In Case You Were Wondering, I Am Still a Complete and Total Nightmare In the Kitchen

Twice this week I have made a dinner I had to dump directly in the trash.
Publish date:
August 15, 2014
cooking, food, bad cook

Twice in a week I have tried to make dinner. To be specific, I have gone to the grocery store and wandered the aisles searching for unfamiliar ingredients. I have brought it all home and spread it out on the counter and spent at least an hour shakily attempting to combine said ingredients in the way suggested by the recipe I periodically squint at on my iPhone, while my family waits hungrily in the living room.

And at the end of all of this, I have twice produced something that had to be literally throw in the trash while we ordered takeout.

This is nothing new. You may recall that the last time I attempted to cook dinner, over two years ago, I almost poisoned my baby and ended my relationship. I had to stop in the middle and sob for 10 straight minutes. All of this resulted in the DEAL OF THE CENTURY, i.e., I never have to cook again because I'm so jawdroppingly bad at it.

And that was fine with me, because I've long been of the opinion that cooking is THE WORST. It's boring, the effort-to-payoff ratio is way uneven, and you have to put your hands in gross things. And when you're done, you have to clean, which even more boring. Cooking is a chore, like vacuuming, except people try to convince you it's really fun.

But I've started to have a slight change of heart in my old age. I'm responsible for a small, growing human now, and at some point I may need to feed him something more complicated than microwavable toddler meals and chicken nuggets. (I have learned to cut up fruit like a boss as a mom.) And now that neither parent has time to cook for the adults in the house, takeout every night has contributed to the 20 extra pounds of MOM WEIGHT I put on without even getting pregnant like some kind of miracle of freaking science. I'm like the Virgin Mary of baby weight.

As a result, I've started doing little things like making oatmeal or eggs in the morning and packing my lunch and snacks for the day. The inevitable next step was trying to cook a healthy dinner at home.

Left to my own devices, I would probably tear a hole in a bag of tortilla chips with my teeth like a dog for dinner, so nothing about this comes naturally to me. I cannot stress vigorously enough to you how little I know what I'm doing in the kitchen. Here are just a few of the things that tripped me up in the preparation of my first attempt at making a Creamy Garlic Pasta with Shrimp. (Except I couldn't find peeled, uncooked shrimp at the grocery store, so I actually just made Creamy Garlic Pasta, aka screw-up numero uno.) Onward!

Here's what else went through my head while attempting to make a simple dinner: What does a garlic clove look like, and how do I chop one? I'll just buy chopped garlic. But how much chopped garlic is equal to 3 cloves? I'll look it up online. What does parsley look like? The signs are all switched around. Oh well, how much flavor can parsley add anyway, it's a freaking garnish. Where are pine nuts? OK, no pine nuts. How do I chop a bell pepper? Can Greek yogurt substitute for regular yogurt? OK, this sauce looks weird with Greek yogurt, I'm going to run to the store for plain yogurt and start over.

And after all that, I created this:

Perhaps it doesn't look that bad without the rancid sense memory of sour-tasting yogurt on pasta on your tongue, but this dish was gnarly. And if you're anything of a cook and you clicked out and read that recipe, you probably already knew that it was going to be. But I, in my inexperience, didn't know that a recipe could be just ... bad. I thought they were sort of like doctors, or how you look at your parents when you're young -- immutable, all-knowing, and fundamentally correct.

If I, in good faith, put together the ingredients the way the recipe instructed me to do so, I believed that the result would be something reasonably edible. But no, this recipe betrayed me. It just wasn't a good recipe! It was a fundamentally bad recipe! It had probably been that way since birth and there's nothing I could have done to keep it from racing motorcycles and terrorizing old ladies or whatever.

The worst part is that this recipe told me, right up front, that it was yogurt on pasta, but I couldn't hear it. I thought the recipe knew something I didn't. Turns out there is no way to cook yogurt on pasta that doesn't taste like yogurt on pasta.

At that point, we were in the mood for pasta, so we ordered some from the pizza place. I got a whole wheat penne with vegetables that somebody else cooked just fine. Later I read a few of the reviews on the pasta recipe:

One just said, "Nope."

Bouyed by my belief that I had been hornswoggled by a bad recipe, I decided to give it another try a few nights later. This time I read the reviews, and everybody loved Skillet Gnocchi with Chard and White Beans. I sent it to someone who knows how to cook to make sure it sounded OK to them and got the go-ahead.

I still hit some roadbumps. You haven't been truly humbled until you've had to Google "How do I chop an onion?" And, despite the fact that I searched every section of the store where there could conceivably be pasta -- fresh shelf or frozen -- I couldn't find gnocchi. So I asked the Internet for substitutions and bought cavatelli, which was shaped a bit like a little seashell.

Spoiler alert: You can't cook the cavatelli just like you would have cooked the gnocchi. I made a concoction of pasta cheese and white beans that would have been legitimately delicious if the pasta hadn't still been crunchy. Again, after an hour of effort, I dumped my creation in the trash, a complete waste of time and money. This time, we ordered a pizza.

My conclusion? Cooking is hard, especially when you don't know the basics. It's sort of like when I was in junior high and coaches always recruited me to play basketball because I was so tall. The problem, other than my possibly inherent lack of athleticism, was that at that level everybody assumed that you already knew the rules of the game, and therefore nobody ever explained them. I spent a lot of time just following everybody else when they ran across the court and trying not to throw the ball at (clearly never into) the wrong basket.

Most recipes are the same -- they assume, rightly, that you know what a garlic clove looks like and that you have to wash the kale. (I learned that one when I recently had to throw out a dirt-crunchy omelet.) A recipe could not be too rudimentary for me.

And my other problem is that I don't have enough core knowledge about how food and cooking works to make changes and substitutions on the fly. If the grocery store doesn't have exactly what the recipe is asking for, I'm liable to ruin a whole big batch of food trying to make it work. A more knowledgeable cook, for instance, would have known to cook the cavatelli separately in water and then add it to the sauce. And hey, maybe this is how I have to learn, by making every stupid mistake in the cookbook and figuring things out the hard way. At this point, I feel committed to learning some basic cooking skills just to sort of spite cooking. I want to hate-cook.

And yeah, I'll probably never actually LIKE cooking, but I don't like putting money in my savings account either but it's still a dumb thing I've learned how to do to make my life better. (This applies only to me, BTW. If you don't want to cook, you don't have to because, FUCK cooking. Fuck it. I still think it's dumb.)

But yeah, I'm not giving up. So help me I guess if you feel like it? Easy, healthy recipes? Good resources for basic cooking information? Something else to instill in me the will to go on besides my own hate and rage? Does "it get better," guys? DOES IT?