I don’t know how to cook anything. So I go ahead and do it, badly.
I didn’t even know that you could make your own granola until a few days ago, and to be honest, it would have never occurred to me that, of course, someone must make it somewhere, because, how else do we have it in stores? Still, this is how dim I am when it comes to food, and the foods that I even like and eat often.
My relationship to the world of food is about as removed as you can get: I do not hunt, I couldn’t exactly tell you where everything I like comes from, and the stuff I eat so rarely resembles the actual thing in the wild. Still, my relationship to food is even more removed, because I so rarely engage in the act of actually preparing it. In many ways, food traveled in one way (in my mind): toward me, through me, and on to things I didn’t think about. Even my time on the farm only revealed to me that milk really comes in a jar, and the steaks that used to be “Beth” out in the pasture didn’t seem to connect to the meal I was unsuccessful at preparing.
However, there are any number of things that will cause someone to explore the the world’s surrounding house and home, and it seems that remedying my terrible relationship with food is probably a smart move. There is a full kitchen, and oven, and a fairly well stocked pantry in this place, and it seems silly to continue to buy into the corporate world of Big Granola. Not only does it seem like a cost-reduction measure, but I figured that if I reduced my learning curve to include something very simple, and controlled for the number of things that could go wrong, I could slowly build up a reservoir of skills that I might need to prepare a decent Lobster Thermidor someday.
Lots and lots of time.
I’m Serious When I Say This Is Incredibly Easy.
First, credit where credit is due: My wife found the recipe, and she has a knack for not only recipes, but the kitchen itself as a place to create meals of wonder. However, the genius of the recipe is that it has lots of room for improvisation, and teaches you some basic skills that could warrant practice for a noob like me.
It takes no more than 20 minutes once the oven is preheated. And how’s this for beginner: the stove doesn’t even go over 340, and you don’t use that many dishes when preparing. There’s basically one ingredient (oats), and five staples that a well stocked kitchen will already have. Obviously, if you know what you’re doing, trade out the stuff you would rather use for a different flavor profile.
First, put into a saucepan 1/4 Cup each of Olive Oil, Peanut Butter & Maple Syrup. “Liquify” these on medium or so, and toss into a bowl 3 Cups of oats, and 2 tablespoons of sugar. When the saucepan is ready, pour them together and get to mixing. You’ll want the liquid to coat the oats completely. Then, spread the mixture out on a tray, and toss it in the oven for 10 minutes. “Toss” your granola, then put it in for another 15. You can cook it longer until it is browned to your preference.
No, Really. That’s it.
I was sort of baffled at how easy it really was, and it even after taste-testing it to make sure that it wasn’t going to be gross, I had trouble rationalizing that it was as good tasting as anything store bought.
Obviously, you can increase / decrease the “sweeteners” to get a different flavor profile, and toss in any kind of legume of your desire to add to the composition. I usually toss in chocolate chips once it has cooled, and then store all of it in an airtight tupperware container.
As a student I became dependent on Granola, and would keep bags of stuff from the bulk section around my house to I could have something that I liked, and that was filling. Any number of things can be added: dried fruits, yogurt, M&Ms, etc., and it makes a good base for dessert, breakfast, snacks, or whatever. It is so useful to have fresh Granola around the house that I really can’t imagine going back, even after a couple days.
So, Is It Worth Making My Own Granola?
Yes. I think so. Not only do I feel like I made something that I want to eat (a big improvement for me), I also feel like I learned a few lessons that I can take with me, which was the whole point:
1.) Cooking Times Are A Myth. I have yet to find any recipe that actually lists a time that was related to how long it takes to cook, and my suspicion is that I will never find one, even in the same house, with the same oven, on the same day, cooked by the same person. There is a certain amount of variability in time that cannot be accounted for, and because of this, all I can really do is to trust that it probably needs another five minutes, and do poke at it too much while I’m waiting.
