I am never more content and at peace than when I am standing in my tiny kitchen conjuring up an elaborate meal. Cooking is a way for me to release tension, to channel my creative energy, to make other people feel good, and to create food that is exactly what I want to eat, in terms of its flavor, ingredients, ethical and environmental impact, and nutritional content. And, of course, there is nothing better than hearing others rave about the meal you served them. (I’ve been on a high for weeks since my omnivorous officemates devoured the 2 vegan dishes I brought to our potluck.)
While I haven’t exactly won Top Chef (yet) and my knife skills are probably comparable to that of an enthusiastic 5th grader, I like to think of myself as being particularly at ease and adept in the kitchen. These days, I can usually come up with an idea for a dish and execute it exactly how I envisioned without following a recipe. Sure, there have been some duds, but 99% of the time I can still fix them and make them taste really good.
I say this all not to brag, but because it’s so unbelievable to me that I ever got this comfortable in the kitchen after I had such a rocky start. Ten years ago, I was a college student suddenly tasked with having to make my own food in a foreign country without a microwave. The mere prospect of having to sauté vegetables was so confusing and overwhelming that I was willing to pay $1/minute long distance charges to call my mother in Chicago to have her walk me through the process. As someone who was always better at learning concepts than factoids, the recipes I’d encountered seemed to me to be merely long lists of codes and obscure details I knew I’d never be able to remember. I would get stuck on whether the chunks of tomato in my pasta dish were supposed to be 1/2 inch wide or 1/4 inch wide. If a recipe called for thyme and I had rosemary, well, then I would have given up on the recipe all together.
Back then, cooking was a secret code that I would never be able to crack, and the only way to make good food was to do everything exactly according to a mysterious protocol and body of knowledge codified in recipes that had to be memorized line by line, and executed exactly as written. Nowadays, I measure things in pinches, splashes, glugs, and sprinkles, and my food is exponentially better than it was then. The breakthrough came when, after reading dozens of cookbooks and magazines, I finally distilled the core principals I needed to be able to get creative. Once I mastered a basic cream sauce and a simple gravy, for example, I could apply the same principles to make anything from Cajun pasta to a Szechuan stir-fry to the base for a chowder.
When I decided to go plant-based a while back, that decade-old anxiety started to rear its head again. True, many of the techniques I’d learned over the years were easily translatable to a vegan kitchen (a roux made with olive oil works just as well as one made with butter), but I was so new to the vegan game I didn’t even know what I needed to know. Suddenly, I was that 20 year-old kid in the kitchen staring at a pile of sloppily chopped vegetables, completely clueless about how and where to start. Looking for answers, I rushed out and bought a couple of the most popular vegan cookbooks, Veganomicon and Betty Goes Vegan, and perused several vegan blogs, but every time I looked to them for guidance, they left me high and dry. They told me how to make Blueberry Cinnamon Vegan Pancake Towers with flax seeds and self-rising flour, but that was useless when all I wanted was to make basic pancakes and had only whole wheat flour and baking powder on hand.
This time around, I knew not to blame myself. It wasn’t my bad memory, or inability to plan menus in advance that was the problem. It was that these cookbooks and recipes, like the ones I struggled with a decade ago, were telling me what to cook, not teaching me how to cook.
I’d been aware of Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything Vegetarian for a while and had long contemplated buying it, but was deterred by complaints on Amazon that his recipes weren’t creative or specific enough. (This should have been my hint that his recipes were exactly what I was looking for, but it took me a while to figure that out.)
When we started receiving vegetables from our CSA that I’d never even heard of, let alone cooked, I knew I needed help. I finally threw caution to the wind and ordered Bittman’s book.
It’s true that you will not find many super-quirky, personalized spins on classics. A lot of the content will definitely be familiar to experienced cooks, and, while many if not most of the recipes are vegan or easily veganized, there’s still a sizable chunk that will be off limits for vegans.
None of these are true flaws, though, because the point of the book is not to transmit a bundle of recipes to an audience to be used verbatim. Instead, Bittman teaches you what you need to know to make whatever you want. He doesn’t tell you how to make his favorite pie in his favorite way (though he’ll offer personal anecdotes from time to time.) Instead, he teaches you how to make several different types of crusts that you can mix and match with whatever fruit you have on hand. He teaches you the “braise and glaze” method of cooking vegetables, then explains when and how to apply the technique depending on what produce is in season (and/or currently in your fridge). Whatever the dish, he gives you a basic blueprint, introduces a series of suggested variations, and then encourages you to go have fun in the kitchen choosing what works for you.
How to Cook Everything Vegetarian is the book I needed, and that I think everyone (vegetarian or not) needs when they are just starting out in the kitchen. At the most basic level, it essentially teaches you how to think critically in the kitchen.
Readers, how did you learn to cook? What are your favorite cookbooks, and why?