When I’m naked, I can see the signs of my cooking progress. I’m not talking about a little extra spare in the ol’ tire due to an overactive sweet tooth (though true, I will not obsess here). I mean marks, scars, bruises and weirdly colored pieces of skin that are the results of hot oil splatters and malfunctioning oven mitts that happened in unfortunate conjunction with poor outfit choices.
That faint pink mark on my left arm in the shape of a cat’s eye—baked chicken. The way the nail on my left index finger grows diagonally—overzealous cilantro chopping. A white spot on my cleavage, which I try to pass off as an albino freckle—a result of splattered butter while sautéing in my skivvies. (If you must know, I was late to a party and I hadn’t eaten all day; so I was whipping up a grilled cheese while trying to decide what to wear, okay?)
I’m not so much a “bad” cook as I am an uninformed, underdeveloped one. Or, I should say, was. These scars are my growing pains. Cooking, you see, always seemed like an oppressive chore—and so it was something I never bothered to learn properly. (If you don’t know how to do it, no one—which is to say no man—can expect you to, right?) It’s only been a year or so since I’ve known how to put ingredients together to form a meal. Prior to this life transformation, “ingredients” meant salad bags and string cheese. And “meal” meant takeout.
As a young girl, I resisted my mother’s coaching to help me become “good in the kitchen.” I didn’t want to be a good cook. I wanted to be the best student, get into the best college, and get the best job, which would allow me to hire the best personal chef. Career women of the new millennium don’t cook!
After eschewing my kitchen-training rite of passage and indulging for years in a routine of nightly $40 dinners, life changed. It became painfully clear that funds would not allow employing a personal chef — and my mother had long-ago given up teaching me how to make a cake from scratch, let alone how to peel an onion properly.
I was 26 and clueless in the kitchen. It’s a crucial age, a time when one is supposed to have climbed the career ladder, found a potential life mate, and thought very seriously about one’s reproductive organs and their expiration date—or at least that’s how I felt. Rather than a ticking biological clock, I felt like I had a ticking domestic clock. I still hated the idea of becoming a June Cleaver, but I felt an intense need to buy dish towels that matched; a desire to buy wine glasses for all the different types of wine; an urge to use my refrigerator for more than just beauty-product storage.
Turns out all my friends were way ahead of me. Everywhere I looked, people my age were throwing dinner parties, trading recipes for exotic dishes like “roasted racks of lamb,” “risotto with artichoke hearts,” and “vegetable lasagna.” One Betty Crocker even started bringing fresh baked goods to my book club—we’re talking from-scratch, fresh-fruit-in-them muffins. Show off.
They all probably learned to bake from their mothers and grandmothers. Or actually follow along with The Food Network’s Rachael Ray and Jamie Oliver rather than just tuning in to admire their homey kitchens and cute accents.
I felt destined for a life of takeout. But there’s only so much Pad Thai a woman can eat. Something had to be done, so I stumbled into living the life domestic.
First lesson learned: Start simple. Okay, so my idea of making ginger-herb lobster on day one of cooking didn’t quite pan out. Turns out, in order to cook lobster, you have to actually kill it, which brings me to lesson two: Do not compromise your ideals—which is to say, namely, do not do something that will cause you to faint.
Starting simple does not have to mean spaghetti, either. (That is so college-years.) Instead I thought of my favorite restaurant meals (except lobster) and figured out how to duplicate them at home. Being a huge Mexican food fan helps. The only skills necessary to produce a spread of grilled vegetable quesadillas, chunky guacamole (see recipe below), and chicken tacos are chopping, stirring, and flipping. And who knew sangria (see recipe below) was just wine with chopped fruit and a little Sprite thrown in? Easy!
The first “dinner” I made for my live-in was not received well—at least at first. Don’t get me wrong, it was good, but the live-in didn’t believe it. He was skeptical, and to be honest, I didn’t blame him. But a few bites of my grilled goodies changed his mind. Not only did he dig the kicked-up guacamole (add fresh jalapeño for some zing!) but he was so impressed that I actually touched chicken (I am a sea-things-only vegetarian), he treated me to a five-star meal that weekend. I ordered the lobster.
Cooking felt good. I actually like serving people something I put effort into. Surprisingly, I did not spontaneously sprout a pearl necklace and a perfectly-pressed apron upon setting foot in a kitchen. I was not instantly fired from my job or banned from climbing the corporate ladder. I maintain my insane pace balancing career, love, and social indulgence, but when I want a great meal, I no longer have to turn to the Zagat guide. I can whip-up blackened snapper with a tomato-garlic-white-wine reduction; sauté a flank steak (the live-in was so impressed with this, I got a foot massage); and sear Ahi to perfection to top a lavish Nicoise salad.
As for my guacamole, it’s become the stuff of legends. I’m all but forced to throw a Cinco de Mayo party every year just so my friends can gorge themselves on my masterful mashed avocados.
But the multi-tasking, independent, and, yes, reluctant domestic goddess in me still comes through. I can’t bake to save my life; I am a slave to frozen pizzas; and in my house, rice and oatmeal are of the minute variety.
Sometimes I doubt my own ability to sauté, as if I’m some kind of poseur in the kitchen, but my confidence is growing. All it takes is practice, following recipes (what marvelous things!!) and a desire to be domestic. Anyone can do it!
Mom would be so proud. Now if I could only learn to use needle and thread. Or not.
Domestic Goddess Recipes
What you need:
2 ripe avocados
1/2 red onion, finely chopped
1 handful of cilantro (just grab the bunch and tear off a handful)
1/2 fresh jalapeño pepper, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, pressed
Juice of one lime
1 tsp. salt
Fresh-ground black pepper
1 tsp. chili powder
Optional: One vine tomato, diced
Using a fork, scoop the flesh of the avocados into a bowl (leave it chunky). Add chopped cilantro, red onion, jalapeño pepper (without seeds—spicy hot; with seeds—smokin’ hot), and two garlic cloves. Squeeze half the lime over the bowl. Add the chili powder, salt and pepper. If you don’t feel like measuring out a teaspoon (who does?), just use two shakes of the chili powder, three to four shakes of salt, and enough black pepper to coat the surface of the mixture. Stir until mixed, but leave chunky. Add more lime juice as necessary. Throw in a diced tomato for color and texture if you like. Serve with chips or eat directly from bowl–it’s that good.
What you need:
1 bottle red wine (Shiraz, Cabernet, or dry Spanish red wine)
1 apple, cut in cubes
1 orange, peeled and cut in cubes
1/2 lemon, sliced (with skin)
1/2 lime, sliced (with skin)
Optional: Frozen berries
1 can lemon-lime soda
Throw all the fruit in your container and add wine. Let the mixture sit in the fridge for 2-3 hours (or up to 8). When ready to serve, add lemon-lime soda and ice. Frozen berries add an extra fruity flavor and help keep the mixture cold. Tip: Make an extra batch ahead of time; you don’t want to be chopping fruit while tipsy.