2.) You Can Get Pretty Close To What You’re Looking For With Practice. Sure, I probably won’t be able to make a McDonald’s-tasting hamburger any time soon, but things like sweetness & composition can be adjusted / changed / improved with practice. The second batch had a slightly more consistent flavor, and I added more syrup, which sweetened up the batch a fair amount, to my liking. Adding a few pumpkin seed, crushed almonds & dried cranberries really brought it into the realm I was used to from the store bought brand with which I was familiar. What I make is now the best breakfast cereal I’ve ever had. I can’t really remember the taste of the brand I ate the most of in College, because this seems close enough for me to not have to strain myself too hard to remember.
This is probably not news to anyone, but I am terrible at being a dude. I have no desire to watch any kind of sports, and the last video game I played was years ago, and involved 8-bit graphics and The Konami Code. I’m not particularly interested in porn, my inclination to look at, repair, or trouble-shoot engines is almost non-existent, and if given the option, I would rather work indoors, doing something that did not involve manual labor. I realize that these are merely stereotypes in the first place, and that on the whole I shouldn’t be too concerned about any of this. But one of my great, secret shames in life has always been that I have never been much of a griller and do not default to “steak” as my first choice for dinner. Even worse, I have never developed a secret marinade that I pin my pride and manhood upon.
So it goes. I hear that I’m charming, can string together complete sentences when I want to, and occasionally make jokes that other people laugh at. For some reason, no one has been impressed by my comprehensive knowledge of Green Lantern, though.
So, the other day I decided to take a stab at skirt steak, which for some reason sounds way dirtier than it actually is. I decided to include with the meal a baked sweet potatoe because I will make any excuse in the world to eat sweet potatoe. (Hey, look! It’s thursday! Better have a sweet potatoe!) And, to round things out – and to give my trips to the bathroom that very special aroma – I went with asparagus as a side.
This was the first time since I’ve decided to actually learn a bit about cooking that I made a series of completely avoidable mistakes. While I have never been “good” at cooking (no matter how liberal I become with my definition of the word), I screwed up in a few ways that I am even embarrassed to admit. When I was looking at the marinade recipe, I completely missed the part that said, “Let it sit for two hours,” even though my girlfriend had said as much to me in person when I asked her about the same thing. This put my dinner two hours behind schedule when I finally got around to making it. In spite of making a quick sandwich to stave off the hunger that was rapidly setting in, that two hours passed as quickly as it does when you are in High School detention. The lesson learned here is that even if you think you are listening, you probably should pay even closer attention to what your girlfriend is saying to you at all times. (With the sub-lesson that, much like when you are cooking with a crockpot, when you are marinading steak you should start earlier than you think you should.)
I baked the potatoe in much the same way many others do: I wrapped in in tin foil, pre-heated the oven to 400 degrees, and threw it in for about an hour. The potatoe came out great. For the asparagus, I cooked them in a pan using grapeseed oil, and put a little salt & pepper on them before eating. I have a terrible time gauging when things are done, and my only criticism here was that I could have cooked them a bit longer. They were particularly thick pieces of asparagus, and clearly needed more time to cook through entirely.
For the marinade, I used many of the usual ingredients that dads have been telling their sons & daughters to use for generations: soy sauce, brown sugar, vinegar, garlic salt, olive oil and mustard. I am quite curious as to what other people use for their marinades, as I can see that this part of the cooking process to really be experimental. When I was a kid, I was all about eating meat with steak sauce or ketchup, so the idea that you could marinade a steak and then eat it to enjoy these flavors that had soaked in seems very magical to me, and I’ll be curious to try out other ideas. I could see an entire buffet of different sauces to fit other occasions, and I’ll be curious to dive in to the kitchen lab to see how these turn out once I have more ideas.
