Ten years of learning how to cook

imageA few of my friends want to learn more about cooking, going beyond eating out or occasionally making a bowl of pasta at home. It’s a welcome change, and I’m looking forward to more and more people making that shift.

For some people, it seems a point of pride to not know how to cook: they’re too busy to sit down and do that, or there are so many good restaurants out there, or cooking is just plain not enjoyable. For us, cooking is part of our way of life. We can cook most meals for much cheaper than we can buy them, and our weekday meals are more convenient than eating out. I love being able to have my favourite foods at any time of day. Despite the occasional drudgery, I’ve grown to enjoy cooking – especially when W- and I spend a few hours putting together something delicious.

I thought I’d reflect on past 10 years of learning how to cook to see what I learned and how I learned it. When I started, I struggled with the basics: burning pancakes, trying to figure out how to use ground beef in different recipes. Now we can make lists based on the grocery fliers, adjust our plans based on what’s marked down for quick sale, and stock our freezer with meals to last us through the week.

B.C. – Before Cooking

Growing up, I hadn’t imagined being this comfortable with cooking. My sister was the cook in the family, the one with an intuitive sense of what went with what. She took whatever was in the fridge and made something delicious with it, no recipe required. We enjoyed the occasional meal she prepared for us, and she told us stories of how cooking helped her make friends while travelling. The rest of the time, we were spoiled by the fact that family business–advertising photography–retained a cook to feed clients, staff, and us.

I wasn’t totally hopeless. I helped in the kitchen, and I loved making lasagna together with my mom. I took cooking lessons one summer. I mainly learned that following recipes produced reasonable results. At home, I occasionally made myself instant noodles or reheated pork and beans, but I didn’t really have the motivation to cook.

Cook or Die

That changed a few months after I graduated from university. I had just turned twenty, and I was teaching computer science at my alma mater. To cut down on the commuting time, we found an apartment-style dormitory near the campus. Each unit was shared by two people, and there was an unfurnished kitchen. My parents outfitted it with a hot plate (a single electric burner, which was all the dormitory allowed), a toaster oven, a microwave, and a compact fridge. There were a number of fast food restaurants in walking distance that I’d frequented as a student, but I resolved that my grown-up life shouldn’t involve KFC every lunch and dinner. There was a supermarket a bit of the way up the street. To force myself to learn how to cook, I decided that I would eat out for at most one meal a day. If I didn’t cook, I’d go hungry. Cook or die. (Well, that was an exaggeration, but it was a good project name.)

Did I mention that my apartment didn’t have Internet access? I know. Boggle.

It was… interesting. I loaded up on kid- and singles- and microwave-oriented cookbooks, and occasionally made things up just as an experiment. You may find my blog posts from that time amusing. Here’s a summary of the first two weeks:

As you can see, I was a bit of a slow learner. ;)

Eventually I graduated to being confident enough in a few recipes that were ready for company. I was living in an exclusive girls’ domitory, so no guys were allowed inside the units. That meant my friends could help me with groceries and give me tips, but they couldn’t actually help me learn how to cook unless I was home for the weekend. The dormitory did have a garden with picnic tables and some shelter, though, and both male and female guests were welcome there. We worked out this weekly rotation, and I had dinner with someone practically every day. I particularly enjoyed being able to prepare individual-sized portions of lasagna rolls using the recipe in one of my microwave cookbooks. Even in pouring storms, friends would come and join me. It was wonderful.

I enjoyed teaching, but I left that to take advantage of a technical internship that the Japanese government was offering. In the in-between months, I stayed at home. In Japan, I stayed at a hotel-type dormitory with a cafeteria. There was hardly any cooking, although I did develop an appreciation for the sheer variety of ramen (instant or otherwise) available in Japan.

Graduate student life

When I moved to Canada for graduate school, I made sure I was in an apartment-style residence with a kitchen and a small shared living room. I shared my unit with three other people, and the mix changed each semester or so. There was a 24-hour supermarket within walking distance (somewhat expensive, but convenient) and other markets available a long walk or a short streetcar ride down the street.

