This advice should be really obvious, but apparently it wasn’t obvious to me for a long time. I needed to make cooking as easy as possible, and that means keeping it simple, and focusing on doing a good job with easy dishes.
If you’ve watched many cooking shows, or have friends who are seriously into cooking, it’s really easy to get sucked into the idea of making elaborate dishes and seeing the simpler things as boring or inferior. So we reach for unfamiliar recipes, using unfamiliar ingredients we aren’t sure how to handle, and set ourselves up for failure. Right at the start of setting a new habit, it helps to have a lot of successes, and to do that you need to focus on making the steps as easy as possible. That means cooking things I know how to cook, and know I can pull off successfully.
I’m lucky in that I’ve already picked up a repertoire of recipes that I know I can mostly pull off, so for me I just jumped right in with those. But I’ve also had some success with working on improving my basic skills in order to get a better result.
The main stumble I had in the past week was attempting to make laksa – a food I absolutely love to eat, but have never made before. I was in all new territory. I’d never even cooked rice noodles before (although I managed to get that bit right). I did some reading online, bought a pre-made laksa paste, and set to it, but I made a bunch of mistakes and ended up with something that didn’t taste much like laksa. Thankfully it was still nice, kind of like a massaman curry, so I was happy to eat it all. But it was disappointing. I think it’s probably best if I don’t try adding new recipes too often until I’m a bit more comfortable cooking frequently – I intend to work on the laksa until I get it right, and the challenge is engaging, but I don’t want to disappoint myself too often. Eventually I’ll get bored with my repertoire and crave novelty, but for now I think I should focus on building good habits.
If you don’t actually know how to cook anything that you like to eat, it’s going to be a bit trickier. I would advise thinking about things that friends or relatives make that you like – then ask the person who makes it to show you how. Don’t be embarrassed about admitting how little you know or else you’ll end up holding a recipe you’re not sure how to follow. People are usually pretty flattered by questions like this – I know I was when a young friend just moving out of home asked me to show him some basic dishes. Get that person to guide you through the whole process and make sure they a) show you the steps and then b) let you do them yourself so that it sticks in your memory and they can identify any issues. You can also ask them to just show you their easiest go-to dishes, which can help build a foundation of things you can cook. Once you’ve had some hands on experience and picked up some basic skills you’ll be ready for the recipes and youtube tutorials and cooking shows.
Even if you do know how to cook, talking to your friends can be very helpful. I got several recipe ideas from people I spoke to about my plan to not eat out – including a work colleague who reminded me that the workplace sandwich press existed and that toasted sandwiches were a thing I could make. Other friends have been offering tips on my laksa creation or letting me know what I can do with spare rice noodles. Talk about it, and people will give you ideas.
Finally, the other thing I’ve found helpful is to work on improving my most basic cooking skills. It’s actually been pretty rewarding to take very basic things that I can cook but which are often uninspiring and then make them delicious with a few small changes of technique or ingredients. For example, my pasta sauce is significantly better thanks to two things – frying the onions properly to start with, and using tinned smashed up tomatoes that have great flavour and colour and just need to be heated up rather than being cooked to death like all my attempts at using fresh tomatoes. I don’t know why this is, because I adore fresh tomatoes, but when I try to cook them into sauce I screw it up. Plus, using the tinned kind saves me an entire messy cooking step (the chopping), and the tins are cheaper than fresh tomatoes and keep forever. I’ve been talking to my cooking savvy friends and apparently this is a known thing – tinned tomatoes are best for hot foods, fresh for the cold, raw variety.
Takeaway Lessons: Keep it simple stupid. It’s a clichéd acronym for a reason. Don’t try to be fancy or step outside your comfort zone too far when you’re trying to build a cooking habit.
If dishes you currently make are unsatisfying do some research into why that might be – you might be able to improve some basic skills and turn something meh into something delicious.
Don’t be shy about asking friends for help.