The kitchen was not my place for a long time. You know, that place where you feel at home. I promise, even with a handful of wicked cool recipes that I pulled out of some drawer in my brain (like Flourless and Cauliflower-Free Pizza Dough), I was not born with a silver spatula in my hand and a cast-iron skillet in the other. Most of my recipes have come out of food allergy necessity or having only five ingredients left in my fridge and coming up with something edible. I did not know what curry, lentils, squash, fresh cranberries, and red lettuce tasted like until late in high school. I knew the taste of split-peas and ham, La Choy Chow Mein, Jif peanut butter, iceberg lettuce, 7-layer bars, refrigerated cookie dough, frozen spinach, spaghetti noodles and browned hamburger. Swiss steak, cinnamon rolls: yum. But I messed up boxed macaroni. Thought stir-frying made me wordly.
Cooking was not something that I did especially well for many years. To this day, I still can’t boil eggs properly (ask my daughter). Too lazy to set a timer or follow any number of simple rules, I wing it and hope the shell peels off. But I have always loved gathering around food – impromptu dinner parties centered around wedges of brie and camembert, artichoke dip made from canned artichoke hearts, big sprawling picnic-style events where everyone sits on the floor with a glass of wine and a crumb-filled napkin. Instinctively, I wanted to feed people. I got lucky one summer and was hired as a cook at a French camp (that was also the summer I shaved my head).
Once I could hold a knife and properly chop an onion, standard fare in my student lodging became parmesan-encrusted chicken breast stewed in frozen raspberries, tangy udon noodles with crushed peanuts, and failed batches of scones. Cakes that wouldn’t rise, but looked pretty.
For many years, I did not cook for nourishment. I was an artist, duh. I had no time for homey meals unless it involved a group of friends. For quick meals, take-out worked. Roasted chicken and a side caesar salad while doing my first go at the South Beach Diet. A bowl of granola and yogurt for breakfast. Eggs for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Food from the colorful food carts that dotted University Mall. I did not know what was in my food. I did not know what I was eating. Nor why I had near-constant skin breakouts, seasonal depression, energy crashes, chronic fatigue, and a puffy face.
I saved real cooking for indulgent meals that fed lots of people. Enormous bowls of couscous spotted with toasted pine nuts and chewy raisins. Cheesy casseroles. And processed-fooded-it the rest of the time. I knew better. But I hadn’t yet moved abroad and started living in a country where fast food and eating out is still a luxury. My mother-in-law abhors eating out. Unless it is köfte – hamburger patties seasoned with cumin and fattened up with stale bread, or lahmacun – flat pizza-style rounds or lengths of crisp dough topped with sprinklings of ground beef and spices. Her kitchen is laden with bags full of bakliyat – dried lentils, chickpeas, bulgur, and fresh veggies only, unless they have been picked from the garden and frozen in the deep freeze. When I gush about a particularly good restaurant – there are still few in Izmit – that has tender steak or a really good salad, she clucks her tongue and shakes her head.
Dışarda yemek güzel değil. Eating out is not good. Why would you pay all that money for something you can make at home? And make better, is what she means.
But I didn’t have that confidence for a long time. I failed in my kitchen. A lot. Whatever I made was just slightly off for about – no, exactly five years. From 2005 to 2010. I wasn’t used to the spices, the temperature of my oven. Cheese just did not congeal the way I wanted it to. Time and time again I would get a craving for something – lemongrass soup (no lemongrass), Thai peanut noodles (no peanut butter on store shelves until a few years ago, and all with added sugar), creamy mac ‘n cheese (no cheddar, and the stuff I can find now still doesn’t quite cut it).
So when I cut out grains, dairy, sugar, and gluten, I panicked. What on earth was I going to eat now? Was I going to live on grilled chicken breast and steamed veggies? My timing on hot meals, the kind that you slide onto the table still steaming in front of your hungry family, was always just a few minutes too early or late. Too crunchy. Too soft. Overcooked. Chalk it up to inexperience or just needing time to adapt, it was a slow process learning how to cook well.
I don’t think I’d want it any other way, though.
Because I learned flavor. Timing. Freshness. Eating in season. And focusing on one or two things instead of a huge, complicated menu.
My knives are still never quite sharp enough. Sometimes I forget and use sea salt that was not ground fine enough and we get chunks in our omelets (oops). Most recently I made my Flourless Pizza Crust and did not have oven paper, so substituted aluminum foil. The potato crust fused to the foil and we had to scrape the toppings onto our plate. But more often than not, now I work on instinct – pairing food and flavors without stressing. Making a sauce that makes a salad zing. Or baked potatoes melt. Sometimes, the fewer the items in my pantry or on my refrigerator shelves, the better. The fewer choices I have, the more creative I have to get. I try to give myself enough time in the kitchen to prep, but more often than not, I walk into the kitchen when everyone in my house is only seconds away from devouring each other from hunger. Open the refrigerator. Shut it. Freak out. There is nothing to eat.
And then I put on my mother’s apron. Pull out my chef’s knife. Take a deep breath. Sink into that space where cooking is calming and all-out pleasure for my senses.
And pull something out of nothing.
I probably won’t be able to recreate it again – I used up the last of the duck fat, I’m almost out of sweet potatoes, and cucumbers are going out of season, but I promise, it tastes delicious.