Sometimes when I’m driving, to pass the time, I have conversations with myself out loud. Don’t worry about it. Shhhh. It’s fine. Moving on.
On today’s commute home from work, I found myself without my carpool buddy. I was also a bit antsy after realizing I had spent most of the day at my desk with minimal human interaction. Since I had no means of remedying this situation at the time, I decided to conduct an interview with myself. Again, shhh. I’m fine.
The theme of the interview was my history with food and cooking. How did I start? Where am I today? What do I want to learn? What are my influences? Etc.
What was your typical dinner growing up?
I remember most dinners being what I would describe as the “typical American meal”. It was characterized but three distinct parts of the plate –meat, starch, and vegetable. The meat would usually be something like breaded chicken, pork roast, or maybe even a hot dog. Nothing too complicated, nothing too memorable. I remember not liking the texture of most meat. I found anything made in the slow cooker slimy and anything pig based revolting. I have a distinct memory of slicing up a pork chop up into tiny pieces and swallowing them whole because I didn’t want to taste it while I chewed. I suppose it’s not a surprise that I became a vegetarian. Oddly though chicken patty and hot dogs were some of the only meat I did eat, which is unfortunately probably the most processed meat out there.
The starch portion of the meal was either a potato or some sort of grain. I was then and still am a big enthusiast for potatoes. This was easily my favorite part of the meal. Actually, whenever I would refuse to eat something else on the plate, my mom would allow me to bargain by eating a few more bites of potatoes. Thank goodness for potatoes! Occasionally the potatoes would be substituted out for some sort of pre-seasoned microwave pasta or rice dish. For some reason, I wasn’t into pasta or rice at a young age. Something about it being slimy.
The vegetable portion of the meal was usually from a can or a freezer bag medley. I’m not sure if it was the method of preparation or my immature taste buds but, I never particularly enjoyed any of these vegetable servings. Canned green beans –barf. I did go through a phase where I would eat whole bowls of lima beans. Look, I don’t get it either. Kids are weird. We did have a garden for some portion of my childhood. So, we had fresh vegetables when possible. For some reason, the more vivid memories are the canned vegetables. My mom would grumpily chime in here that it always seems like I only remember the bad memories. Oops.
Allegedly, I was a picky eater. My father was also a traditional eater. My mom cites both as reasons as why she never tried to make anything too out of the box in the kitchen. Probably valid. I also think it was product of the time. My parents were busy, canned vegetables, microwavable rice, and frozen medleys were easy. There also wasn’t as much access to creative and unique cooking ideas as there is today. The internet wasn’t available and no one had time to watch the Food Network. Compared to my other friends, we ate healthily. Minimum fast food consumption, usually when Dad was in charge and we didn’t keep sugary snacks in the house. At risk of being too mean, my mom has since expanded her horizons and now cooks lots of new, flavorful, colorful, and exciting recipes.
Did your family heritage have any influence on your meals growing up or the types of food you cook now?
Not really. My dad’s side is Italian and Czech. My dad’s dad is the Italian one, so I didn’t have the “Italian grandmother” and my dad wasn’t much of a chef to pass any of it on. The signature dish from my Czech grandmother was meatballs. I remember loving these as a kid, but since I don’t eat meat now, it’s not something I would make. Plus, I’m not sure if anyone ever got the recipe.
My maternal grandfather is a mix of German and some other European regions. I don’t recall any specific dishes from this side of the family. My maternal grandmother was born in Albania. She brought over a lot of the Albania culture. Unfortunately, as a kid I don’t think I was very open to this cuisine. I have learned my grandmother’s stuffed grape leave recipe (I think it’s spelled “Sarma”). I’ve had to modify it to make it vegetarian. The other Albania foods I remember cooking are a bread and a cookie. I haven’t been able to find an Albania spelling of the way we phonetically pronounce the bread name, but it’s delicious. I’d like to think if my grandmother was still around, I could have her teach me other Albania foods.
