My husband turns eight-legged ocean demons into seafood. Like, amazing seafood. In a bizarre hundred-step process of washing, boiling, freezing, scrubbing, salting, and probably some weird ritual dance, Ivo takes a tough, rubbery octopus corpse and produces delicious, crispy, garlic-infused grilled tentacles, cheerful pulpo de olivo, and bright octopus ceviche with a spicy ají kick. He’s so talented I could scream. Of course I can’t scream because I’m perpetually stuffing my face with whatever he’s just cooked. But the point is, how does somebody get to be so good at cooking without some kind of intensive professional training??
I blog about food A LOT. Food is at the center of my world. It ties me to people and places, it roots me, it provides an outlet for adventure. I adore food. But then, I also harbor a deep, dark secret: Unlike my husband, I can’t cook for shit.
Cooking reminds me of chemistry. As a result, it elicits the same phobic level terror that I still feel today upon entering any room with those rubbery black burn-proof tables. My chemistry teachers were great: A brief shout out to awesome teacher Ms. Roberts. She once told us that she punched an attacking shark in the face while scuba diving, and even if that’s not true (which I actually think it is), it would still be hilarious that she told a bunch of wide-eyed high schoolers that story with a straight face. Ms. Roberts also gave me a lift to the state chemistry exams in her stick shift. It was my first time in a stick shift car, and she blasted through traffic like Vin goddamn Diesel. I white-knuckled the door handle the whole 15-minute trip. Ah, memories.
Anyway, I’m trying to say that my clash with chemistry (and by association, with cooking) is innate. On average, for comparison to Ivo’s meals, please reference the below image of my general product. I call it fried egg over freaking rice + loads of soy sauce, because chances are good that I burned part of something in that bowl.
If we’re out of bread (which happens often), I’ll just as soon suck on a spoonful of peanut butter than actually pick up a pan. But you know what? That was old me. New me has decided to finally face my fears (and laziness) and learn to cook too. It’s not fair that Ivo has to cook ALL our meals. Or at the very least, it would be great if – when he realizes he isn’t available to cook for the day – a look of unadulterated horror wouldn’t flicker across his face.
This past week, I committed to making five meals. It’s a small start, but Ivo was tremendously supportive (and brave). I actually made a list before grocery shopping this time – one based on actual recipes – and he helped me navigate the grocery store. With a full fridge and tremulous heart, I began to cook.
Day 1: Broccoli shrimp stir fry over couscous
Ok. The shrimp was just… chewy. How the hell do you cook shrimp? Shrimp is like the tofu of seafood: If I fry it, it should be delicious, right? I don’t know why my shrimp always comes out like garlic-scented rubber. The broccoli, on the other hand, was pretty badass. I was pescatarian through college, so I actually do have some confidence in frying broccoli (I ate a lot of it), but this time I relied way less on soy sauce and more on actual spices, including ginger. Ginger was awesome. It’s totally going on my regular shopping list. I also even read the box when making the couscous, so it turned out perfect and fluffy. However, initially I did flat out refuse to believe that couscous for “3 to 4 people” would be sufficient for Ivo and I (i.e., 2 people), so I doubled the amount recommended. I learned two things: Couscous cooks up, apparently. And there is maybe such a thing as too much couscous.
Day 2: Black bean and sweet potato soft taco wraps
Grade: Partly edible.
So I started up our gas oven and popped in the sweet potatoes. I’ve had a pretty shaky relationship with the gas stove since we moved in, but things seemed on track. About 20 minutes in, I started smelling delicious baking sweet potato, so I stopped checking the flame obsessively. I followed directions with wild attention to detail and actually concocted some pretty tasty black beans! Maybe even pretty damn tasty! Things seemed promising. Feeling ambitious, I took an adventurous plunge and threw in the leftover couscous to get sort of a tacu tacu style bean mix. For the sake of my carnivorous husband, I cut up a chicken breast, fried it in oil and salt and pepper, and then shredded it. My tofu tastes WAY better on average, but the chicken was mostly just there for protein, so fine.
At this point, I’m really getting into it. Things have timed out so perfectly that I might not even have to microwave anything! Table is full of extra taco stuff, beans are still steaming, chicken is warm. The buzzer goes off and I open the oven… only to pull out the stone cold potatoes with my bare ass hands. Noooo… We had bean and chicken tacos for lunch. I tried zapping the sweet potatoes, but then accidentally cut them open half un-cooked… so much for my delicious orange carbs.
