project cooking

Intro to Cooking

a haphazard attempt to make food

On my commute back from church, I visited an estate sale in San Bruno. The house was in an upper-middle class neighborhood. Shelves were packed with odd knick knacks including two black and white TVs, several iron-on Boy Scout Patches, and a wide array of cooking ware. In the downstairs garage, all of the hand tools and power tools were put up for sale.

One side of the kitchen wall was completely covered with shelves and shelves of cookbooks. There were hundreds of cookbooks ranging all the way back to the 40s. While perusing the cookbooks, a nice older lady in her 60s asked me if I was looking for anything in particular. I told her that I gave always wanted to improve my cooking skills and was looking for beginner books. She enthusiastically showed me some of her favorite cookbooks.

"Everytime I travel, I buy a cookbook as a souvenir. See this book?" It was a Greek cookbook. "I purchased this when I visited Thessaloniki!"

I felt a little guilty buying books that she spent years, decades, collecting.

I picked up one of the books that stood out from the rest. It was tattered. A navy-blue hardcover book with pages were falling off. It was obvious that the book was worn from constant use. The front cover as spattered with oil, the front cover was holding on by a thread, and the once embossed golden lettering were now illegible. Opening it, I saw handwritten newspaper clippings and notes. The lady looked surprised when I took it out of the bookshelf. "Oh, I'm sorry. That cookbook is not for sale. That was the cookbook my mother used when she got married."

In the end, I bought some of the newer looking cookbooks. Ones with pictures and simple recipes. I paid the person attending the cash box, her son.

I left with three cookbooks and a pair of vintage headphones.

I never met her husband. Often Zhan - Journal Date 4/22/18


I've never been good at cooking. It just feels weird. I've met so many people who tell me, "Food tastes so much better when you cook it yourself." And yet, I've felt the exact opposite. The food just tastes... weird. I have seven reasons why:

  1. I suck at cooking.
  2. I nibble on all the ingredients as I cook the food so by the time I'm done cooking, I'm already full.
  3. I think too much about how to improve the recipe, dish, and cooking technique.
  4. I'm overwhelmed by the smell, flavor, and taste of the food while cooking that it loses it's impact when eating.
  5. My cooking sucks.
  6. I usually cook using leftover ingredients which may impact the overall flavor.
  7. My culinary skills are so absent to what is expected of a young male adult in his late 20s that it has created an vacuum in space left by its lack of existence.
  8. I find Gogurt™ to be an essential ingredient in all cooking, no matter the dish. NO MATTER THE DISH!

My relatives have tried to teach me, but only as an afterthought. They would say, "Ten, come over here and watch me cook." Their directions were never consistent: They never used a cookbook; They never followed a recipe; They never use the same ingredients for the SAME DISH... (I talk more about this particular fustration in my About Me page.)

It was not until later on in life that I began to appreciate the importance of cooking. Not just financial and practical reasons, either. Food is at the center of my Filipino heritage. The dining room table was always in the same room as the kitchen, and every major family event—every important conversation—I've ever had was in the kitchen. Without a doubt, the kitchen was the central hub of the house. Apart from my bedroom, I've probably spent more time in the kitchen than in any other room in my house, and I don't even cook.

A couple of years past, I wrote in my journal that I wanted to learn how to cook someday, but I've decided to not push this future goal to the side and tackle the issue now. Here are several reasons why:

  • I have more free time.
  • I want to have more control over what ingredients are in my food.
  • It's economically cheaper to cook my own food.
  • I want to get into food photography.

However, I've found that learning how to cook is an uphill battle. There are so many types of cultural foods, techniques, cooking styles, and recipes. Where do I start?

Setting My Boundaries

Since I am starting off from basically scratch, I began by limiting to specific requirements:

  • Straightforward, simple, and fast cooking.
  • Essential Dishes (Dishes I would cook often and eat everyday.)
  • Healthy Yet Flavorful
  • Cheap

As my limiting requirements began to increase, my strategy began to emerge naturally on its own. After much deliberation, I've finally developed a rough strategy on how to become a better cook.

Often's Plan to Be the Iron Home Chef:

I will take notes before, during, and after cooking. Before cooking, I will have a detailed description of my procedure and ingredients. While cooking, I will write anecdotal notes, musings, areas of improvement, and areas of future study. Afterwards, I will reflect on the overall final product. I will also take pictures throughout the entire process.

Step 1: Soups

Not stews, but rather soups with uniform texture- purees, salsa, and dipping sauces. My reason is rather simple: There are so many factors that can go into a good meal. Aesthetics, flavor, texture, heat source, ingredients... Therefore, I've decided to view cooking as an experiment with control, dependent, and independent variables. Beginning my journey with uniform-textured soups helps by making texture, techniques, and cooking styles the control variable.

Step 2: Salad

This helps bring fiber into my daily eating. I am sad to say that I do not eat much green on a consistent basis. No wonder, I am fat.

Also, I don't judge a good meal until after it passes through my system. A good meal is not just about good flavor. How do I feel an hour after? How was my pooping experience?

And to be honest, the best pooping experiences I've had were from salad-centric days.

Step 3: Chicken Marinade and Rubs

Chicken is cheap and versatile. You can easily find it fresh or frozen. Also, I can kill two birds with one stone if I learn how to marinate while thawing.

Step 4: Grilled Steak

There's not much prep time and seems very easy and quick. The essential ingredients are always salt, pepper, and oil/butter. Once I master the cooking technique, I can begin to implement different types of herbs and spices.

Step 5: Baking (cookies, pastries, and cakes)

I don't want to be single forever.

Agenda and Future Posts

Of course, I am still nowhere close to executing my plan. I still have to generate a list of recipes, develop my Gantt Chart, and create a notebook to write my cooking notes. Luckily, I have those three cookbooks I got from the estate sale to help generate some recipes.

  • Seriously Simple: Easy Recipes for Creative Cooks by Diane Rossen Worthington
  • Everyday Epicurean: Simple, Stylish Recipes for the Home Chef by Catherine Bell
  • Sunset's Easy Basics for Good Cooking by the editors of Sunset Books and Sunset Magazine

If you have any advice on how I can become a better cook, let me know.

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