Due to the two-hour delay in dinner and the three fingers of whiskey I had consumed, I not only managed to fill the entire house with smoke, but cut myself – twice – while trying to sear the first piece of steak. (It’s a special skill that I do not recommend you try to develop.) In my idiocy, I did not cut the steak into pan-sized pieces before I marinaded them, and in trying to cut them up, managed to nick myself on the nuckle. No real bleeding, but it was enough to distract me. (I also cut the inside of my wrist on the door latch when trying to dispose of some garbage, too.) The lesson learned here is: no matter how much you think you’ve planned ahead, you should probably plan ahead a little more. Cooking is like becoming a serial killer: you want to make sure you cover ALL the bases before shit gets serious.
So I threw the first cut of meat into a completely dry pan that I had made as hot as the surface of the sun. During my faulty “steak-research,” I had stumbled upon a page that said, “You want to sear your meat in a very hot, dry pan.” In spite of my instinct to get a few different recommendations and split the differences, I decided to go with this one idea instead. Many of you are laughing at me right now, as you are able to envision my dropping the steak in the pan, turning to throw away the piece of plastic I had in my hand, cutting the inside of my wrist on the door latch for the garbage, turning away in pain, and then turning back to see smoke billowing into my face from my stove. It was complete chaos. I picked up the steak with tongs and turned it over, thinking that this was somehow normal, but a few seconds later, not only was the smoke even thicker, but I was having trouble seeing. I quickly managed to retrieve a plate, pulled the steak out of the pan, and turned off the stove. By then, the damage had been done: most of the apartment was completely filled with smoke, my hand was cut up, and the cat was completely baffled as to what was going on, and chose that moment to start meowing with a certain kind of fervency that could only be the cat equivalent of saying, “Uhm, I think something is seriously wrong, dude.”
The lesson learned here is that you should never cook anything on the highest temperature possible in a dry pan. (And, as a sub-lesson: don’t go with the first solution you find, no matter how sure the page says it might be.)
At this point, I needed to take a break and regroup. I opened every window, both doors, and turned on the fans, in spite of the fact that I was cold and the sun had already set. As I was using magazines to wave the smoke out, the cat kept following me around, as if to punctuate every flailing movement with the comment, “No, really, what the fuck were you thinking? I’d like to know.” I returned to my research, and found a few other sites that recommended cooking skirt steaks in a pan with a light amount of oil in it, and at a much lower temperature. I wrapped up my wounds, went back into the kitchen, cleaned up what I could of the ridiculous mess I had made, and assessed how bad the damage was.
As you can probably see in the picture above, there are a few spots on the steak that were, ahem, “blackened.” (Cajun style!) But the cut of meat did not look too bad on the whole. I put it in the dramatically-cooler, better prepared pan and finished cooking both sides. It was slightly pink on the inside, which seemed to me a safe sign that it wasn’t a total loss. I added some butter and cinnamon to my sweet potatoe, and cautiously sat down to try my dinner. To my complete delight, it wasn’t actually that bad. While there were a couple of bites that were a little more Well Done than I would have liked, the meal was not ruined, and was actually pretty tasty, in spite of my wounds and overwhelmed-by-smoke senses of smell and taste.
To make sure I wasn’t crazy, I cooked another piece of the steak using this revised, much more sane method, and while everything in the house still smelled and tasted smokey, the steak came out pretty good. I had this confirmed by my girlfriend, and while she didn’t seem to be thrilled that I had potentially ruined one of her pans, or that the house smelled like there had been a disastrous fire, she did say that the steak was pretty good. (Though, I think the trade off of offering her a piece of tasty steak still didn’t win out when I had to explain why my had was bandaged twice, the house smelled awful, and I kept hinting at needing to find a new pan.)
But: delicious steak! I can’t say it was a total failure, right?
One of the first things that my girlfriend taught me to make (with the intention that I could take on one of the nights of cooking for us) was Tacos. I’m no stranger to this meal myself: my bachelor version involved burning some meat, microwaving some beans, slathering it all into a huge flour shell, something that I called “the two f’s” (folding and frying), and then adding as much cheese and salsa as it took to cover up any damage I had done. When she had taught me, it had actually been a long time since I had tried my hand at the meal, mostly because I had eaten it so much for so long that I no interest in making it again.
