[Note: this was written several years ago, but I find it’s still mostly true.]
The Joy of Cooking
It’s not just a cookbook — I love cooking, even though I didn’t start until college and after. I love nourishing myself mentally, physically, and creatively all at once; I like experimenting with new recipes, techniques, and ingredients, and I enjoy cooking for friends so we can all socialize and have fun together. These days I usually cook for my birthday, because I can’t imagine a better way to spend part of my day than creating a nice meal to have with my favorite people.
When I was younger I didn’t do so much cooking. Mostly I washed the dishes after dinner instead, the logic being that those who cooked didn’t have to clean up, and vice versa. I sometimes helped my mom bake or made a salad. I had a couple of “specialties” like dill sauce and applesauce that were easy accompaniments that my parents made to go with salmon and pork,
respectively. But my parents are good cooks, so I saw no reason to disturb the status quo.
During college when I lived off-campus I experimented a little, but mostly I ate a lot of easy stuff like pasta, though I did conquer my mom’s rosemary chicken recipe and co-create a tasty, easy quesadilla method. (Nothing new, but awfully effective and tasty.) But I knew that my time to learn to cook for myself was coming up, and since I’d decided to be a vegetarian, I knew learning to cook that way would be a challenge and adventure. Surprisingly, I really took to it, and my first term in Edinburgh I cooked one or two new things every week. I was lucky enough to find the book Almost Vegetarian in Half-Price Books on a brief trip to Houston before I left for Scotland, and I depended primarily on it during that time. Gradually I learned to substitute, experiment, and innovate in the kitchen. I’m now pretty comfortable with or without a cookbook in front of me.
My favorite cooking show is Ready, Steady, Cook on the BBC, which I used to watch all the time in Scotland. It really helped me loosen up and innovate, and also to learn what foods go together. In the US, I like Ina Garten’s Barefoot Contessa. I like to watch chefs, because they tell you their little tips and you really see the food and what they do. Ina has a nice, enthusiastic manner, and I love that she’s a home cook (albeit a very experienced one), not a trained chef.
One of my big resources is food blogs. My overall favorite is Tigers & Strawberries. Barbara is so informative, friendly, and right on. I also love vegan lunchbox which gives me inspiring vegan ideas. For creative, yummy vegan cooking and beautiful photography, I love Lolo’s VeganYumYum. Hot and Sour Cabbage Soup, Blueberry Hand Pies, and much, much more. Everything Lolo touches looks beautiful and delicious. And the hardworking and talented Vegan Dad is there every day, telling you about the mouthwatering family dinners (and desserts) he makes. Lemon pudding cake was a totally new concept for me, and now I’m an addict.
In addition to Almost Vegetarian, I have Diana Shaw’s The Essential Vegetarian and Deborah Madison’s bible, Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone. My favorite vegan cooking books are those by Isa Moskowitz and Terry Romero: Vegan with a Vengeance, Veganomicon, and Vegan Cupcakes Take Over the World. The PPK forums are also full of amazingness. Joanna Vaught’s Yellow Rose Recipes (and blog) has lots of delicious meals that are easy and fun.
I have a lot of other cookbooks on my shelf and even more on my Amazon wishlist. I think the fantasy of the recipes that look and sound so good keeps me collecting, even though I reality I make up recipes half the time and haven’t made most of the recipes from most of the books I already own. But someday I will.
I have also inherited some family recipes. When I first started cooking, and more now that I’m into it, my mom started teaching me some recipes we ate when I was growing up, like lentil stew and rice salad, as well as baking ones like pie crust and muffins. I clip interesting recipes a lot, or use Google if I have a new ingredient that I don’t know any recipes for. (I only use this method if I can’t find something else, or to give me ideas. I prefer blogs & food sites because you never know about any old recipe that might turn up.) I have some recipes from my collection available online.
I tend to avoid recipes that use a lot of “meat equivalents”. For me, that’s not what vegetarian cooking is about. I like to really use the plants themselves, not heavily processed and flavored stuff. For example, Garden burgers contain “natural grill flavor”. But they aren’t grilled, so they just taste fake. Even though I like Chinese/Vietnamese veggie stuff with fake meat occasionally, I wouldn’t want it every day. I try to use a lot of grains, vegetables, and fruit, with plenty of herbs and spices. I like tofu very much, and lately I’ve been getting into seitan and related wheat gluten meats. Some of the new techniques are very fast and easy, like Julie Hasson’s sausages. These are basically like the terrific Tofurkey sausages but homemade and therefore way cheaper, less oily, and more flexible in flawor.
I like Indian food and enjoy making curry dishes, like Chickpea Curry. I love potatoes, bread, and pasta, as well as less common kinds of carbohydrate like couscous (I make lots of variations on Moroccan-style tagine and couscous pilaf) and quinoa. Recently I discovered the joy of Udon noodles. I like soup, but I’m not very good at making it improvisationally; usually I need a recipe for results good enough to feed to others (I rarely make anything bad enough that I won’t eat it myself). I have tried a lot of new vegetables, grain, and legumes since I became vegetarian and I really appreciate being able to have a diverse diet so that nothing gets boring.
My skills aren’t so strong that I do a lot of fancy cooking, or that I’m very fast at it. I’m good with stuff that involves chopping vegetables and sauteing them, or steaming, or just mixing (like salads). I have learned to do more baking and found that once you are familiar with the recipe structures, it’s pretty easy and fun. I can make good pie crust and I have even made a few pizzas of my own!
I say all this mainly to make the point that you don’t have be a brilliant cook to enjoy yourself in the kitchen and be able to improvise. You just need to get a sense of flavor combinations, some good recipes, and a few favorite techniques down. I wish I could say more about the flavor combinations thing, but it was something that seemed really intuitive to me as soon as I started cooking. Things like guessing that eggplant and chickpea would go well together, and knowing that dill and rosemary are good spices for potatoes. There’s always more to learn (I never would have thought that strawberries would go well with black pepper, or that you can make creamy desserts that taste of Earl Grey), but again, you don’t need to know everything to be pretty good at it.