A few months ago, I met a friend after work for drinks and she brought me over to a table where she and her girlfriends were sitting. We did a quick round of introductions and they resumed their conversation about baking blogs and their favourite recipes of the moment. When the conversation swung round to me, I added my two cents to the discussion about my favourite peanut butter cheesecake recipe and who has the best cheese scones in Wellington.
Pre-single-parent Ben would have looked at me and wonder what the heck I was doing out of the kitchen without my apron, when there was clearly more cupcakes to be baked.
Cooking and baking had never been a strong point of mine, until it had to be once I became responsible for someone else’s eating needs. I had taken ‘Home economics’ classes at intermediate and highschool (Forms 1-3/years 7-9 in New Zealand, or around 12-14 years old) where I learned basic kitchen skills and recipes, but growing up in a household where my mother was a great cook/baker (and dad wasn’t too bad either), those skills were rarely used and left undeveloped.
After I left home, I still had no desire to learn beyond the basics. This was mainly due a prolonged period of university study where my student budget required a focus on cheap, simple meals, and preferring to spend the least amount of time preparing meals so I could get back to other more interesting activities like destroying my flatmates at Tekken, training, or surfing the internet.
I also went through a pretty significant Bruce Lee phase during high school which left an impact on various areas of my life (including influencing my decision to major in Philosophy at university), and Lee’s approach to nutrition also influenced my Spartan-esque approach to cooking:
“When you are a martial artist, you only eat what you require and don’t get carried away with foods that don’t benefit you as a martial artist.”
(Of course, anyone who’s seen me inhale chocolate knows that this was more of a general guide for me than a hard and fast rule!)
Ever since then, I took a largely utilitarian approach to my everyday meals – as long as it had a decent amount of protein and flavour, and was reasonably healthy, I was sorted. My usual bachelor-style meals for dinners revolved around stir fries, fried rice, or a simple meal of steak or lamb chops with broccoli and oven fries. Variety wasn’t an issue for me, as long as I was fed, I was happy.
When I became a father for the first time, Esme’s mum was already a great cook and baker, so I stuck to what I knew which was steaks, chops, and roasts, and let her handle the majority of the more varied cooking which she enjoyed. However, once the relationship ended and I was responsible for feeding a 1-year old child nutritious, well-balanced meals, I quickly realised that I was going to have to up my game in the cooking department. So along with all the other things I had to learn to do on my own as a single dad while working full-time, I started exploring the art of cooking and learning new recipes to feed Esme and myself that were beyond my repertoire at the time.
It was a time-consuming process of researching, trying new recipes, burning things, finding out which ones worked, which ones Esme actually liked, and which ones were the easiest/quickest to make. But through that process, my attitude towards cooking slowly but surely changed, so much that I actually found it to be an enjoyable creative outlet for my energies – which was also a significant benefit to my mental wellbeing in a time when I was still making sense of the whole separation/single parenting process. Positive feedback from my friends, and of course my daughter, only further encouraged me to find new recipes and expand my recipe range to a point far beyond where I started (at least over 9000 per cent, if my calculations are correct).
So if you’re starting from zero to bugger-all in the recipe department, where do you start? Here’s some of the methods I used when I began my culinary quest:
1. Start with what you (and your children) like!
This one is a bit of a no-brainer – start by learning how to make dishes that you enjoy. This provides motivation to create something that you like to eat (and hopefully your kids will like too), and should hopefully make the learning process enjoyable as you are looking forward to the outcome (as opposed to trying a new recipe you haven’t tasted before).
One of my favourite takeaway dishes is a Penang curry, and so this was one of the first dishes I tried to make. It turned out to be relatively quick and easy to make with the help of a Penang curry paste that I got from the supermarket (one of my best friends, Sanit of SpicyThai Design, tells me that most Thais don’t make their curry powders/pastes from scratch, which made me feel less guilty for using the jar!). Luckily it was mild enough for my daughter, who loved it, so that was one of the first recipes I added to my list. Being able to cook your favourite dishes is a great skill to have and a great place to start.
2. Family dishes
This one might cross over with the first tip, but learning favourite family dishes and meals is a great way to continue family traditions and keep them going for the next generation. It’s also a good way to connect with your family in a spiritual sense at a time where you’ll need all the connection you can get, especially if you’re going through the transition into being a single parent in a situation where you are physically apart from your family.