Once I had completed my first successful, “Taco Tuesday,” she approved that I could officially take over the meal in our weekly routine. I’ve been doing this now for several weeks, putting to use her tips and tricks in a way that creates a much more edible meal. (Tips like, “keep an eye on the meat while it’s browning.”) This week, because of various complications, Taco Night coincided with The Debate, and I had also made another batch of chili (so we would have something to pack for lunches). While you can’t quite make it out in the picture above, there are, in fact, tacos beneath all the fixin’s. There is also the token glass of vodka, because cooking seems to work out better when you’re buzzed.
This weeks’ version involved black beans & sausage as the “base.” I seasoned the sausage with cumin, white pepper, chili powder, and a few shakes of turmeric. The ground sausage was simply browned. I’m constantly on the hunt for different spice and flavor combinations, and would love any ideas that you may have. For our “fixin’s,” I used tomato, red peppers, lettuce, green & white onions, avocado, plain yogurt, cheese & salsa. (I would love to start making my own salsa too, and if there are any suggestions out there, please let me know.)
Since the chili was nearly done by the time the debate started, I decided to spoon a little on the side to see how it came out. I was pleased with the spice combination of the chili this time, but it clearly needed a couple more hours to help soften up the vegetables.
Taco Tuesdays have been a fairly big success for me, as it is a hard meal to fuck up. So long as the meat is edible, and none of the vegetables have gone bad, your tacos will go down without too many complaints. The only thing you are “cooking” is the meat. (I guess the beans are technically cooked too, but really you’re just “heating” them.) After that, it’s just an assembly line process of putting things on that you want in the amounts you prefer. We have gotten into the habit of “over-loading” our tacos with so much stuff that they really become taco-salads. Still, I know my girlfriend loves Taco Tuesday, if only because she does not have to do anything in the kitchen.
I would really like to try to make some more authentic tacos; as a Californian by birth, anything truly Mexican is just impossible to resist. Perhaps if anyone has any recommendations on what to do with shredded beef or pork, I would be happy to give it a shot. Having gotten pretty good at the basic parts of the meal, I am really looking for new variations on the theme, too. I would love to hear about the various ways you have developed taco night at your house. While we’re both huge fans of tacos, I would like to change things up as much as possible, so that we don’t get bored and so I can increase my skill-set when it comes to my usefulness in the kitchen.
Now, wasn’t this better than an analysis of the debate?
Probably the worst habit I developed in the years that I spent approximating the culinary arts while living alone was the regular reliance upon the “Chili & Tots” dinner of pathetic losers who will spend the evening watching Red Dwarf by themselves. This meal was extremely sad by any measure of what one calls “food”: heat up a bag of extremely cheap tater tots in your death-trap of an electric oven, microwave a 79¢ can of generic brand chili purchased from the corner store you walked past on the way home, grate whatever cheese happens to be lying around, and cry.
No person on Earth could ever defend this meal as being “worth it,” no matter how cheap it actually ended up being. However, up until very recently, this was a staple of my diet. I ate this meal probably once a week, always falling back on the, “I don’t know how to cook,” excuse for why I was slowly killing myself. My girlfriend loved asking me what I had for dinner on the nights she went out, only because she knew the answer and seemed to love needling me about this horrible habit.
So, when she made Sweet Potatoe Chili for us one night, I knew that I had to figure out how to do this myself. I had lived with a roommate who would regularly make an amazing chili (served in home-made bread bowls), and while I longed for something delicious and amazing like that, I was instead eating dreck that dogs would have doubts about eating. I was determined to add chili to my repertoire, if only so I could feel better about my nights alone.
Last night was my third attempt at making chili. I made it twice before while visiting family last week; once because my girlfriend had just given me the recipe to share with my sister, and again because we had bought all the fixin’s and there were leftovers. While both batches were eaten with few complaints, I was convinced that I could do better at home with a fairly well stocked kitchen and plenty of cooking implements (like the one my girlfriend keeps). Since she was at the theater last night, I knew it was time to throw together some bachelor chow.
