With all the restaurants we go to, you might be surprised to learn that we eat at home a lot and love to cook. When it comes to cooking, it hasn't been all smooth sailing for me. I grew up as a picky eater who preferred dumping Ranch dressing on my food to trying new things. Until we moved to DC, my idea of cooking was pouring something frozen from Trader Joe's into a wok (confession: I still love TJ's frozen food!), heating it up, and putting it on a plate. I was completely petrified of fresh vegetables and anything that wasn't pre-cut. I didn't even know how to hold a knife, much less julienne something.
I watched my mother-in-law cook amazing meals and bake tons of desserts and just sort of froze at the thought of being compared to her. When your husband grows up with homemade everything, you want to homemake nothing. But, as my interest in food increased, I started to realize that a part of me secretly wanted to be a good home cook.
I adopted Julia Child's "don't be afraid" motto, put on an Iron Chef apron, and started to experiment. I started really slowly with recipes from Real Simple that I would not alter even when B commented that the dish was under-seasoned and needed salt. "It's not in the recipe!" I would say. I eventually became brave enough to start adding my own seasoning and going off the script if I didn't have all of the ingredients that Real Simple told me I needed. I finally began to shed my Real Simple crutch and tackled more challenging recipes. While there were a few miscues here and there (and maybe some tears), I began to grow more confident with each meal.
Despite my growing confidence, I still found myself hacking the crap out of vegetables because I didn't know the first thing about how to properly use a knife. I decided to go to the pros and signed us up for a knife skills intro class at Sur La Table in Pentagon Row. Our very friendly (and not at all scary) instructor M.J. taught us a ton of useful tips from proper knife holding, to how to attack tough items (pineapple, tomatoes, squash, etc.), to how to care for your knives.
One Brick) to volunteer at the D.C. Central Kitchen. The DCCK deserves its own post on the amazing things it is doing to feed D.C.'s hungry masses and give people job skills to enable them to work in the culinary field. It's a magical place and we were happy to get to spend a morning there.
They put us right to work peeling and chopping a giant vat of onions. B and I teamed up (he peeled while I chopped, then we switched) and flew through about 200 pounds of onions in a few hours. We were a lean, mean onion cutting machine! With each onion I grew a little bit more confident and a little faster. By the time we walked out the DCCK doors (with a pair of matching blisters), I was ready to jump back in my kitchen and cook up a storm.
I'm no Julia Child, but thanks to Sur La Table and DCCK, I'm a small step closer to being the confident cook I hope to be.
Second Thoughts from B
I hate to admit it but I was spoiled growing up... at least when it comes to food. Every meal was made from scratch, from the french toast in the morning to the lemon tart at night. I grew up thinking that everyone was as skilled in the kitchen as my mother. Fortunately, not everyone loves cooking as much as she does, so when it came to finding a sous chef, I was the only choice (let's just say my father has been blessed with skills that don't involve the kitchen). The result is that I enjoy cooking and am comfortable doing so. I wouldn't go so far to say that I have any talent for it, but I can follow a recipe.
When J and I first started dating, I always felt that I had cooking as a way to impress her. Now, however, I have to admit that her abilities have exceeded mine. It is humbling, but also wonderful to see her confidence grow. Cooking is a regular part of our lives and we've had great fun learning together (for more on cooking classes, see here and here). It has gotten to the point that I think it is fair to say that an enjoyable Sunday afternoon for us involves several hours in the kitchen together.
About once a month, this Sunday cooking session involves me making a huge vat of pasta sauce. Since I'm my mother's son, I'm proud to say that it is completely from scratch which means a lot of time chopping garlic, onions, carrots, celery, etc. Needless to say, taking the time to learn proper technique and getting the chance to practice has saved me a lot of time. That we were able to feed some people at the same time is a pretty awesome bonus.
Learning how to chop a vegetable might not be as glamorous as taking a pie making class, but there's nothing better for accelerating your abilities in the kitchen. Sur La Table is a great place to start but as anyone will tell you, practice makes perfect. It may feel weird at first and result in a blister or two, but trust me, it'll be worth it. So instead of buying 100 pounds of onions and making your home stink for a week, run down to DCCK and do some good for the community... just make sure to bring a Bandaid or two.