I made friends: some students who lived in the building, and other people I met in my studies or research. I often invited a couple of friends over for dinner, usually something experimental – a stir-fry, or chicken breast and sauce, or whatever recipe intrigued me. From time to time, I took advantage of the large common outdoor party/barbeque area. At some point, I decided I was grown-up enough to want my own set of plates instead of the mismatched hand-me-downs, so I headed over to Walmart and splurged on a set of Corelle, a rice cooker, a teapot, and other essentials.

There were occasional group cooking lessons in the residence, open to whoever signed up. I liked them. We split up into small groups and prepared different recipes such as roasted red pepper soup, and then we got to enjoy the tastes of all the recipes together.

The administration decided on the mix of roommates based on the questionnaires we submitted. I didn’t always get along with my room-mates, one of whom tended to abscond with my dishes without returning them. (I lost a couple of cereal bowls this way.) When I had finished most of my research and lined up a job at IBM, I decided it was time to look for my own apartment. Of all the ones I looked at, my favourite was a one-bedroom apartment across the street. The rent was a little high and the kitchen was tiny, but I was looking forward to cooking without squabbling over fridge space or dishes in the sink.

Cooking with W-

I was a relative newcomer to Canada, so the building management didn’t want to prepare a lease without a co-signer. Of all my friends, W- was probably the stablest and most respectable. He knew I managed my finances well and had the year’s rent set aside, so he didn’t have to worry about being on the hook for it. In preparation for the move, I’d boxed up my kitchen tools and resolved to live on peanut butter sandwiches like my mom had done in university. W- took pity on me and invited me over for dinner. These scrumptious home-made meals became a regular occurrence.

We signed the paperwork and moved my stuff (easy across the street, especially with a skateboard), I feathered my nest and set up my tiny kitchen. As a housewarming present, W- gave me Happy Bunny socks with witty slogans, since I’d mentioned my sister’s trick of happy socks. As a kitchen-warming present, he gave me a basic set of Wusthof Classic knives. (Embarrassed by the generosity of the gift, I tried to talk him out of it, but he insisted that good tools make all the difference.)

They say the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach. Apparently, this is true for women too. Even though the paperwork was done, W- kept inviting me for delicious meals: crushing basil in a mortar and pestle for pesto, pinakbet (which he had learned how to make long before meeting me, so it was fun to encounter this familiar dish), a comparison of two lasagna recipes. I assisted, of course: chopping, stirring, learning more about cooking. Sometimes I invited W- or other people over to my place for whatever simple dishes I could prepare with my minimal kitchen setup; the knives made preparation a joy even in the cramped space.

Eventually we realized we were in love. I sublet my apartment and moved in. I brought my cherished knives and selected kitchen tools, leaving the rest for my tenant.

After my tiny kitchen, W-’s kitchen was a real treat. Cast-iron skillets, a decent-sized wok, two rice cookers (large and small), a low-cost supermarket up the street, a garden to grow herbs in, a large kitchen table that we ended up spending most of our time at… I volunteered to be the sous chef as often as I could. Over time, I took the lead in making more meals. I learned family favourites and we discovered new ones together. Cooking with W- made learning fun – we could celebrate successes and gamely finish anything that wasn’t an absolute failure.

Cooking was part of W-’s way of life, and I was delighted to make it part of mine too. We rarely ate out. It just wasn’t convenient during schooldays, and cooking was more frugal anyway. From March 2007 to August 2009 (30 months), I logged $145/month for groceries for 2.5 people (85%) and $25/month for dining out (15%). The actual numbers are different because W- picked up some groceries and usually treated me when dining out, although we set up this system where I contributed a fixed amount to household expenses so it worked out anyway.

We periodically tweaked the kitchen to improve the way we worked. We moved the canned goods from the basement into an industrial-style shelving unit. We moved the microwave to a custom shelf and freed up the rolling table it had been on, which turned out to have an excellent cutting surface on top of it – more counter space! Little tweaks like that made cooking more efficient and more fun.

