Let me say once and for all: I am not a cook. Nor a chef, or baker, or even a person who knows a great deal about the complexities and balance of flavors on the tongue.
I am however, a person who greatly enjoys and celebrates food. Eating it, preparing it, shopping for it, sharing it. I'm fairly simple in my approach. I don't do complex. I don't even really understand complex. I believe Saturday mornings were created for two things: treasure hunting and baking. Add in a stroll thru a springtime farmers market and afternoon sprawled on a picnic blanket in the sunshine, and you've nailed my perfect day.
Let me tell you a little known secret: it isn't difficult to make muffins. At all. Even easier? A gorgeous spread on a picnic blanket. It looks beautiful and fairly involved. It isn't.
Whenever Josh and I travel, we picnic like crazy. I consider it an art. A crusty loaf of bread, creamy cheese chunk or two, few slices of prosciutto, bunch of grapes, maybe a pint of strawberries, handful of olives or dates and figs, bottle of wine if you prefer... toss in a bar of dark chocolate and you have one seriously decadent spread. And did you notice? There was absolutely no cooking involved.
In our world, it isn't so much about the meal as it is the ingredients. If you've ever eaten a blackberry plucked from a thorny bush in an open country field, juicy, sweet, warmed by summer sun... you know what I'm talking about. Wild blackberries don't need complicated recipes to dress them up. Fancy enough is a dollop of fresh whipped cream, if that. Simple. I like food to be simple. The kind my great Grandma George cooked when I was little: skillet cornbread and a pot of garden fresh black-eyed peas we shelled together on the front porch moments earlier where she cackled each time a bean missed the bucket, "You pea'd on the porch!"
People generally assume my love of food translates into elaborate meals and recipes slaved over for hours. It doesn't. I promise. While entirely flattering, I have no skill or even desire slanted towards the fine arts of the culinary world. I simply love pure, quality ingredients, eating, and getting to know the faces gathered around my table. Don't get me wrong, I like to cook! I love it, in fact. It appeals to me creatively. But it isn't complicated. It's something anyone could do with a simple recipe to follow.
I realize it can be a bit of a foreign concept for some, especially of my generation. I consider myself fortunate to have grown up with a mom who actually cooked. Three meals a day, every day. She still does. My childhood memories are full of sweet loaves of zucchini bread, endless batches of no bake cookies, and a pantry stocked with homemade salsa. To this day, summers in Ben Franklin, TX are filled with my dad gardening, my mom canning. Back then it was more about frugality above all else. It was anything but trendy. Today you're actually among the 'hipsters' if you garden and compost and spend hours canning salsa or freshly picked peaches. Backyard chickens? Oh man, total hipster! Apparently my parents are crazy cool... if only I'd understood that years ago.
I am thankful for the legacy they passed on to me, whether that was their intent or not. I won't always make the best dinner on the block or pull the cookies from the oven before they get just a bit too chewy, but I will log hours in my kitchen. My children will see me make messes, do endless loads of dishes, and stir pots and pans on the stove. They'll lick wooden spoons and smear chocolate across their faces and dance around at my feet while I taste and try and do my best to nourish them. And above all, they'll see me feed people. Generously, humbly and intentionally, mind, body, and spirit. Because that's what I was made for.
My real secret is how much I love getting to know people intimately, deeply. And food (simple, easy to prepare, yummy food) seems the best trick I know to make that a smooth, lovely introduction. I find that when I offer muffins, hot and fresh and dripping with pasture butter and raw honey... hearts unfurl like flowers blossoming, quickly getting to the real issues, getting to the real heart of who they are.
That's why I love to cook. That's why I love to bake. It opens hearts, especially in our microwave and fast food culture where so few people really do anymore. It's not that I'm so amazing at it. I simply do it.
A few easy tips for learning to love you kitchen:
- spend a little extra for quality and organic ingredients, even if it's only an occasional splurge. Not only are they more nutrient dense, they taste better. Quality ingredients make all the difference. You'll get tons of compliments for having done nothing ;-)
- in a similar vein, choose quality over quantity. For example, rather than a huge family pack of cheap steaks opt for two or three high quality cuts instead, and share. Great rule of thumb for a dozen different reasons: eating less, better nutrition, budget friendly, etc.
- try new things. It doesn't have to be exotic, just different. Pick out a new cheese you've never heard of, a vegetable you're unfamiliar with, a spice that sounds crazy. Eating and cooking are so much more fun when there's an element of adventure. You may hate it, or it might change your life! The fun is trying. Also, try different stores for all the same reasons. Grocery shopping is never a chore around here. We actually look forward to it! My husband complains if I go without him, no lie.
- google is your friend. Don't know how to cook a daikon radish? Grill a burger to the perfect medium rare? Bake banana bread? Google it. Use words like 'easy' and 'simple' or 'no bake.' You'll be amazed the things you can do.
- invest in a good chef's knife. Just one. A friend taught us this years ago. It changed everything. We're huge fans of Wusthof, but there are plenty of brands to choose from depending on your budget. Take proper care of it and it'll last you a lifetime.
- invite your spouse, children, friends (anyone!) to join you. Make it an event everyone looks forward to. Josh and I cook almost every dinner together. Two tiny dogs and a baby at our feet, we crank up music, slice up cheese or fruit to munch on and chop and chat away. We love it. If not a spouse, invite a friend or neighbor... even your mom! (I love to cook with my mom, btw. We argue about how to do things. It's fun.)
- use flavors and ingredients you love. For me, you can't go wrong with cinnamon or vanilla. No matter what a recipe calls for, I generally double the amount. I almost feel compelled to do so, certain the recipe must be incorrect. ;-)
- be open to learning and getting your hands dirty. You'll never learn if you don't actually walk into your kitchen, pull out a knife, and start chopping. Took me a while to figure this one out. Watching Food Network won't make you a great baker, but a dirty whisk and sink full of mixing bowls eventually will.
- and lastly, don't give up after your first batch of flourless brownies turn out awful or the salmon you cured for hours is too salty to choke down. Keep at it. That's just part of beginning or trying anything new. And the first time you nail it, it's worth every failed attempt.
Do you like to cook? Or bake? Is your motivation nourishing your family, getting to know your neighbors, to simply celebrate everyday moments? Do you have any tips or secrets to share?