Breaking up With Brad, My Food Delivery Guy

By , Alicia Capetillo, Staff Writer
I can list the number of meals I can cook on one hand: calzones (with pre-made dough), roasted Brussels sprouts, kale chips, banana bread and orzo with olive oil, mozzarella, grape tomatoes and basil. Once I called my college-aged brother to ask if water would boil without a lid on the pot. I'm the girl who buys a can of bruschetta at Trader Joe's, slaps it on a crostini and brings it to the potluck. Anything you can burn, I've burnt. When I see "better than takeout" promises in magazines or attached to online recipes, I scoff and think "Yeah, sure." Every boyfriend I've ever had displayed an above-average interest in cooking. I think they call that a survival instinct.

These days, I live on delivery dinners and leftover lunches. Most weeks, my boyfriend and I order delivery four times, eat out twice and indulge in a homemade wine-and-cheese dinner the other night. Now that I’m an "adult," though, admitting that I don't know how to cook and don’t enjoy spending time in the kitchen isn't exactly met with a "Me, too!" I started noticing that my aversion to and anxiety about cooking raised more eyebrows than ever before. People who used to be in agreement were now giving me their favorite recipes for mango-shrimp tacos and beet root risotto, as if I could just magically cook them for myself. Clearly, it was time for a change.

Which is why I decided to challenge myself: No takeout or delivery meals for 30 days straight. The mission was to learn how to cook a few things, master the art of meal planning so we weren't scrambling for ideas at the last minute and possibly understand how people actually find enjoyment in standing over a hot stove. Luckily, despite not having the time most nights, my boyfriend actually enjoys cooking, so he promised to help me learn with as few tears and hangry outbursts as possible.

For 30 days, I'll work to overcome my three biggest gripes about cooking: a general lack of skills and understanding of kitchen terminology, impatience with arriving home late and not having dinner ready and a general lack of interest. Plus, I'll be sharing tips on how to get over the “I-hate-cooking” hump along the way. According to Katriona MacGregor, a journalist and chef who recently published "Healthy Speedy Suppers," my gripes are actually quite common with those who do not make time to cook. She lists tiredness, lack of confidence and not having grown up in an environment where cooking was the norm as the top reasons people don't make time to cook for themselves.

"Remember that cookery doesn’t have to be complicated," she says. "It’s not as tricky as you think and if things go wrong, that’s how you learn, so don’t worry about the odd mistake."

Finding My Inner Anthony Bourdain

A funny thing happens when you start telling people that you're on a quest to quell your hatred of the kitchen—everyone feels compelled to share a favorite piece of advice or a beloved recipe. Aspiring chefs, much like marathoners, can't help themselves from imparting wisdom and short anecdotes about their own background in the kitchen. Over the last two weeks, I've had everyone from co-workers to my mother to friends and friends of friends and the sweet old lady at the grocery's meat counter offer me tips on how to create their favorite recipes.

On the first day of the grand experiment, in fact, I got lucky—after casually mentioning my mission at a dim sum brunch date with two friends who love culinary creations quickly turned in to a trip to the Asian market in search of my first homemade dinner. "Literally so easy, anyone can do it," my friend swore in reference to her recommended recipe. Her having not seen the one time I called my mother six times while trying to cook chicken in a George Foreman Grill in order to be 100 percent sure I wouldn't get salmonella, though, I had my doubts. The Thai coconut curry soup required just one pan so I figured that even if I messed up the simple steps, at least I wouldn't have a ton of dishes to clean as punishment.

Much to my surprise, the recipe was actually a success and I learned a few things right off the bat. I began noticing recipes everywhere, from SparkRecipes and Smitten Kitchen to Buzzfeed and half of my Facebook newsfeed. With a plethora of recipes at my disposal, I've found that there are a few tricks to deciphering which recipes I can actually create and which will end with a burnt pot of food in the sink as I enjoy a slice of peanut butter bread for dinner.
  1. If you can't pronounce it, it's probably not going to end well. As I got started, I wanted to be the next Ina Garten right off the bat. Mistake. Beginner-friendly recipes are more likely to have common ingredients that should already be in your pantry. Leave the specialty store ingredients for after you've had a few successes under your belt. The same logic goes for recipes with a list of ingredients a page long. "Choosing overcomplicated recipes with long lists of ingredients which take a long time to shop for, prepare and then cook [is the biggest mistake a rookie can make]," MacGregor says.
  2. Add 30 Minutes to "Time to Prepare." For the novice, terms like "mince," "dice" and "blanch" can read like a foreign language. Most websites and cookbooks assume a certain level of aptitude, so save yourself the frustration of a 10 p.m. dinner time by adding a few extra minutes to prep before you get started. Chances are you'll have to look up a term or two as you go, plus we can't all chop with the speed and agility of an Iron Chef right out of the gate. As you cook more often, you'll pick up a new set of skills and your prep time will decrease.
  3. Read though the entirety of the directions before starting to save yourself from a maddening evening. There is nothing more annoying than getting to step six of a recipe and discovering that you need a cast-iron skillet. Kitchen tools, dishes required for cooking and marinade times are often buried within the instructions, so double checking to be sure you have everything you need before you get started is key.
  4. Enlist people who enjoy cooking to help—their excitement might be contagious. "Cooking has always been something I've loved for its sociability," MacGregor says. "For anyone who's trying to [like cooking more], I'd say focus on how happy it can make the friends or family you're cooking for." Even if you're anxious about being in the kitchen, having someone who enjoys cooking by your side allows you to both learn and live vicariously through their enthusiasm. One night I asked my mother to teach me how to make her deliciously perfect chicken curry recipe. Not only did she help me understand how to cut up chicken breasts, but when the stove timer went off, we got to open a bottle of wine and enjoy the fruits of our labor together.  
  5. Just because the picture is pretty, doesn't mean you should attempt recreating it. This is a tough one because we all want to be the person who brings the Instagram-worthy dish to the holiday meal. However, sometimes the prettiest dishes also require the most time and careful attention to detail, which can be frustrating to a new chef. Pictures are great to use as a reference as you cook, but be sure that you're not overextending by attempting engastration when you're still trying to master mashed potatoes. Again, slow and steady is your friend.
  6. Subscribe to a bunch of cooking pages on Facebook or Instagram. The best way to stay interested and engaged in your new hobby is to constantly be inspired. A newsfeed filled with ooey, gooey, healthy, tasty pictures of works of food art is the ticket to greatness.
Check in next week as I learn how to stock an empty kitchen and try to understand the difference between parsley and cilantro. 

What are some kitchen tips you wish you had known when you first started cooking?