Within one minute of the first cooking assignment for this blog series, the grater was taken out of my hand to show me a technique that actually yielded grated ginger, not ginger mush. Technique—not my strong suit. I could go on and on about my years of missteps in the kitchen—slicing my hand trying to do the avocado pit trick, bruising my hand trying to open wine with a shoe, ruining a perfectly good head of lettuce by using my hand to kung fu chop it for a salad—so mastering a few basic skills was pretty high on my priority list.
With so much to learn between the stovetop, cutting board, oven and tools, though, what's an intimidated, impatient girl to do? Thankfully, I didn't have to look far for people, websites and services willing to teach me a thing or two.
The Secret Weapons
Let's take a little trip down memory lane, shall we? Today, one of the only recipes I am fiercely proud of is my guacamole, but back in 2009, the only thing I could proudly call my own creation was a real fancy bowl of Honey Nut Cheerios. Northwestern has a reputation for pushing its students to challenge themselves to reach new heights, though, so one night my friend Ethan and I decided to skip Chipotle's guac-is-extra guacamole and make our own.
What followed was a one-hour adventure. Not an exaggeration. After reading the recipe, accepting our ineptitude and vowing to never take Chipotle for granted again, we pulled out the laptop in search of answers. As with most nights in college, we ended up on YouTube, where we were able to find easy-to-follow tutorials on how to remove the pit from an avocado, tips on cutting an onion without crying, dicing a tomato and herb-mincing demonstrations. Who knew that hidden amongst the videos of puppies confronting mini pumpkins were hours and hours of free cooking lessons? Forbes recommends channels like Food Wishes from Allrecipes, which includes everything from basics like seeding a pomegranate to more complicated recipes like rack of lamb with strawberry mint sauce for discovering the culinary ninja inside. For more specific recipe questions, hit the search box and go to town browsing for specific technique keywords.
2. Meal subscription services
Meal subscription services are all the rage lately, aren't they? You've got the new classics, vegetarian and vegan options, organic ingredients and others offering dessert and even wine pairings. The benefits are obvious: Food comes right to your door with easy-to-understand instructions at your fingertips and you're learning new skills right in your own kitchen, using your own tools. Many meal services are also going to be cheaper than your average cooking class, plus no reservations are required, making it ideal for weeknight cooking.
Given my anxiety about getting lost in the grocery, my curiosity and I dipped our toes in to the meal subscription craze with Terra's Kitchen, a relative newcomer to the industry. The service promises "farm-to-front door deliveries" that can be ready in just 30 minutes. While Terra's does most of the pre-prep in terms of chopping ingredients (meaning that rather than being Giada getting her hands dirty and making piccata from scratch, you're more like Al mixing up molten cake in a fake kitchen), other meal services guide users through the preparation process with step-by-step instructions, tips and photo examples. Blue Apron even maintains a YouTube channel featuring quick 30-second to two-minute tutorials on everything from mincing garlic to rolling your own sushi. If you've never touched a kitchen knife, having a handy guide on hand is a huge plus.
While we didn't necessarily pick up any new skills from our particular meal service experience, it did actually make me interested in physically being in the kitchen. For rookies like me whose regular contribution to cook-at-home night is popping the Malbec, meal delivery services offer an impetus to take that scary first step closer to the stove. Plus, the recipes were so tasty, we might even try to recreate them, shopping, chopping and all.
3. Cooking class
Rarely cooking means that I basically have one brownie pan, one sauce pan, my great-grandma's silverware, measuring cups and a bunch of coffee cups that double as bowls. I turn into a female MacGyver when a recipe requires any other tools. I've used a fork as a whisk, a fork as a blender and my sauce pan as a toaster. I've always thought, "I don't know how to use it, so why would I buy that?" Traditional cooking classes effectively eliminate that excuse.
With a fully stocked kitchen and a trained pro at the helm, cooking classes are a great intro to every appliance, not to mention technique and general confidence in knowing and understanding food. Chef Meg Galvin (CHEF_MEG), a tenured professor at Cincinnati State with 15 years of experience teaching cooking classes, recommends starting slow and working your way up. "Beginners should look for basic skill classes that teach methods such as how to sauté, poach [and] braise. Intermediate students [look for] advanced techniques and experimentation with developing recipes."
