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Why I Cook

Monday, Feb. 22, 2010 3:47 AM

Chef/author Michael Ruhlman answers a simple but interesting question: Why I Cook, and poses the same question to his readers.

Now, my paternal grandfather used to run a restaurant, and I got to watch him cook family dinners at home. We'd occasionally get drafted into doing tasks like preparing snow peas, paper-wrapped chicken, or folding won ton, but the bulk of my culinary education came from Mom.

I first learned to cook when my mother was in a car accident and wound up with a broken wrist. So she relied on myself and my older sister to take care of some of the prep-work tasks or cook the entire meal (usually simple family fare like spaghetti, meat loaf, or fried rice).

As I entered college, the combination of classes and a weekend/night job also meant I was home less frequently for dinner. So I not only expanded my repetoire, but added other domestic skills outside of the kitchen to my toolkit. By the time I was courting my wife, I could turn out a pretty decent dinner.

So the 'why' begins with a set of core skills acquired over time, equal parts 'chore' and eventual 'bachelor survival skills,' but have now expanded to 'creative outlet' and 'hobby.'

I am reminded, however, of advice that comes from an entirely different direction, producer/writer Stephen Cannell, who once began a keynote address to a room full of aspiring broadcasting students with these sage words: you can do it.

And that's where I am today, a capable home cook because I learned some basic skills. Learn a basic stir-fry, and you can turn out any number of tasty Asian dishes. Learn a basic bread or cookie recipe, and you can build on those.

Cooking (not heating up frozen entrees and convenience foods) for yourself and for others contributes to a better understanding of what you're eating (and, thus, better nutrition/health). Fresh spinach, prepared with a chiffonade cut, added to some diced tomatoes, onions, ground beef and served over pasta is both easy and delicious, without adding much time/labor to the mix over a frozen spinach and pasta sauce in a jar. Learn a basic crepe recipe, and you've taken a pasta dish and transformed it into something else. Change up the ingredients slightly, and it becomes a casserole or a meat pie.

Beyond that, I've written before on how grounding the act of cooking can be. Baking bread is almost magical, easing you off the crazy merry-go-round of 9-to-5 life, because you have to follow some simple instructions and give things the proper time. A homemade cookie? An indulgence, to be sure, but I know exactly what's in it - not a premade, chemical-laden dough that is sold to us because 'we don't have time' - when really, all we're saving is perhaps the 15-20 minutes it takes to make the dough. Allowing butter to soften and the dough to refrigerate are moments where you are free to do something else, even run errands, so cookies from scratch don't take much more time than the convenience version. (Bread, too - spend 10-15 minutes making your dough, and the rest of the time, rising and baking, isn't something where you are scurrying about the kitchen.)

So why do I cook? Because it's fun. Because it's a way to indulge my creative side. Because I can express my love for family and friends by cooking for them.

I'll be experimenting with making Chinese almond cookies later this week.

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