Wednesday, September 28, 2011


I'm a pretty decent cook. I enjoy cooking and I like to try new things. I keep a well-stocked pantry and have gotten pretty good at just pulling things together into a meal, based on my mood and what sounds good.

My daughter is a newlywed who found herself in the position of needing to fix dinner a few nights ago without planning and using only the ingredients on hand. She didn't think she should need a recipe. She should just be able to pull it out of her head. She couldn't. So she had, in her own words, a minor meltdown.

She had two things working against her. Well, maybe three:
She is a perfectionist.
She has an unrealistic view of how most people cook.
Her husband is an excellent, intuitive cook.

As a result, to comfort her, I find it necessary to blog about what dinners were like in the early years of our marriage. I was not a complete novice. I cooked dinner many weeknights my last couple of years in high school, but my mom did the planning. I only had to cook. And she had taught me many of the basics.

When I got married I cooked the same things that I had eaten as a kid. I had a rotation of about seven meals. I think all but one involved a white sauce or Campbell's soup. We had tuna noodle casserole nearly weekly. Creamed tuna or creamed dried beef on toast was a frequent meal. Some version of hambuger browned and cooked with soup and noodles--and maybe cheese--was a frequent dish. Salmon cakes and spinach. Hamburger gravy. Spaghetti made with Ragu.

That was pretty much it. Add a canned or frozen veggie and some canned fruit. I had recipes that I made sometimes. My grandma's beef stew. A couple of chicken casseroles. Once in a while I might make a roast with potatoes and carrots for a Sunday dinner. But I never veered far from the foods that I grew up with. And my husband started our marriage as a 19-year-old college student. He would eat anything.

I'm not sure when I started to cook differently. I remember a chicken enchilada casserole that a friend made when Patrick was small that may have been a starting point. Being a Weight Watchers member and then leader changed my cooking somewhat, but made me more recipe dependent when I strayed from the baked chicken breast or piece of fish and broccoli.

 I like having a lot of ingredients available and having many choices. I have a generous grocery budget. I'm kind of spoiled. But it has taken me years and lots of experience to be able to cook this way. And sometimes it fails me. I stand and stare at my pantry and the ingredients don't seem to amount to anything. Those are the nights that my family usually gets spaghetti, tacos, or chicken breasts.

My advice to the person who is newly responsible for cooking meals for a household is to have a couple of meals that you always have ingredients for and that you can cook easily, whether with or without a recipe. These should be things that will almost always sound good to the members of the household. (Around here spaghetti is the big fall back, although in recent years lentils have moved up the list.) It will save lots of stress, and avert meltdowns.

Making risotto. With a recipe.


Elephantschild said...

I hate cooking.

Or, I thought I did. I'm slowly discovering that what I hate is following fussy recipes (I'm no good at tolerating being told what to do). The times I enjoy cooking most are when I can cook like you describe - winging it, or maybe making-do & adapting from something I've made before.

And when I don't have time pressure... I found recently that I actually had fun putting up two pans of lasagna for the freezer, because I did it in the afternoon, when my kitchen is sunny and bright and there's something interesting to listen to on the radio. Totally different experience than cooking at 4:30 or 5:30, under the gun.

So maybe another piece of advice would be to take some time when you HAVE the time and put up some things in the freezer. You can pre-soak beans, drain, then freeze, for example, and they're all ready to go for soups.

Anonymous said...

Thanks! :)

Yes, so many times I felt like dinner was a "performance."

Jane Seyboldt

Jane said...

Isn't that the truth!

The past year there have been quite a few nights that I've said, "We have cheese. We have crackers. We have apples. There's some hummus. Go forage." :)

Dinner doesn't have to be a production.

Adriane said...

Oh, Jane. You give me such hope.

Susan said...

Yes to the foraging! Yes to the "It's got calories and some nutrition; it doesn't have to be A Proper Meal."

When we were first married, I didn't know how to wing anything. Bep is SO far ahead of me on cooking skills. I would read recipes, follow instructions on how to do things like hard-boil an egg, or how to boil pasta, or how to fry a hamburger. Good golly, I don't know how many years it took me before I advanced to a simple white sauce/gravy/whatever. I didn't even realize you could make mashed potatoes from potatoes (instead of from a box of powdered potatoes) until we'd been married over ten years. And it was about the same amount of time before I learned what to do with dried legumes.

It takes time to learn, and it's hard to be the one who sees everybody around you already knowing as if there was no learning curves.

Dawn said...

My cooking has come a long way in my 12 years of marriage, and still I can't manage without recipes if I want to make anything beyond browned hamburger whazzat.

I'm hoping my daughters have a bit more capital built up when they get started. :D