The cooking class environment offers a safe space with an instructor who can spend time making sure every student understands the new concept or skill and can carry that knowledge to their home kitchen. Once you wrap your head around how to utilize that immersion blender, you're more likely to get your own and apply the same technique in your own kitchen. Hello, homemade soup all winter long! Galvin insists the class environment is also key in encouraging an excitement about the power of good home-cooked meals. "Food is life. It brings families together," she says. "We all love what our parents and grandparents cooked for us. Classes can help you recreate that dish and maybe start a new family tradition dish of your own."
Many grocery stores or cooking supply stores offer their own classes, or a quick Google search is sure to bring up a trendy place right in your city. Plus, cooking an exquisite dish without having to load the dishwasher after is kind of a glorious date night.
4. Mom and Pop
They taught you how to tie your shoes and why you should always leave a note, so why not enlist them to help you add some skills to your repertoire? Chances are they've already imparted some invaluable advice on navigating the kitchen, but there are always new skills to learn. Plan on getting together at your house or theirs to pick one of their favorite complicated recipes, then spend the evening getting nostalgic and trying to mimic their technique. This is how memories are made, people.
If parents aren't an option, enlist someone who you've always admired in the kitchen and invite them over for a night of cooking. We all have that friend who can whip up macaroons before work and a soufflé after their hour at the gym, so tell them you'll grab the food if they bring the wine. (BRB, filling up my social calendar with friend and family dates until I have the energy to cook on my own again.)
I only recently found out about this service, so full disclosure, I haven't tried it, but it looks oh so promising. The membership-based service advertises itself as a new kind of cooking school. According to the website, members gain access to courses led by master chefs, a full library of tutorials and step-by-step instructions for a range of recipes.
Their impressive roster includes experienced chefs working in some of the country's most celebrated restaurants in established foodie destinations (New Orleans, Chicago, New York City) and up-and-coming cities (Austin, Portland), alike. The service covers a huge range of cuisines, meaning you could be making a crawfish and sausage jambalaya with Wilfredo Avelar on a Tuesday, pick up tips on using a wok from the "godfather of the food truck movement" on Thursday and enjoy an Earl Grey tea infused old fashioned to reward yourself on Saturday.
Salted appears to be a springboard to the next level for rookies and aspiring chefs alike.
6. Trial and Error
With that, we jumped on the fancy egg train. After our first egg ended in a stringy, yolky, wet blob, we tried adding vinegar to the pot before cooking. The next time, we used a spoon to gently ease the egg into the pot. The third attempt with a ladle yielded an egg pretty enough to serve to the Queen or, you know, anyone meeting for an all-night study group at the apartment. I don't want to brag, but seven years later, I'm pretty much an egg poaching master. I even made them for the brunch to end all brunches—Mother's Day—last year.
Point being, practice makes perfect and other clichés about learning by doing.
Is a Cooking Show in My Future?
Not exactly. This journey has had a lot of highs (the steelhead trout with lemon and roasted vegetables) and a lot of lows (hangover PB&Js are not nearly as delicious as hangover pizza delivered right to your bedroom), and I've definitely learned a lot about navigating the kitchen, understanding what I am capable of cooking and strategies for managing healthy meals during the busy workweek.
Am I still confused about the specifics of blanching a vegetable? Yes. Do I think I could de-bone a chicken? Probably not without a lot of issues and maybe some chicken being thrown at the wall. But I do know that you can throw a noodle at that same wall to know if it's cooked through. I know how to handle a knife very carefully and I know that stocking basics in my kitchen cuts my post-gym grocery run from an hour to just a quick 15 minutes. I know that I can cook a fish and make my own salsa and the two can even complement one another on the plate.
I feel more confident in my ability to handle a sharp knife. I could probably manage a dish on the stove and one in the oven at the same time, and I even found a few recipes that I can probably make again, maybe even for actual people at a dinner party or—gasp—holiday potluck. I even bought a hilarious new cookbook and added Post-Its to, count them, four whole recipes with multiple steps. And while I still love Brad the delivery guy and called on him the second my 30-day experiment was over for some sushi, I think we'll enjoy an open relationship from now on.
Thanks for indulging me in this journey, SparkPeople friends! It's been a delicious, surprising ride. Tell me, where should I go from here? Share your favorite recipe below and I might just try to make it!
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