2014 Retrospective

24 Dec 2014

I started cooking often sometime in late Spring this year. The act of cooking throughout my life has been a progression less about technique and more about consistency, learning, and determination.

I’ve never minded the act of cooking itself, but I’ve never been consistent about it; and during the times I was in school, I resisted cooking as just another unnecessary stressor. The first cooking experiences I remember are at my parents’ take-out restaurant. I remember preparing chicken wings, managing the deep fryer, and cooking fried rice. Once, a chicken wing fell on the floor and I was told to pack it anyway.

Later, in college, when I started cooking for myself more often, I cooked really easy things like pasta with tomato sauce, instant ramen, fried eggs, and fried rice. There was a stint where Lisa and I ate BLTs frequently. After we moved into our house, I would cook more often, trying out various recipes, but without a consistent menu or repertoire of meals. One of the problems was that we didn’t have a consistent schedule. Sometimes we’d be eating out, sometimes at a relative’s house. Many an unused vegetable made its way to the dump this way.

Once I completed my latest graduate degree last December, I knew I should start cooking more regularly. After a few months of winding down from what felt like years of ceaseless study, I started on a course of cooking that continues till today. 

The progression to a weekly schedule started with meals of one-dish, one-off recipes. These were things as elaborate as ceviche to more easy recipes such as kimchi fried rice. But the problem with dishes like ceviche is that it requires specialized ingredients that must be handled in a special way. The fish must be as fresh as possible. This is important because grocery shopping gets more complicated the greater the by-trip variance in the shopping list items. Not only does the cost of groceries fluctuate wildly from week to week, but the time spent grocery shopping is longer and the cognitive load on the shopper is heavier. Still, experimenting with new dishes was a great way for me to build up a personal cookbook. Not only was I able to gauge the ease in following the recipe, but also the taste I was able to produce, and, as I cooked the item repeatedly, what substitutes were acceptable to make. 

It should be noted that the cooking itself was not the primary challenge. Afterall, being able to follow instructions will get you more than halfway. My primary challenge was finding the motivation to cook everyday. In my case, it was the regularization of a weekly schedule, and a commitment to cook every day that made things easier. I knew that barring extenuating circumstances, I would have to provide a meal for my family. Additionally I started to take on more of the responsibility of grocery shopping. This left me with end-to-end responsibility for food.

Grocery shopping was a critical component in establishing a weekly schedule. Once a consistent weekly shopping list was set, what was once a chore became easy and routine; but the compilation of that list was predicated on developing that personal cookbook. The recipes in that book were a cross-section of easy to cook recipes, enjoyed by the whole family, and with simple, easily procurable and versatile ingredients. Grocery shopping has evolved in efficiency and efficacy since the beginning. When I started, to simplify grocery shopping, I would always buy the weekly items. This obviously meant more waste, but eased the pain of performing a manual check of the fridge and pantry before each shopping visit. At some point I gained an innate knowledge of what had been used during the week, what the contents of the pantry and refrigerator were, and what needed to be replenished each week.

As the months have progressed, I’ve found myself focusing on different aspects of the cooking. Originally, I just wanted to get the recipes right and with a decent taste. As I became proficient repeating recipes with incremental improvement, I focused on trying as many different recipes as I could find. Although I avoided very complex recipes requiring many hours of preparation or uncommon ingredients, I gained an appreciation for different types of cooking and the use of different techniques. For example, an egg can be cooked via poaching, frying, boiling, and steaming (among other ways). Bake an egg with some milk and it’s custard; less milk and poured into a pastry and it’s a quiche; no dairy and it’s a frittata. Thin an egg then fry it like a pancake and it is an omelet or a crepe. Dip something in egg and you can fry or deep-fry it, like french toast or a fritter. 

I focused next on being able to cook multiple things at once. The key here was learning to segment the preparation and cooking of each dish so that each part could be pipelined into an efficient body of work. Critical to this is an understanding of the time everything needs to cook, and is made much simpler by knowing how to cook things without reference. This took awhile to achieve, and I still make rookie mistakes like forgetting to start the rice cooking until I am done everything else. Another thing related to this is washing dishes as you are cooking. This greatly speeds up the cleanup process at the end of the meal, saving the entire family time and effort.

I’ve reached a point where I’m happy with my cooking abilities, given a decently stocked fridge, I can make a healthy meal without reference, making not only the recipes in my cookbook, but also improvise meals using the basic skills and knowledge I continue to gain. I feel no stress about cooking, and see it as something as simple (although less enjoyable) as reading a book or playing a game. I can also prepare a meal, if pressed, in very short order. Although part of the reason I state this is pride, it’s also because of the mental barriers that blocked my progress, that I think a lot of us face in different areas. For example, I still face this sort of mental block when it comes to regular exercise. Although I think it is an even greater hurdle, this aversion to exercise is something I’m going to try to deal with this year.

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