frozen pizzas, Spam. Vegetables came in cans and were soft and bland. Desserts were often canned fruit (pineapple, peaches, pears or fruit “cottontail” as I liked to call it), jello or pudding.
I was the oldest and curious about cooking. I started helping my mom, learning how to cook pudding and jello from the boxes, how to make a white sauce for creamed tuna on toast, and became proficient at Hamburger Helper. My mom went back to work when I was a teen and I often cooked dinner for us — frozen pot pies, frozen fish sticks and french fries, sloppy joes from a packet.
When Bob and I got married, at first we just carried on with what we knew of groceries. But after awhile, we started looking at these boxed, frozen, canned foods, reading the nutrition labels, and didn’t like seeing the fat content or the long list of unpronounceable chemical ingredients. But we didn’t yet know how to eat better or cook differently.
I worked downtown and started going to B. Dalton’s book store (which no longer exists; yes, I’m old) on my lunch break. I hung out in the cookbook aisle, looking for something that would help.
That was when I discovered my new bible: Jane Brody’s Good Food Book. It was everything that I was looking for back then. Jane Brody is the Personal Health Columnist for the New York Times. Half of this book is a food and nutrition primer, with info about healthy foods and how to cooks them, and the other half is a wide variety of recipes. (It’s also somewhat diet-y, with advice on weight loss, in case that kind of thing triggers you). There is a whole illustrated section on dozens of different fruits and vegetables, many of which I’d never heard of before. It’s also the kind of cook book I prefer, with descriptions and notes before most of the recipes. I like to be enticed into cooking something, lured in by prose. Tempt me, Baby!
I pored over that book like I’d discovered a whole new magical world I’d never even heard about before. This was the first place I ever heard of hummus (it wasn’t well known like it is today) or mango. She taught me about a plethora of grains, like bulgur, wheat berries, millet, barley and oat groats. I learned how to cook fresh vegetables. I started working my way through the cookbook, learning to cook from scratch, including pancakes (no Bisquick for us anymore), whole grain bread, and fruity desserts. Bob cooked too sometimes, and he loved making 40 Clove of Garlic Chicken, Greek Chicken with Cheese, and Spaghetti Pancake. I don’t know how many times I’ve made some of our favorite recipes.
Our kids grew up eating a world of foods I never even ate until my twenties. Asparagus, mango, chard, kale, avocado, eggplant, okra, quinoa, yogurt, to name a few. It’s funny to write that, when these foods are so commonplace now.
Cooking is often trial and error, and if you stick with it, you learn as you go. Nowadays, cooking shows or videos make it easier to learn by watching (The Great British Bake Off is my fave right now, “scrummy!”). And it’s so easy to look up recipes online, search on Pinterest or cooking blogs. But I still love to page through my cookbooks. I always write notes on the recipes I try — if we liked it or changed something or hated it. My cookbooks end up looking well-loved, with spatters and scribbles on them. They are working documents to me.
What about you: do you like to cook? Did you learn to cook? Would you rather do take-out? (Me too, sometimes!) The winter holidays are almost upon us, and it tends to be a very cooking-centered time of year… do you have something you love to cook or bake?
And, if you do cookbooks, what is your favorite? I’ll share some of mine below. Bon Appetit!
[Photos courtesy of Taylor-Kiser-361164 and Katie Smith at Unsplash.com and me.]