I decided to use the Crockpot, and this is where I learned my first lesson: You can never give yourself “too much time” when cooking with a Crockpot. This might be a no-brainer for experienced cooks, but as I was standing over it, ravenous, after only a few hours, waiting while the potatoes softened up, it occurred to me that there was a reason the recipe was for stove cooking. While I’m glad I learned this the hard way, I realize that in the future, I will have to get started just after breakfast to be successful the next time around. In this case, cooking longer = better.
Since this was my third time, I sort of improvised a little, and I think this helped. Rather than use the prescribed amounts, I basically chopped up whatever I thought would be good in a chili, and threw it in a pot of chicken stock. (I probably could have used vegetable stock, but we were out.) Lots of tomatoes, lots of onion, lots of potatoes, and a little bit of a bunch of other things. I used chili powder, cumin, and white pepper powder (with a few sprinkles of pasilla powder). I don’t know much about spices, but I seem to really like white pepper powder. I let this stew for a while, stirring and cursing myself for not starting sooner.
The second thing I learned this time around is: You absolutely need to start tasting things as you go. My view of cooking seems to have come from dim memories I have of a food handling class I took when I was 18, and I have a vague memory of some rule that stated that you shouldn’t eat any part of the food that you’re making for other people to eat. (I think there was a sanitary component to this.) I’m sure, now, that I must have misunderstood this, because every cook I talk to says that they taste everything as they go, right up to the point just before they put it on a plate. So this time I took this advice (thanks again to my girlfriend), and started tasting the chili once it looking like it was warm enough. This worked out, as I discovered that the spice level mentioned in the recipe was for absolute pussies.
This was also the first time there was some serious splash-back during the cooking process, dirtying up the shirt I was wearing. The third thing I learned this time: You shouldn’t cook in a t-shirt that you don’t want to get stained. Someone who has been cooking for a long time is laughing at me right now, but this had never happened to me before.
Had I used the vegetable stock, I could have stopped right there and it would have been vegan and / or veggie friendly. However, I cooked and added a bunch of ground turkey. I’ve been on a non-beef kick lately, and I seem to be enjoying it quite a bit. When I was absolutely sure I couldn’t wait any longer (it had only been a handful of hours), I put some tots in the oven, baked them, and began to dish up dinner. I wanted to make corn bread with jalapeños and coconut milk in it, but I forgot to get a corn bread kit at the store, and I didn’t feel like trying to hunt some down by the time it occurred to me.
I think the results were okay. Obviously, it could have cooked longer, and by the time I was ready for bed, the chili really looked like it would be great. (I bet lunch today is gonna be rad.) I also think it could have been a little spicier, so I would love to get any recommendations of chili spices, and which ones offer what kind of flavor combinations. (Thoughts, anyone?) I would also like to try a vegan version, just to see what it is like, too. Any alterations on this kind of recipe would be greatly appreciated.
In the end, this was absolutely the most satisfying batch of chili I’ve eaten with tots alone in my apartment.
In the past, my idea of cooking involved a box of something, a package of something frozen, burning the cooking implements beyond the ability to use them again, and then mircowaving something in its place because I screwed up the thing that I was actually going to eat. The funny part is that I actually understood a fair amount of what I was doing wrong. But every time I would step into the kitchen, I would undergo a horrible transformation, and could only approach the world as if I was a 20 year old male living in a bizarre flop-house where budgetary constraints, combined with a cigarettes-and-40-ouncer priority, reduced my view of eating to a pizza-and-burritos diet.
I have made a few efforts to overcome this handicap in the years past. At one point I bought an extremely heavy cookbook that contained “over 1000 recipes” with the misguided notion that I would start going through it in an effort to learn how to cook. To this day, that book as remained un-read, and the only action it has gotten was when I used to have roommates who would occasionally thumb through it and point to all the things they could cook, usually while I was microwaving a can of chili. There was also the summer where I was making home-made bread, which actually worked out pretty well until school started and I reverted back to buying Gyro’s at Foti’s on a near daily basis, until I moved out of the neighborhood and they changed hands. I have also mastered a breakfast scramble that is mostly edible because of the amount of cheese and curry I put on the potatoes.