Day 3: Simple chicken curry
Grade: Totally edible!
Imagine how much you love (or would love) your firstborn child. Now imagine you have two firstborn children. Now you have a vague idea of how much I love curry.
I was so desperate to effectively make curry and redeem myself from the sweet potato debacle that I followed directions painstakingly. I even measured out the oil to put in the pan before I fried stuff. Ivo begged me to add not just one but TWO chicken breasts, so our curry was super meaty for me. I prefer vegetarian curry, so I tried to compensate by adding a little extra water (for more “sauce”, ideally), but somehow the recipe’s simmer time was grossly overestimated (at least based on the changes I made… extra chicken + extra water = less simmer time?), and much less curry sauce was produced than I’d hoped. In addition, I did mistake the blender plug for the rice cooker plug and accidentally left rice cooker on way too long, so the bottom of the rice was undesirably crispy. But hey, I scraped Ivo’s rice off the top and, for the very first time, he requested more without being prompted!
I’m totally going to make this again: http://allrecipes.co.uk/recipe/5586/easy-chicken-curry.aspx The catch is though, it’s super plain. Great, great curry base, but it needs to be mixed up. Any recommendations on how to spice up curry?
Day 4: Cauliflower mac n’ cheese casserole
Overall, this was sort of bland for me. It needed more cheddar. Or maybe more spice? I’m not sure which or how to effectively add either. However, I am pretty confident that I executed the recipe accurately, so I actually don’t feel too bad about it. Successfully creating a white cheesy sauce was a big victory for me: My last attempt at white sauce went… poorly, to say the absolute least. In an effort to get a super crispy, crunchy top (which for me is the best part of any casserole), I really layered on the breadcrumbs. But even after like 30 minutes in that god-forsaken gas oven, the breadcrumb mix stayed dry and dusty. I need to investigate how to make casseroles get that crispy top layer.
Day 5: Lettuce wraps with Asian-style peanut butter sauce
I was doing ok by the end, but not exactly flying high on confidence, so I opted to make my last meal a round of raw spring rolls. I have no earthly idea where to buy rice paper in Metro (our local grocery store), let alone how to ask for it in Spanish, so I just opted to use lettuce leaves. I bought a head of lettuce that accidentally rolled under a seat and lived in the car for a day or two before friends (thanks Jaime and Anair!) rediscovered it for us. We sniffed it, the lettuce smelled fine, so… whatever.
I completely overestimated how much cucumber and carrot we’d want, but they looked great chopped up in the bowl. I got bold and began to cook my last chicken breast, this time without instruction. However, I made the poor decision to toss in garlic and ginger while it was already frying in oil. About two minutes later I pulled the lid off the pan and black smoke billowed out. Since this is pretty standard for me, I only ran in panicked circles with the smoking pan for like 5 or 10 seconds before dousing it in water. I did manage to rescue the chicken though, so all was good. Inexplicably, it tasted better than my previous shredded chicken.
The key for nailing spring rolls is the dip. Before starting, I’d asked Ivo to just make his version for me. But he was late coming home for lunch, and this was my show anyway, so I decided to just make my own version. Initially, this proved a poor decision. I picked a recipe that I had everything for, and I didn’t taste as I go. I just slammed all the ingredients into a bowl together. One of the ingredients was lime. Peruvian limes are WAY different from limes at home, and I completely failed to take this into account. I sort of mushed the peanut butter lime-y soy sauce mix together with a fork and… BLEH. Oh my god, so much lime. Maybe it will be better if I put it in the blender? I try. It’s slightly less lumpy, but go figure, it still tastes like I just smeared peanut butter on an actual lime. I add another spoonful of peanut butter, blend the crap out of it, dump it in a bowl and hope for the best.
But guess what. Miracles DO HAPPEN. When everything got slapped together in the lettuce wrap, the lime totally worked! The result was a super healthy light lunch, and Ivo’s only feedback was to use Hoisin sauce for the dip next time.
If you’ve got any super simple recipes for a less-than-proficient cook, I would be so, so grateful to have them!