So hit up your parents, grandparents, aunties and uncles etc. for those favourite recipes from your childhood (if they’ll part with them!) – just make sure you can get some decent instructions, as sometimes these dishes are so familiar to the cook that they can’t provide the finer details of the recipes like exact measurements for ingredients because they do it all by instinct! I learned this the hard way when my dad tried to teach me how to make sapasui (Samoan chop suey) over the phone – I ended up with this soupy mess that I had to throw out due to dad’s “eyeballing” method of working out the correct amount of ingredients that didn’t translate well over the phone!
3. Cultural dishes
Similar to family dishes, learning recipes that are part of your culture provides you with an opportunity to explore and strengthen your connections with your heritage, which is another great way to solidify your identity in a time where you will be looking to re-establish yourself in a positive way. And of course, it’s a great opportunity to learn how to make some of those ‘soul food’ type dishes unique to your culture that satisfy like no other food can.
Being of Samoan heritage, once I was parenting in 1 Player mode it was imperative that I learned how to make sapasui (Samoan chop suey) and taro in coconut cream properly. I purchased the book “Mea’a Kai – The Food and Flavours of the South Pacific” which won ‘Best Cookbook in the World’ at the 2010 Gourmand World Cookbook Awards. Apart from being an amazing book that contained an array of traditional and modern Pacific recipes, it gave me the opportunity to learn more about my Samoan culture through food.
4. Friends dishes
Another easy source of inspiration for new dishes (if you’ve got friends that can cook!) and motivation for furthering your culinary skills (if you’re competitive, or just like to learn more), with the added bonus that they may even be able to teach you how to make the dish themselves and give you some inside tips for getting it right. Don’t be afraid to ask for help! I’m sure your more cookingly-skilled companions will be happy to help you add to your recipe repertoire.
5. The interwebs
After exhausting the low-hanging fruit of recipe research options above, I started to peruse the wild frontier of the world wide interwebs by search-engining for ideas for new dishes. While there are a huge number of websites devoted to cooking, it can be a daunting task to work out where to begin.
One of the first recipes that I tried was spaghetti and meatballs, after Esme’s mum mentioned that she had them for dinner one time. So I did a google search on spaghetti and meatball recipes, and started comparing various recipes that were highlighted on different sites, making note of the ingredients that were similar across the different recipes, what ingredients were unique to each recipe, and which recipes looked the simplest to cook (both for minimal time in the kitchen and affordability of ingredients). I ended up cobbling together a spaghetti and meatballs dish based on two separate recipes (I can hear chefs cringing around the world as I type), but the end result turned out pretty well, and was given the seal of approval by Esme which meant great success!
So in comparing different recipes for the same dish, how do you know which ones are the best? This is usually what I look for in a good recipe:
- Review ratings, and number of ratings
- Comments (either on the reviews, or on the post if the recipe is on a blog/FB post)
- Simplicity of the recipe
- Whether it uses a lot of staple items that I buy regularly or that are similar to other recipes I cook (for efficiencies of food shopping)
- Any new ingredients that are outside of my normal shopping list are either inexpensive or can be frozen/kept for later
I also combined my interweb recipe search with an ancient research method involving physical information depositories called ‘libraries’. While not as accessible as the interwebs (you actually need to get out of your house and physically relocate yourself to the library to find the books), libraries offer a slightly more focussed method of recipe hunting as you can find a range of books on a number of cooking styles and topics (such as cooking for children), which you can flick through faster than the back and forth dance between your search engine and cooking websites. Plus, most of them are free to loan, which is great when you’re on a budget! Just try and read as much of the books that you’re going to check out as you can, so you don’t end up lugging home books you end up not using.
Before I leave you to start your culinary journey, a word of warning: learning to cook can be addictive. Once you gain confidence in the kitchen, you may find it hard to stop exploring new recipes and cooking methods. Of course, you’ll likely have some constraints, such as your budget, time, and of course the preferences of your children, but I’m sure your creativity will begin to kick in to find ways around those too. One thing that encourages my constant search for new recipes is that for some reason I often find myself getting bored with my cooking (a phenomena that doesn’t seem to occur when other people cook for me – go figure?!), so I’m always on the lookout for a new idea for a recipe, or for a way to recreate some of my favourite foods.
So there you have it – six tips for increasing your recipe repertoire if you’ve found yourself in 1 Player mode, or you’re just wanting to learn a few new dishes but don’t know where to start. If you’ve got any other tips about where to start , let us know in the comments below!