Be Brave In: Cooking

Happy Be Brave Month! It’s March, which means it’s nearly spring and as good time a time as any for change and growth.  Over the next four weeks, we’ll look into four areas of your life that, with a little courage, can be expanded, improved, classed-up, and generally made more awesome, so you can feel more awesome, too, and get a little closer to being the best “you” possible.

This week we’ll tackle cooking!  Some people have a really, really hard time with cooking – as in, everything that touches a pan turns to ash.  Other people get stuck in ruts of having the same dish week after week, either because of cost, skill level, or time constraints.  Few things make me happier, though, than attempting a new recipe and sitting down to a meal that I worked hard on and which will nourish me and (hopefully) be tasty as well.  Cooking is a creative outlet with immediate gratification, and it’s one the whole family can pitch in on.  Even if you’re one of those people who says “no, really, I can burn a salad,” keep trying!  Like anything, cooking takes practice, but if you can get the hang of it, you’ll have a lot more control over your health and your finances.

1. Start small.  Cookies are easy: mix dry ingredients, mix wet ingredients, combine, add chips or nuts, bake.  Done.  That’s an easy foundation to work with and an excellent mode for experiments.  Once you have that down, you can try a more complicated cookie recipe, maybe one that involves a glaze or an unfamiliar flavor.  Same principle for meals – learn to cook spaghetti, then play with making lasagna.

2. Explore Cost Plus World Market or Trader Joe’s.  I’m impressed by our local Fred Meyer’s collection of international ingredients, and of course Trader Joe’s always has fun treats, but we didn’t always have access to so many options.  In Salem, if we wanted anything out of the ordinary, we had to get it from Cost Plus, the most exotic shop in town.  If you have either of these stores nearby, get a new spice to try in a stir-fry, or find a different soup, an imported pasta sauce, or a grain like coucous or quinoa.

3. Use a recipe generator.  Real Simple has a great search function that allows you to find recipes by ingredient, and so far I’ve had very good luck with their recipes.  A similar tool is My Fridge Food – tell it what’s in your kitchen and it’ll tell you what to make!  These tools can also help you plan ahead with your grocery shopping, in case you need something to do with that leftover half-cup of ricotta from another recipe.

4. Go all-out.  A few weeks ago, on a Tuesday, I made chicken francese with mashed potatoes and wilted spinach.  It took some time, and apparently I still can’t cook chicken totally through in a pan (I had to finish it up in the oven), but the end result was the most beautiful chicken breast I’ve ever made, and one very happy husband.  I was proud of myself for accomplishing a moderately difficult recipe with tasty results.

5. Experiment with a new cuisine.  During the Great Borders Closing, I spent a lot of time among the cookbooks, flipping through pages of beautifully-photographed sushi, whole-fish dishes, and French sauces.  I resisted the urge to buy a truckload, mostly because how many cookbooks does one really need?  I’m very happy with my current collection, which includes entry-level books on Italian, Tex-Mex, and East Asian.  If we’re feeling inspired, we can do some research and whip up a brand-new recipe that only needs a couple ingredients we don’t normally have on hand.  These experiments got me to like curry, fajitas, and a lot more!

What tips or tricks do you have for learning a new dish or getting yourself out of a food rut?  Are there any dishes in particular you’re proud of making?

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