Food for Thought: Why you should learn to cook

Yum.In middle school I went through a quick-bread-making phase. They were all banana breads, but I would put a whole bunch of other things in there. I made pear bread with walnuts. Then I made apple bread. Then carrot cake bread. And maybe, if I was feeling unoriginal, I made some plain ‘ole banana bread. Baking was something I did when I was extremely bored, and, while it was fun, I don’t think I was getting the point yet.

Maybe it was because I was just baking. I continued to sporadically bake throughout high school, but since I had exhausted the quick bread (may it rest in peace) I had to expand my repertoire. My new baked goods of choice were cakes, because I liked decorating them (and pretending like I worked at Charm City Cakes…a back pocket career move that I’m still saving). But baking’s downfall is that no one really wants to eat what you make. Baked goods are extra. Put them on the table in your home or dorm, and people will devour them when stressed out or drunk, but that’s not very glamorous. My cakes were pretty, but they would usually go to waste unless I forced any and all visitors to have a slice.

But cooking a meal is different. People really want to eat a meal. If you make dinner (especially if you time things wrong and it’s not ready until 9:00 p.m. and your family almost wishes you would just go back to college so they could eat at a decent time of night) people will be hungry when it’s served. Remember: hunger is the best sauce. They will be planning on eating your food, and they’ll spend more than a minute doing it.

It took me until this past winter break to start seeing why cooking is fun and fulfilling and communal and delicious. And I wouldn’t have delved into such a wonderful pastime if my little brother, Ben, had not recently become so interested in the culinary arts. Fortunately, I had nothing to do over break — a time I usually devote to a combination of eating and sleeping — so I became his devoted sous chef. Preparing meals with Ben soon became a part of my busy schedule. We made lamb filled wontons, duck gumbo, bibimbap, salted caramel ice cream, black bean burgers, and potato leak soup, among other things. I even learned how to use a mandolin to cut fruits and vegetables so thin that you could see through them.

But the mandolin (to to be confused with the instrument) wasn’t the only thing I learned about. Cooking, especially with someone whose company you enjoy, can change the way you think about food. And if you’re anything like me, food is a HUGE part of your life. Check out some things I learned that you can apply to even the smallest cooking excursions (like when I make an adapted Tiramisu in the Ratty) after the jump:

1. Always use spices (at least salt and pepper): I bet you had a huge spice drawer at home. Did you use anything besides garlic powder, salt and pepper? If you did, I understand why you’ve been stealing those cinnamon containers from the Ratty. If you didn’t, then you have a lot of upward mobility. Always use some flavor enhancer in what you make. It will tie together the flavors of your individual components, and will do a great deal to personalize a dish.

2. Timing is everything: Don’t get impatient (watching water boil is not a good way to avoid this) and don’t be an airhead. Be attentive to how things are progressing as you heat and cool them. Try to stagger your cooking times so you’ll never be idle, for an idle mind is a dangerous mind in the kitchen. You might just render those potatoes very al dente if you’ve got nothing else to watch cook. So, diversify. Keep things coordinated and you’ll never be bored or overwhelmed. Balance, young grasshoppers.

3. Split up the work: Make sure to delegate tasks. Yes, they say that too many cooks spoil the broth, but I’ve learned that the problem arises if there are too many cooks trying to help with the same part of the broth. I could be cutting the onions and you the celery and the broth will be fine. As long as you don’t get stuck doing the same exact task as your sous chef(s), nothing will be spoiled. Cooking in larger groups can be fun if you remember to keep this in mind.

4. Recipes are references, not bibles: Don’t get stuck on the directions. Recipes are there so you don’t burn the chicken, or over-soak the risotto, but they are not strict barriers to creativity. You can add peas when the recipe calls for carrots. You can add chili powder or parmesan without being spited by whoever wrote the random recipe that you found online. Don’t cheat yourself out of the fun part; play with your food.

5. Grocery shopping is the hardest part: Beware of un-zen hippies in Whole Foods. They have metal carts and they will mow you down if you stand between them and their tempeh. Go to the grocery store with a list, not recipes, and get in and out efficiently. I like to email myself what I need after copy-and-pasting it from various recipes. That way you’re not caught juggling a bunch of print-outs in the produce section. Who uses paper anymore anyway?

6. Punchfork.com: A great place to start (or procrastinate for hours). It’s like Food Porn Daily, but with an outlet. Everything you come across on the site has a recipe that you can use for inspiration. It’s also very pretty.

So get cooking. East Side Minimart (the best convenience store in the world) is on Brook and Charlesfield. The internet is full of inspiration. The residence halls are full of under used kitchens. Show them what you can do.

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