Since I am starting at the beginning, or well, near the beginning, I’ll tell you a little bit about how I learned to cook.
I always assumed most people had a really nice mom who wore an apron and on Sundays, that really nice mom would say to her daughter: “Sweetie, let’s bake and cook together.” Said daughter would learn how to properly crack an egg, separate the egg white, learn about folding verses mixing, you get the drift.
Now I did learn specific things from my great grandmother in reference to making certain Greek dishes, but she was more of the type of grandmother who didn’t want me to work. She wanted to do it and I don’t think she understood that I was actually interested. She was so humble about her mad skills, she really thought it was nothing.
So in my mother’s house, there was not a whole lot of teaching or passing down of technique. Most of my learning came from getting up at the crack of dawn while everyone was sleeping and making strange food concoctions while watching a whole lot of cooking shows on PBS. For you youngens, PBS in the 70’s and 80’s was our Food Network.
My favorite TV cook was Jeff Smith of the Frugal Gourmet. I would get so excited every time his show was on. A few times I tried to convey my excitement to my friends. Big mistake! My cool status took a nose dive. What 10 year old in the 80’s watched some old guy cooking on TV? Umm, me!
And that is how it all began. I actually owe a lot to Jeff Smith, now that I think about it. The first thing I ever attempted to cook that I learned from watching him was Baked Elephant Garlic. Sounds so simple, but to a 10 year old, hell no!
First of all, what the hell is elephant garlic? As an adult, there aren’t many possibilities of what it could be, but as a kid, there were so many. So I asked my mom when she woke up and she told me it was just really large bulbs of garlic. “Okay,” I thought, “that makes sense.” And later that day, she actually bought some for me.
So the next morning while everyone was sleeping, I started my foray into this dish with the recipe committed to memory:
Remove the husk from the garlic bulb, brush with olive oil, bake for 20 minutes at 375 degrees, remove from oven, open shell and spread on a nice crustini. (Wait, what is a crustini? Sounds like crust, must be bread, okay I’ll make toast.) Sprinkle with a little salt and bon appetite!
It was a success! I loved it, and so did my mom. Hey, I cooked something fancy! Woo hoo!
Not all of my early attempts were as successful, though. There was the time that I tried a microwave quiche from a cookbook I found on a kitchen shelf. It professed that you could make anything in the microwave and it would be amazing. They lied, or I sucked at it. The result was a runny omelet-like odd substance. I tasted it, then threw away the evidence.
A family favorite story is the time I tried to substitute spaghetti sauce with a can of Manwich when I was living with my dad. He was an actual chef, as a matter of fact, and even co-wrote a cookbook called How To Garnish.
It was my turn to cook dinner. I was a teenager, had better things to do and the cupboards weren’t very well stocked. I saw a box of spaghetti. Bingo, I thought I’d whip up a nice salad and we’d be good to go. I threw the spaghetti in the water, opened the cupboard to grab the sauce, and oh crap. No sauce, NO SAUCE! “Okay,” I thought. “Think! Think! What else could I use? Manwhich? Hmm, I’ve never had it, but it looks close enough. How bad could it be?”
So I put it all together, tasted a tiny bite, and it was totally gross. Crap crap crap. More parmesan, more salt, some oregano made it better, right? Not really. I chose butter and cheese for my spaghetti. No way was I eating that Manwich stuff.
I put the meal on the table. My brother had already witnessed my madness and decided on butter and cheese as well. Our dad sat down, looked at the dish, smelled it, tasted it and… ate the entire thing! After he was finished, he got up and said: “By the way, what the hell was that?” Haha he knew it was gross but didn’t want to hurt my feelings. Poor guy.
But experimenting brings amazing results more often than not, and it’s really how I learned to cook: bake and infuse. Just pick your balls up off the floor and try it! You can always throw it away if it sucks.