I learned to cook at the ripe old age of eleven. My mother had gone back to school, I had a younger sister and brother, and I had a problem. Mom said to make spaghetti–so far, so good–but when I got to the kitchen, I discovered there was no tomato sauce in the house. Luckily, there was a little can of tomato paste, and a cabinet full of dried spices that included the essential garlic powder and oregano, plus a bunch of herbs (they came as a set) that my mother owned but never actually touched. And, as I’ve mentioned, there were two guinea pigs available. Good enough.
I learned to cook again when I hit college and started helping a friend with Friday night dinners at the Hillel House. That’s also where I learned how to keep kosher.
I learned a third time when I moved in upstairs as a resident after my sophomore year–I was working a strenuous lab job on a tight budget–no more than $25 a week for anything–and I walked everywhere. My housemates introduced me to two basic spaghetti sauces–one red, one white–and the rest of the time I ate omelettes because eggs were a dollar a carton. I shudder now to think I got through a carton a week, and didn’t ditch any of the yolks. At the time I reasoned that I wasn’t eating meat–couldn’t get kosher meat easily, and it was beyond my budget. I did lose 20 pounds without realizing it. And I started baking my own bread–challah for Friday nights; pita the rest of the week. No real recipes; I went by feel.
The next time I learned to cook was after college, on a year’s study in Israel. In the kitchens of Kibbutz Ma’agan Michael, everything had to be done in a rush because we were feeding 1000 people a day. But they knew their way around an eggplant or seventy (we used the bread machines to slice them all). Up in Ma’alot, I worked in a clinic with everyone from the surrounding towns–Jewish, Muslim, Christian, and Druse–in one of the few truly friendly workplaces in the country, and I spent afternoons tutoring and being fed in people’s homes or else learning to haggle for vegetables in the Thursday open air market. There I learned how to brew tea with mint (in summer) or sheba (petit absinthe) in winter, how to cook with real garlic, how to use a “wonderpot” on top of a gas ring, and how to eat z’khug (chile-garlic-cilantro paste) with just about everything.
When I returned to the U.S., I had to learn to cook all over again. I started keeping a “blank book” (remember those?) for recipes, and I learned, over the course of twenty years, how to cook real food, better food, from scratch, but faster than the cookbooks called for. When my grandmother had a major stroke, I was still in my mid-20s and realized I probably couldn’t get away with an all-eggs-and-cheese diet. Eventually I went to work up at NIH, and discovered that cutting back on saturated fat, cholesterol, salt, and calories really does help cut the national risk of heart attacks and strokes.
After talking with a nutrition expert there, I learned that our tastebuds can adjust to almost any level of sodium and consider it “normal” within just two weeks. Dangerous if you develop a tolerance for high salt and consider it normal even at really exaggerated levels–as many people do. The good news is that we can retrain our palates downward just as quickly, so I tried a completely salt-free, unprocessed food diet for two weeks–with surprising rewards. Without salt to swamp the taste receptors, the natural flavors of vegetables and fruits seem particularly brilliant and clean.
And then I had a kid. And I had to learn to cook all over again–this time, using a microwave oven, because I didn’t want to leave my kid unsupervised while I stood trapped at the stove. I wanted something that would shut itself off when done. But by now I had gotten used to real ingredients and fresh foods, and I had to come up with microwave methods for them. So I did. This blog is the result.