When did you start learning how to cook? Can you describe how that progression occurred?
I wasn’t open to learning how to cook for a long time. I think partly because it seemed time consuming and nothing I was eating excited me that much. For the first three years of college I lived in dorm rooms. Most of my meals were either microwave meals, campus food, or regretfully, Subway. The summer after Junior year, I moved to Ohio for an internship. This was the first time there was a need to cook. I also had a lot of spare time on my hands.
Before I left, I had my mom write down instructions for my three go-to recipes –pasta, breaded zucchini, and breaded chicken. The sense of culinary adventure was palpable. I still have in a notebook where my mom wrote down—boil water, pour in noodles, cook for 8 minutes, drain in colander, pour back in pot, heat up sauce in microwave, pour over noodles. I needed the play-by-play, I was clueless.
When I got back to college for my senior year, I had an apartment for the first time. I slowly started to introduce other recipes into my repertoire. Also, throughout the past couple of years, I had college friends introduce me to other cuisines. I started trying Chinese food, Indian food, Lebanese food, and Thai food (Thanks Hari). My food horizons were expanding. Once I realized rice wasn’t terrible, I started making stir fries. Something so simple, but really the gateway to trying other types of food.
Then I moved to Houston. I already had the cooking ball rolling and things just started to take off. I started meal prepping lunches for work. I started using Pinterest to get recipe inspiration. I started dating Adam who actually knew how to cook. I started liking to take pictures of food which spurring me to find colorful and creative recipe ideas. I went vegetarian which required me to think outside the box more. I by no means know what I’m doing. I still google how to make rice every time I do it. But I started being a little bit less picky and taking a little bit more risks with the things I tried to make. Some might say being a vegetarian has made me more picky, and to them I say shhhhhh.
What are your favorite things to cook?
I’m not sure if I have a favorite thing to cook. I am a big fan of “one pot meals” where you can just throw everything in the crock pot, fry pan, or soup kettle and get five meals for the week in less than an hour. Those types of recipes allow you to be creative too. You can vary the vegetables, grains, and spices you use.
Above anything else, I really just like cooking things that are different. I get frustrated and bored if every week, I’m just eating a grain salad or roasted vegetables and rice. If I have the time, I rarely repeat recipes. There are so many different categories of food—tacos, stir fry, noodle dish, soup, stew, curry, pasta, grain bowl, sushi, galettes, dumplings, chili, pizza, enchiladas, risotto, casseroles, veggie burgers, etc. There’s no reason to always have the same thing.
And the simple answer to that question is, anything with chickpeas.
What are your pantry staples?
I could go for a lot more pages about what basic spices are necessary for cooking, but I won’t. I think once you start cooking some of the Asian cuisines, you can slowly start to accumulate spices. I used to look at a recipe with six spices and just buy one. Then after doing that five more times I finally had all the basics.
For stir fries and noodle dishes, it’s good to have on hand sesame oil, soy sauce, rice vinegar, peanut butter and ginger. For some of the Indian dishes, buy a curry powder or curry paste. Then slowly start accumulating all the spices. I think I started with cumin and paprika. General spices that are good for almost everything are onion powder and chili powder.
As a vegetarian, I would recommend nutritional yeast and cashews. Seriously, you’ll use that shit for everything.
Then in general always have some sort of grain on hand whether it’s rice, quinoa, couscous, barley, lentil, etc.
What new kitchen adventures do you want to pursue?
I definitely still don’t know what I’m doing, but I really enjoy trying new things. Last week, I pickled vegetables for the first time. That was fun. I’m still not very good at making dough. I think I would like to learn to be better at that, I pretty much rely on Adam for that now. He’s a great sous chef.
My other main goal is to become better at improvising and just having a natural understanding of what flavors would go well together. I rely on Google a lot currently. I also want to develop some homemade hummus recipes. I buy a lot of hummus.