It wasn’t that I didn’t want to learn how to cook, or that I didn’t appreciate good food. When I would gain access to some delicious meal of some kind, I would sing its praises, and wish I could make something this good. But when I would try, the finished product was a pretty lame version of what food could be, and the disappointment led me back to Indian Food Carts, granola bars, and more coffee than I needed. In my dreams, I was mocked openly for being so ignorant in the kitchen as people in chef hats threw delicious biscuits at me.
Stubbornness has served me well in many areas of my life, and if it weren’t for that, I wouldn’t have many of the things I currently value. So as I stubbornly continued to problem-solve my inadequacies in the kitchen, I eventually weeded out a few of the habits that were clearly hindering my success rate. (Like: leaving the food unattended for 10 minutes at a time, and only cooking things on High.) My girlfriend gave me a lesson a while back that led to the successful addition of “Taco Tuesday” to our calendar, and with the exception of one or two hiccups, it has become a hit. (At least: I didn’t fuck it up too badly.)
So, last week, against my better judgement, I decided to tackle making chili from scratch, using the rationale that if I really botched it, I could just add a bunch of jalapeños and no one would notice. And, somehow, it actually came out okay. At least, everyone ate it, no one complained, and even my girlfriend said she was not lying when she complimented it.
No one was shocked more than I.
This success completely changed my view of cooking, and I decided that I should really go all out, and try something I’ve never tried before: making chicken, soup & quinoa. (Or, as I’m calling it now, The Really Rosie Special.) The impulse was completely driven by the fact that we have a ton of sweet potatoes in the house, and it was the first thing that sounded fairly appetizing. You can see the results above (and the glass of vodka that I was drinking so I could get my Julia Child on while I cooked). To make it, I followed a very basic recipe I found on The Inter-Web-A-Tron. I made it more or less how the recipe said I should, minus a couple of things I determined were optional. (Like: the whole “for garnish” section.) I think it was pretty okay, or at least, need to start thinking that, as there’s a ton leftover.
Now that I’ve had a couple of successes in the kitchen, and given that circumstances have changed in our household routines quite a bit in recent months, I am attempting to take on the job of preparing dinner. I do not expect I will be doing this every night, nor do I expect that I will become an overnight sensation. I’m not starting an Instagram account, and I am most definitely not becoming any more of a foodie than everyone else on the planet already is. But I want to get to the point in my life where I have a set of useful skills in a number of areas that allow me to contribute to the world around me in a positive way, and I have to say, putting food in someone’s belly – and having it be food that’s actually pretty good to eat – is a pretty excellent place to start.
So, I’m starting a new section of this blog, dedicated to my on-going education in the culinary arts. All of these entries will be tagged “Cooking,” and no, I will not be offended if you skip them. However, if cooking is your bag, and you have any hints, tips, recommendations, websites dedicated to your own cooking activities, recipes that you enjoy, or just a friendly word of encouragement, I would very much appreciate it. I am on the prowl for ideas I can try that are beginner level, but are fairly rewarding when done right. (Or, if nothing else, will make a girlfriend – who has more cooking chops than your local butcher – to say, “Not bad,” without having to pretend she likes it.)
I will occasionally post pictures of my successes and / or failures, with a little information about what I did. I would love to get some feedback if you happen to be into that sort of thing. I’m also trying to do this on the cheap, so if you have advice on alternatives that save money, I am all ears. I am not limiting my recipe book to any one kind of food; I’m curious about vegan, veggie, paleo, international, greasy, and any other diet you might enjoy. My goal here is to learn how to navigate in a kitchen, with a tangental hope that I can give my girlfriend the night off more and more. I’m not expecting to become an expert; rather, I just want to be able to do something that most people learned much earlier in life.
Thanks! We’ll resume weird, abstract culture reviews and existential musings on life when we meet again.