I’d been reading about the benefits of a chest freezer on frugality blogs. We weren’t sure if we had the space or if we could make it part of our lifestyle, so we dithered. In 2009, W- and I finally decided to take the plunge. We bought a 5.3 cu-ft freezer and started stocking it with sale items, filling the extra space with water jugs to improve efficiency. Eventually we learned the basics of bulk cooking, discovered which of our favourites froze well, and standardized our food containers for easier organization.

We also experimented with community-supported agriculture. It was a good way to get through lots of vegetables, and Internet recipes were really helpful. (All that zucchini! All that cabbage!) We eventually decided to buy our own vegetables, but it was a good experience.

Now I’ve gotten to the point where a 30% markdown on pork tenderloin makes me think of tonkatsu, I can make a stir-fry with whatever vegetables look okay, and cooking is more like fun than a chore.

What I learned along the way

People make cooking much more fun

Cooking by myself was a drag. Cooking for other people was better, because we could enjoy the good stuff and laugh about the dishes that didn’t go as well. (You can tell who your friends are – if they eat your experimental cooking, they’re good friends!) Cooking with other people was the best, because then you can chat while chopping (carefully) and watch out for each other (looks like the eggs are done!). W- helped me learn so much more about cooking than I probably would have on my own.

Good tools really do matter

A sharp knife is less dangerous than a dull one because a sharp knife won’t slip. W- periodically sharpens the knives, and I try to remember to use the steel before I use the chef’s knife. I’ve also come to really appreciate the convenience of a dough scraper, Microplane graters, and other little kitchen things. That said, we try to minimize the number of unitaskers we have: no egg poachers, no slot toasters, no corn cob holders… This means our drawers are easier to organize and keep uncluttered.

The Internet is awesome

The Internet has a gazillion recipes. I used to feel a little intimidated by the variety, but I realized that it meant that recipes are (mostly) just guidelines. Can I skip a spice that I don’t normally stock? Can I substitute an ingredient for something I don’t have? Do I want to adjust the temperature so that I can bake two different things at the same time? Chances are that someone has a recipe that calls for that, so it should be fine. It might not be amazing, but it will be okay.

Absolute failures are very rare

There was the time I put the yeast in water that was too hot. My lump of pizza dough didn’t rise, and I had to throw it out and start over. Sometimes I burn things and have to scrape off bits. One time I was learning about seasoning cast-iron pans and I heated one for so long that the season flaked off. I broke a rice cooker and repaired it by replacing the thermal fuse. Most of my cooking failures were salvageable, though. It turns out that it’s difficult to Completely Mess Things Up, so you should worry less and just go ahead and try it.

Chest freezers and bulk cooking make everything easier

Cooking in bulk lets us minimize the number of left-over ingredients, especially if we adjust the recipes. Having meals in the freezer is an amazing way to reduce the risk of cooking experimental recipes: if it’s an absolute failure, well, there’s a guaranteed meal all ready to go. Freezing is also great for dealing with leftovers. If I don’t feel like eating the same thing for the rest of the week, I can package it as individual lunches in the freezer for when I feel like having it again.

Next steps for me

There’s plenty more to learn, and I look forward to getting even better at this over the next ten years. Here are some of the skills that would be fun to improve:

Regular menu planning and a broader repertoire of recipes

You know how some households run on predictable patterns? We do a little of this: soups and baking on the weekends because of time-of-use electricity charges; stir-fries to take advantage of fresh vegetables from our grocery shopping; maybe a vegetarian meal sometime during the week… It would be good to get even better at planning what we’re going to have, perhaps based on a two-week cycle of themes that’s adjusted by what’s on sale, and to introduce new recipes within that framework.

Recycling leftovers into new dishes

I tend to be pretty happy eating the same thing again and again (or freezing the leftovers if they’ve been around a while), but recycling left-overs into new dishes would extend their fridge-life and encourage people to eat them. There are books that focus on cascading one recipe into another, and it seems like a good skill to learn. It’s also a quick way to get more variety out of the same cooking effort.

