March 4, 2007

Your Early Cooking

What was the first thing you remember learning how to cook for yourself?

If that’s too vague:

  • What food do you remember preparing with help from someone else?
  • What food do you remember preparing without help from someone else?
  • What food were you first proud you could make from scratch?
  • How did you progress from there?

The first thing I remember preparing is toast. I love bread, and I’ve always loved toast. The toast I first prepared was Syrian bread with Promise margarine heated over a gas stove flame. With a little help from Mom.

Later, I prepared it for myself.

Before I left my parents’ house, I didn’t really cook much. I began to prepare a hearty lunch of choriço (Portuguese spicy pork sausage to the unfamiliar) and sliced potatoes. All this consists of is sliced potatoes (about 1/4 inch thick or so) fried in a nonstick or iron pan with choriço sausage and a little oil. Most of the fat to fry the potatoes is rendered out of the sausage. When the surface of the potatoes gets slightly crispy, and the potatoes are tender inside, it’s done. The only challenge is to avoid burning the sausage and make sure the potatoes are cooked through. It’s not much of a challenge at all. This is eaten with utensils, or tossed into a loaf of Syrian bread and rolled up.

By that time I was working at McDonalds, so I became familiar with eggs. Scrambled, fried, whatever. Not very interesting, though.

I was really proud (wrongly so) of my “stir-fry chicken” which was an abomination on stir-fry. I knew zero about stir-fry, and just tossed a too much sliced chicken into a wok with some oil and then covered it with a soy sauce and sugar concoction that was vaguely Asian. Oh yeah, there was garlic in there, too, which was its saving grace.

The surfeit of chicken would cool down the wok too much, preventing any kind of frying. By the time it heated back up, I was boiling the chicken in the sauce. The chicken tasted OK, if a little too salty, and the sauce was too runny. Paired with rice, it was kind of a joke. And there were no veggies. Sometimes, I would marinate the chicken and that would be even saltier.

A college friend from China, Danhua, saw me preparing it once and was very kind in her criticism. I explained that I’d pretty much made the thing up, and she asked me what i was using to thicken it. (Nothing, I didn’t know about thickeners). She explained corn starch to me. After some experiments with corn starch, I started to realize my sauce was too salty, and the whole thing was not stir fry in any case.

Maggie and I were soon wedded and living together, and at some time in our early marriage we bought a book of 1000 Chinese recipes and I started to get an idea of what the heck a stir fry was, and how vegetables figure in. And to use ginger. Things improved rapidly after that, but I have to say that Maggie’s lasagna sustained us through the novice cooking years.

[This post edited to fix horrible typos, grammar and awkward wording]

Posted by James at March 4, 2007 2:50 PM
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I love this post - those are really neat stories, JP!

The first thing I remember learning to make was cinnamon toast. It was the first project in the 4-H cookbook, and our leader was a really kind and very distractable lady who couldn't cook. She volunteered to teach cooking in the hopes of becoming a better cook. We gave it up after two weeks and two kitchen fires, and instead would have tea parties with fancy cookies. Fancy to me, because my mom always made cookies, so getting to eat Chips Ahoy on a china plate seemed the height of sophistication and fine dining to me.

The first thing I was really proud of making was my challah. I had learned to cook by then, and learned to love to cook, so taking a recipe and working on it until it was exactly what I wanted was a really wonderful experience for me.

The other thing I most remember is making a dish my dad always made for me when I was sick, and giving it to the boys when they were sick. He called it Shepherd's Pie, and it was not even close to pie or shepherd anything. It was a small dish of applesauce covered with a slice of white bread with butter and sugar on it. When I was little, that also seemed amazing. However, it's one of those dishes which can give you warm memories of being a child if you don't actually try eating it after the age of, oh, 9. When I made it for the boys, they flat-out refused to even try it. When I took a bite to show them it was ok, it really was dreadful. But, it also made me smile to think about how caring it was for my dad to make it for me, wait for me to eat and then carry me to bed when I was really little. I'm thinking, though, that I'll be sticking with photos the next time I become nostalgic like that.

Posted by: Cindy at March 4, 2007 4:15 PM

Comfort foods from childhood! Sometimes they don't survive the journey into adulthood and don't jump the generation gap, either.

Cinnamon toast is something I never made, but i have fond memories of a little Disney comic book that a relative gave me. Within it there was a recipe for cinnamon toast, prepared on sliced of bread which were toasted, buttered and then tossed in a paper bag with sugar and cinnamon. It sounded heavenly. But when I was a kid, I didn't think I could do anything like that and I never asked my parents to let me. I was always just content reading about stuff, rather than doing anything.

That changed! But I still get intimidated by things, like sourdough which I still haven't given a serious try.

I haven't baked challah, but it's on my list!

Posted by: James at March 4, 2007 6:01 PM

I also used to read cookbooks as a kid, but wasn't allowed to cook. My father taught me how to make scrambled eggs when I was in 4th grade or so. I took a cooking class at the Girls Club in 6th grade, and home ec in 9th grade, but other than that, the whole time I lived with my parents, I didn't get to do much in the kitchen except scrambled eggs, toast, and heating up soup or other canned goods (Chef Boyardee) on the stove.

My first real cooking efforts were in college. I made an edible (not awesome, but better than expected) shrimp stir-fry, and baked chicken. I didn't have regular access to an oven until after I graduated, I think.

Posted by: julie at March 4, 2007 6:40 PM

I really don't remember how I started cooking as a kid. I do remember helping with cookies and cakes, etc. but I don't recall what the first things I made on my own were.

What definitely set me on the road to cooking meals was living in an apartment rather than a dorm after sophomore year in college. Most of my roommates were still on the meal plan so I had to plan a weeks worth of food for myself. Mostly basic stuff and a lot of quick stuff but it got me going on the basics and I got better as I gained experience.

My version of your chorico and potatoes substitutred peppers and tomato sauce for the potatoes. Yes those early stir fries were pretty bad. I remember making a sweet and sour chicken using a House of Tsang sauce that was pretty decent though.

Posted by: B.O.B. (bob) at March 5, 2007 8:14 AM

Do you do this chourico and potatoes thing over high heat or low heat? (I've never gotten the hang of potatoes.)

Posted by: Julie at March 5, 2007 10:56 AM

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