I never thought I would be someone who cooks everyday. Growing up, I avoided the kitchen at all costs. I loathed the idea of chopping vegetables, working with heat, keeping track of cooking time, etc. Admittedly, I was spoiled. In the morning my mom would ask what kind of eggs I wanted, then pack me a cute little bento to bring to school for lunch. I would come home in the afternoon to the smell of freshly baked bread and, if I was lucky, cookies. At night she would always have dinner ready for me after coming back from gymnastics/cheer practice.
I’m not saying all this to boast what an amazing mother I have (although she is pretty great). What I’m trying to say is, cooking wasn’t an innate skill or passion of mine. But now here I am, actually enjoying and looking forward to cooking. It’s become a creative outlet, and although I make similar things everyday, I still learn something new every time I cook—what veggies work well together, which taste better steamed vs. sautéed, how to make different sauces, etc.
So what changed between then and now?
I simplified the process.
What made me afraid of the kitchen, and I think what makes a lot of people hesitant to cook, was the idea that I need to follow a recipe.
You’re at the stove, ready to move on to the next step when you realize you can’t remember if it was 1 tablespoon or 1 teaspoon of soy sauce you needed. You turn around to check, only to realize your phone has locked. You proceed to unlock it with your oil-coated fingers, repeating this process for every single step thereafter, winding up with a smudged and sticky screen. Needless to say, this gets old pretty quickly.
Once I realized it’s possible to cook without following precise steps, measurements, and ingredients, it became a much more enjoyable experience. I decided to get over my hesitations and just try to cook something, even if it turned out terrible. I suddenly realized it’s much easier than I thought. You can essentially do whatever you want; cooking is only as complicated as you make it.
So, what is my process? It basically boils down to a few steps: buy the plants, chop the plants, cook the plants, throw in a few flavor enhancers, and eat [the plants]. It’s really as simple as that.
Side note: My steps below are general guidelines, meant to show my basic cooking strategies. These are not recipes; otherwise I would be contradicting myself.
First, go to the grocery store and buy a variety of veggies, proteins, and grains.
My veggie staples include: eggplant, onion, garlic, ginger, squash (usually kabocha), sweet potatoes, dark greens (right now I’m hooked on kale and broccoli), cilantro, avocado, peppers, mushrooms, brussel sprouts, and tomatoes.
Pro tip: buy fresh ginger and garlic!! Don’t buy the powdered stuff. Even though it might be annoying to mince them, it makes the WORLD of a difference flavor-wise.
For protein, I get beans, lentils, quinoa, tofu, tempeh, and seitan (not all at once, but I usually have least two kinds of protein on hand).
The grains I cook are usually brown rice, faro, soba noodles, udon noodles, pasta, or quinoa.
Then, chop the veggies. Try to do this all at once and then store the chopped veggies in the fridge so you don’t have to worry about it for the rest of the week.
Take the ingredients and a) make a stir-fry, b) roast the veggies to make a ‘Buddha bowl’, or c) make a soup. These are my go-to weeknight meals.
For the stir-fry:
- Get a wok (or a regular pan) and turn on the heat.
- Put some olive oil (or any other vegetable oil) on the pan. Wait a couple minutes until the oil is hot.
- Throw in the onion, garlic, or ginger. Once the onion is translucent, throw in whatever other vegetables you’ve chopped. Most cook quite quickly, excluding potatoes and squash. I usually roast or steam these to make sure they cook through completely.
- Add the protein.
- Throw in whatever spices you like. My staples are: paprika, red chili flakes, cayenne pepper, pepper, and cumin. Also throw in whatever sauce you like (sriracha, bbq sauce, garlic chili, sesame oil, soy sauce, or vinegar are all great).
- Add the cooked grain (you can cook this ahead of time or simultaneously). Combine it all on a plate and dig in.
For the roasted veggies:
- Preheat the oven to 400°F.
- Get a pan and line it with aluminum foil.
- Put all the veggies you’re roasting in a mixing bowl.
- Throw in the spices/sauces you are using a little at a time while you shake the bowl around, ensuring the veggies are covered.
- Mix in a couple teaspoons of oil the same way.
- Place all the veggies out on the pan. Make sure you keep a bit of space between each piece; if they’re touching they’ll steam instead of roast.
- Most veggies, if chopped, take about 20-25 minutes to cook. Shake them around every 10 minutes or so to check on them. Sweet potatoes, if baked whole, take about 45 mins-1 hour to cook.
- Combine the roasted veggies with the grain and protein of your choice. Top with anything else—avocado, salsa, kimchi, sauerkraut, hummus, tahini, etc.
Side note: I like to add some raw elements to the base of my Buddha bowls: e.g. arugula, tomatoes, onions, or cucumber.
For the soup:
- Heat olive oil in a large pot, enough to cover the base.
- Do what you would do for a stir-fry—add in the onions/garlic/ginger and then all the other veggies and protein, along with spices.
- Once cooked, add in the starchier veggies like potatoes or squash.
- Add enough stock to cover the veggies.
- I like to add more flavor in the form of sauce (usually spicy)—sriracha, gochujang, chili garlic, soy sauce, etc.
- Bring the water/stock to a boil. Cook for a few more minutes until the starches are cooked through.
- Serve in a bowl with your grain of choice.
Side note: I love making soup because I usually end up with at least 4 servings. Leftovers 4 dayz!!!
To sum it up: If I can do it, so can you. I had never cooked in my life until two years ago when I moved to Prague and no longer had the luxury of a meal plan to feed me. The first step in changing cooking from an arduous chore to a fun hobby is to alter your mindset. It’s fun to experiment and try different vegetables, grains, spices and flavors. It can become a new form of self-expression, and it’s really rewarding to be able to nourish yourself. So ditch the cookbook, and go explore!