Cooking, Weight and Recipes

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    I am not what most people would consider the kind of great cook who can always create dishes that excel in all three qualities of a dish: color, aroma and taste. But like everything else, practice makes perfect. After cooking for my family for all these year, I sort of developed a sense about different ingredients and how some can be combined in certain way to make a decent dish. I still failed miserably by cooking just a little too long or adding just a little too much salt or adding a wrong ingredient. The dish would remain scarcely touched on the table and that's the sadist moment of a cook. Besides the accidental mishap, there are also several reasons that prevent me from ever becoming a really good cook. Number one is time. Cooking is fun, but I have 10 millions other things to do besides cooking, so I will not spend time making sure that the dish look fancy. Number 2, I take priority in making sure that the floor of the cooking area is not littered with vegetable scraps or oil even while cooking. Do you think you will ever see a chief chef in a 5-star restaurant who is cooking and mopping the floor at the same time?  Thirdly, if I could I tried to substitute deep frying with baking or steaming, replace red meat with chicken or tofu and use less oil and sugar than recommended to make the dishes healthier for us. One has to admit, sadly, that when it comes to taste, the "fatter" original version almost always wins, but at least we eat the "leaner" alternative with a peace of mind.

   Nevertheless, my family is in general content with the food I serve on the table and I actually developed quite a few simple and tasty dishes that the whole family loves. As a matter of fact, they are so easy to make that my two girls are either already helping or learning how to cook them. My older daughter had been marinating our baked fish fillets, either salmon or tilapia, for the past few years (until she got too busy with her school work this year). My younger daughter loves to watch me make "Zhajiang" (Fried Bean Paste and ground chicken or pork) for Zhajiang noodle, one of her favorite noodle dishes. She's already planned it all out: when she is in college she will make a huge pot of Zhajiang each time and just eat Zhajiang noodle everyday. As much as I want to cook for them forever, the day when they have to fend for themselves is speeding towards me. I am already starting to miss them.

    Trying to recall my own transition, from always had a whole table of food waiting for me when I still lived with my family in Taiwan, to had to prepare all meals for myself as a graduate student in New York City. It didn't seem that I was completely ignorant about cooking. Apparently before I came to US, I already could scramble eggs and make a ketchup egg fried rice because, because I love to eat these two dishes. We had cooking classes in high school, so my theory is that I must have some had hands-on experience in those classes since I don't think my family ever allowed me or taught me how to cook.

    My high school was a whole-islandwise renowned all-girl high school with a superb academic record, but the cooking class was a required class. I am now grateful that we had it. I seemed to vaguely remember that it was one of the favorite classes for some of us, including me. For the class, we each kept a recipe journal and had to write down each recipe of the dish we were about to make in the journal before we started cooking it. My memory failed me when I tried to remember how frequent was the class or how long was each class and if we cooked one dish at a time. Just remember that we had to look up our journal all the time for every step of the procedure so my journal got all the food stains and odors after a semester of cooking. I used to joke that my journal not only had all the recipes of those great dishes, but it was created in such way that the page of each recipe also smelled just like the final dishwink. The few of use who loved our cooking class so much would meet again on weekends at a friend's home kitchen to just cook some more of our favorite dishes. One of our favorite ones was "Curry Pastry Dumpling". It's a kind of baked flaky pastries shaped like dumplings and stuffed with curry flavored minced beef and onion. The flaky dough required some work to make and I could never make it without looking at the recipe. It was so yummy (but a lot of work)!

    I guess that's how I learned to cook. Of course I didn't make curry dumpling pastries when I was in New York. In fact I never made it again since high school, apparently because it's just too much work. Class work, language and culture impact took a big toll of my time and energy. The last thing I wanted to spend time on was cooking. I discovered the chunky peanut butter and stick to peanut butter whole wheat bread sandwiches for three meals a day and basically ate the same thing for the whole first year. Guess what, I gained about 10 lb in the first year. I must have eaten a lot of peanut butter and bread and probably other junk food too!

    I was not alone. A friend of mine went to Cornell for graduate school a year before I went to New York. Instead of peanut butter sandwiches, he bought the meal package from school cafeteria and just ate at the cafeteria, three meals a day. The food was wonderful according to him. I imagine it's probably an all-you-can eat buffet style for every meal (an ill-omened dealfrown). The first winter after I went to New York, another friend who was studying in LA came to visit me. She and a few of us who were studying in the New York area plus one coming up from DC area drove up to Ithaca (where Cornell University is) to visit our friend at Cornell. That was such a fun trip and it would always have one of my best memories during those carefree (other than school work) years.

    When we saw our friend at Cornell, either my eye or the light tricked me that seemed to make my friend look larger than life size! He was a very tall guy, over 6'2'' I think. He doesn't really look fat since he was so tall, but his much wider waist somehow made him look even taller so the end result was that he become a giant! He told us voluntarily (probably in response to my facial expression after seeing him), that he gained a lot of weight from eating at their gourmet cafeteria for more than a year. If I remember right, it was something like 20 lb. I'll remember to call him sometimes about this number.

    After my first year in graduate school, I did more cooking and ate a lot more varieties of food. Still, time was always short, so when I did cook, I cooked a lot to last a long time. Now this reminds me of what my younger one is planning to do in college. Once I cooked a HUGE pot of curry stew with carrots and some kind of meat, probably chicken. It lasted a long long time, probably more than a month. The plastic ladle that I used to serve the curry stew turned brownish yellow at the bowl part. In recent years, I noticed a plastic ladle with brownish yellow bowl in our kitchen which resembled the one I used for the aged curry stew (see picture below).It's hard to believe I still have it, though I am not sure if that's the very one. Anyway, I finally stopped eating the curry stew after God only knows how long. Not because I finished it, but because it finally gave way to mold after weeks in refrigerator. After this episode, I didn't cook curry again for the next 5 years.

    The moral of these stories is, first of all, that preparing food for our daily life, like everything else in our lives, should be handled with more effort and design than a lot of people are willing to commit. Secondly,  you should not blindly hand over the control of your daily food completely into someone's hands (eg. the cafeteria's). Lastly, you should watch out for the shelf life of your food, or you could get sick, physically or mentally ! It's almost hard to blame the young people who have hardly enough time to finish their school work and get  enough sleep. A lot of them probably don't even know how to cook. Cooking is actually a fun thing to do, especially when cooking with friends. It's actually crucial for people who are struggling with weight to cook for yourself, so you know exactly what you are eating. I guess the lesson for parents here is that other than piano, drawing, swimming lessons or math, it's probably also beneficial to encourage your kids to learn to cook.

    I started writing down the recipes of the dishes we like and sharing them on social media this past year. In the beginning, the recipes were requested by friends so I posted on the web for easy sharing. It gradually became a mere wish to share so people can make the dishes we cherish. Thinking of the food stories of my and my friend's youths, I am now glad that I am writing down and publishing these recipes. They will still be there when my daughters go to college and they will be able to make the same dishes we always made at home. The taste of home doesn't have to be coming from Mom's or Dad's hands. I don't mean to tell all mothers to write down recipes of your dishes for your kids like I do. Mothers have done enough for their kids and writing down recipes is not all that easy. it's most difficult for me to estimate the quantities of every ingredient as when I cook I mostly don't measure. Though I wish I did, especially for ingredients like salt and soy sauce, so I won't fail my dish so miserably. Just an idea if you happen to be teaching your kids how to cook.



Our cooking journal from high school
Our cooking journal from high school
The ladle with bowl part turned yellow
The ladle with bowl part turned yellow