Working with different spices and sauces

We have a lot of spices in the cabinet. I should make an inventory of them and organize them for easy reach. Sauces are also good ways to give the same basic dish different tastes. If I learn more about flavour, I can stock the freezer and fridge with a wider range of tastes.

So that’s my cooking story

I’ve written a lot about bulk cooking and other things I’ve learned, so check out those blog posts for more tips. You can also read the posts in chronological order if you want to see all the steps along the way. If you’re learning how to cook, I hope my story helps – hang in there and keep practising, and you’ll probably come to enjoy cooking too. Good luck and have fun!

  • http://mylenesereno.blogspot.com mylescxy

    That was a lovely cooking story Sacha! And somehow.. your love story too! :)

    I learned to cook when I was in college. I had to creatively look for ways on how to save money so I learned to cook pancit canton (no-brainer there) and later a few easy-to-do recipes such as bihon with sardines and corned beef with potatoes.

    When I started working here in Manila, I tried batch cooking to save on time, electricity and effort in preparing meals. But sometimes I tend to forget that there’s still food in the fridge so they get spoiled. I share a tiny fridge with 4 other housemates so it’s a bit hard to distinguish which of the food is mine and which isn’t or, sometimes my food gets buried deep under my housemates’ stuff so I forget about them.

    I wish I could have more kitchen space in the future and a few kitchen essentials (like a good, sharp knife) when I’ll finally live in my own unit in 2015. Yay! Excited! :)

  • http://sachachua.com Sacha Chua

    That’s true – living on my own and then living with W- were both much better cooking-wise than living with roommates, because there were no squabbles about what’s in the fridge and who’s been using my oatmeal etc. =) Good luck!

  • http://twitter.com/chris_carlsson Christian Carlsson (@chris_carlsson)

    Good stuff(ing)!

    I actually learned cooking — or learned to enjoy cooking — when working for IBM. I had a very creative job, pioneering stuff, trying things, exploring, creating visions, and so on. But to see the result(s) I often had to wait months and years. And since most of my interest and energy in things is within the first 2% of the time spam, I didn’t really feel fulfilled in my creativity.

    In comes cooking. I quickly realized how creative one can be — and the best thing is you get the result very quickly in so many ways: you can taste your creativity; feel it; see it; event smell it. And whether you succeed creating something really god or not, you still can share the experience with others — as you say — both BC, During, and AC.

    Cooking is and will remain my best creativity space. Tomorow I will actually start on a Thai-cooking class, which I look forward to.

    And now I’m hungry….

    • http://sachachua.com Sacha Chua

      Yes, quick feedback loops are motivating. How did the class go? Pad thai is one of our favourites, and I’d love to discover other recipes. We haven’t done one of those curries in a while – we usually do Indian curries instead. =)

  • http://www.davehodgkinson.com Dave Hodgkinson

    I’m not allowed to sharpen knives: Louise is the sculptor and demands to do it.

    And my next stage is spices.

    • http://sachachua.com Sacha Chua

      I’m looking forward to getting the hang of the spices in our cabinet. =) So much to learn, so many interesting tastes… Tim Ferris has some interesting tips in The 4-Hour Chef on learning the taste of spices by isolating them (perhaps trying them in hot water, etc.) so that you can learn to taste them in dishes. So much to learn!

  • Simon West

    I have written a small Emacs package to help with grocery shopping. So far I am the only user, but I have found that it takes a lot of the hassle out of meal planning. It can be found here if you’re interested:
    shopping-lisp
    If you find it useful please spread the word!

  • http://coevolving.com David Ing

    Your writing about NOT cooking in your childhood was enlightening, because our family has always been about cooking. Yes, my grandfather was in the restaurant business (as were many Chinese who migrated to Canada in the 1950s). It’s not the restaurant meals I remember, though. I lived with my grandparents after they retired, and cooking has always run in my family.

    Since I just visited my ancestral village this past summer, my story could be deeper. Our extended family is still farming in southern China, so the ties to the land are strong. Our current generation living in urban areas and flying to other cities is the exception rather than the rule.