When I watch cooking shows or thumb through cookbooks, I gaze at their finished results with the same awe I’ve been watching the Olympics with.
Wow. I wish I could do that.
Like becoming an Olympic athlete, being a cook takes training, practice and if you ask me, some level of innate skill. All of which explains why I’m terrible at cooking (and sports, but that’s a whole ‘nother discussion).
I basically didn’t start cooking until I went away to college and had to fend for myself. Growing up, my mom tried to engage me in the kitchen but I always refused
“Angie,” she would groan, exasperated, “how will you ever get married if you can’t cook? You need to be able to cook for your husband, you know.
(I was probably around 12.)
“Ma, I don’t need to cook because I’m gonna have a maid, a butler, AND a cook, and I’ll let them worry about doing all that.”
Boy, am I eating my words now.
Cooking in college wasn’t great practice either. I mostly lived off macaroni and cheese, sandwiches, salads and anything that came in a box, bag, or other package and could be nuked in a few minutes.
And as far as natural ability– yea, I have none. My mom isn’t great and I never knew my grandparents well enough to comment on their cooking, but if anyone in our family had a culinary gene, I didn’t get it. Oh and my dad? His idea of a good dinner is a Burger King Whopper and half a carton of rocky road ice cream. That’s the gene I got.
But these days, I’m trying to change my ways. I can’t say I’m trying hard enough but I make an attempt every now and then. (After all, I don’t want to end up a spinster now that I know the harsh reality of a journalist’s salary.)
Usually the result is edible but slightly undercooked, overcooked, mushy, rubbery, unsalted, greasy or just plain ugly.
Which is why, on those very rare occasions when I manage to actually pull something off in the kitchen, I’m very proud of myself. Especially if it was something that didn’t come from a mix or other prepackaged easy-way-out form.
Recently, for a dinner at home with Flaneur, we divvied up the cooking and decided that he would make steaks and I would be in charge of a vegetable side. I could’ve taken the easy route and thrown some brussels sprouts or broccoli into the steamer, but I felt like trying something new. It wasn’t so much that I was up for a challenge, but more that I wanted something sweet: I had sweet potatoes on the brain. But not just regular sweet potatoes, which I’ve cooked before as fries (charred black on the bottom, limp and mushy everywhere else) and steamed in big chunks (seemingly ok from the outside, hard and undercooked at the core). I wanted sweet potato casserole.
Some of you might laugh, and think ha, so easy. But nothing is ever too easy for me when it comes to cooking. (Example: I recently made chocolate pudding from a Jell-O Instant Pudding mix and even that was off. Instead of being smooth, it was chock full of little clumps. Think tapioca.)
Now, I’ve never made sweet potato casserole but I’ve eaten it in large quantities, mostly at Thanksgiving dinners where I always get seconds and thirds and sometimes, if no one is looking, fourths.
After a run to the supermarket, I came back and went at it with no recipe, just a vague idea of what to do. First I boiled three big sweet potatoes (skin and all), cut into smaller chunks, for about 10 minutes until they were soft. Then I took them out and with Flaneur’s help, mashed them with a fork until I had bright orange puree. Strictly eyeballing it, I added about half a cup of milk, maybe two tablespoons of butter, and a generous sprinkling of cinnamon. I then stirred it into an even, sweet smelling paste and transferred it to a baking pan. Then the really fun part: marshmallows. I covered the orange sweet potato blend with a thick layer of fluffy white mini-marshmallows, popped the pan in the oven for about 30 minutes and voila!
When I pulled open the oven door, a warm delicious burst of that spicy sweet cinnamon smell reminiscent of so many Thanksgivings past, filled the tiny kitchen. If I could bottle that smell, I would spray it in my apartment till the air was foggy.
The marshmallows were toasted to a nice gold color. No charring. No burnt smell. So far, so good. The true test, however, would be in the taste.
Digging the serving spoon into the pan, I pulled out a steaming orange heap of mashed sweet potato, the melted marshmallow making little strings of white, like gooey cheese on a pizza. Verdict: delicious!
It looked good AND tasted good! Practically unheard of when I make food. In fact, it was so good that Flaneur and I finished it off by the next day, eating a cold spoonful here and there throughout the day. That’s how good it was: you could it eat cold and it was still yummy.
So why write about a side dish that even the most elementary cook can whip up? Well, because it’s renewed my hope in becoming better at cooking. Maybe there’s hope for me yet. Maybe I can learn to cook things that are not just edible, but actually delicious. Maybe my cooking will be so great that I’ll have a line of suitors out the door, all begging for my hand in marriage and my cooking for the rest of their lives.
Or maybe, just maybe, I’ll win the lottery and spring for that personal chef I’ve always wanted.