I am lucky enough to have a mom who let me experiment in the kitchen since I was a little kid, and who taught me everything I wanted to learn about cooking (that and quite a few other domestic arts). When I was around 10 years old, I think every Saturday I would make these awful three-ingredient peanut butter cookies with my sister. In a 10-year-old’s mind, sugar, peanut butter, and an egg = genius. Anyway, even though my poor family had to go through peanut butter cookie purgatory, I eventually became a fairly confident cook and now I cook for my husband and myself nearly every night. Pretty good food usually.
The problem that I’ve run into is getting “stuck in a rut” (to use an expression that itself is stuck in a rut). I have some recipes that make me happy and I make them over and over. I also love to cook without a recipe, just putting things together and creating something delicious. That’s a lot of fun, but it gets monotonous because I’m not injecting anything really novel into the mix. I gravitate toward my favorite flavors, my favorite ingredients … it’s very nice, very comforting, and very, very predictable. And then one day I look at Ben across the table and say, “I. AM. TIRED. OF. EATING. CHICKEN.”
It’s not that there’s anything wrong with chicken. I am not going to do “365 days of no chicken” or something like that. I just want to take a few steps away from the way I’m used to cooking and try a few new things. Mix things up a little, ya know. And so I have come up with a few culinary goals for 2011. I’m not going to try to change the way I cook, or throw out all my spices (no, no, not the oregano, please not the oregano!) because seriously, who has the time and energy for that much novelty? Just a few goals so when I do have time to experiment, I’ll know what direction to go. And gradually I hope to work new flavors and techniques into my cooking.
- My first goal is to learn to make 2 to 3 dishes WELL, from 2 different cuisines that I have no experience with. I don’t want to just dabble in a cuisine and try different things and just move on if they flop. I want to learn to master 2 or 3 dishes from that cuisine. Which means I will probably make the same thing several times over until I get it right.
- The “two different cuisines” that I’m going to go with are (1) Thai and (2) Indian. I really don’t know anything about cooking Thai or Indian dishes, but both Ben and I really enjoy eating Thai and Indian food, so I know we won’t drive ourselves too crazy eating lots of curry or whatever. Plus it’s a nice challenge since they’re so new to me. We’re talking a whole new palette of flavors. Lemongrass? Cardamom? Whaaaaaat? That’s just what I want: something different. (But oregano, I will always love you.)
- The second (and last) goal for this year is to learn to make two, at the most three, incredibly delicious and pretty impressive desserts. Incredibly delicious as in, “This is the best __________ I’ve ever tasted.” Pretty impressive as in, “It’s almost too pretty to eat.” I can make lots of cookies and things like that, but they are neither incredibly delicious nor pretty impressive. I don’t make a lot of desserts currently, certainly not very challenging ones. If we’re having people over for dinner I’ll make a nice meal and then serve ice cream for dessert. And while it’s hard to improve on ice cream, again, I just want to try some new things. To find some new favorites.
- The desserts I want to learn to make really, really well are — at this point — (1) carrot cake and (2) cheesecake. There are good reasons why I picked these two. Carrot cake is my favorite, and cheesecake is Ben’s. :-) When done well, I think both of them can be incredibly delicious and also pretty impressive.
So I’ve figured out these goals and I don’t think they’re too overwhelming or too simplistic to accomplish by January 1, 2012. The next question is HOW I’m going to accomplish them, and that part is less defined. I’m going to have to find some cookbooks or websites, maybe get some new equipment, and definitely buy groceries I’ve never bought before.
For the Thai food I know exactly where I’m going to start: Pad Thai. I love pad thai. It is heaven shaped like noodles. I’ve bookmarked a recipe from Chez Pim that I have been dying to try. But I may have to buy a wok. And if I buy the wok, I’ll have to store the wok, and I have no room in my kitchen for storage of woks. So that’s still a problem I need to solve.
For Indian food, I am not as sure what I want to do, but I know I’d like to make something with lamb. Possibly Lamb Rogan Josh, which I had at an Indian restaurant once and loved. Other than that, I’m open to suggestions. Anyone?
And finally, I really don’t know where to begin with the desserts. Round cake pans and a springform pan will most likely have to be purchased, and then I’ll have to find several recipes to try. There must be good books on cakes out there, and I may also dig around at Epicurious and AllRecipes for inspiration.
All right, what do you think? Do you have any suggestions for me? I hope I am up to the challenge. Whether or not I am successful, at least I should learn and grow from the attempt. Routine is good, but only to a point. Otherwise one day you wake up and realize you’ve been making three-ingredient peanut butter cookies, and only three-ingredient peanut butter cookies, FOR AS LONG AS YOU CAN REMEMBER. I don’t want to do that; I don’t want to be afraid of new things. In the profound and mostly relevant words of Robert C. Gallagher (whoever he is), “Change is inevitable — except from a vending machine.”