Mission: Learning to Cook

12 Jan


Another cold night alone in the Mile High City. I wander from room to room in the Mystery Pad searching for something to occupy my evening. Jenny G is restless. The International Woman of Mystery abhors boredom.

I peruse the usual options: movies, books, television, various Internet rabbit holes. But tonight I find none of these options satisfactory. I need something more stimulating and challenging. A mission perhaps. Something death-defying and harrowing to really get my blood pumping.

I decide to cook something.

I know what you’re thinking: just a simple meal. How difficult could it really be? Where’s the challenge? And you wouldn’t be wrong, if you were referring to any other domestic goddess. But you’ve also never tasted my cooking. Very few souls have. I stopped cooking (or rather, attempting to cook) some time around 2010, after an attempted casserole that left Mr. Poison less than impressed. He never said that my dinners sucked in so many words, but after that night he announced that he would be taking over the cooking in our household and I didn’t really argue.

I told myself that cooking was a skill I didn’t need. Reserved for stay-at-home mothers and Martha Stewart types. I’m a modern girl. I know my way around a takeout menu.

Alas, I no longer believe that being lousy at something is an excuse to throw in the towel. When you’re a woman ready to take on the world, every skill – be it Parkour or poaching an egg – is a useful skill. Maybe I couldn’t cook, but surely I could learn.

The International Woman of Mystery does not own a cookbook, but this isn’t a problem, thanks to thousands of recipe archives online. I browse a couple of sites and briefly debate starting simple. A nice quiche or a bean salad. However, it occurs to me that if I’m really going to do this, I may as well add an element of adventure. Think on a grander scale. I flip through dozens of recipes looking for the perfect opportunity to go bold and then I find it. Vegetable Tagine with Chermoula and Couscous. I have no idea what two out of four of those things mean, but it sounds delightfully international. I have high hopes that this will be an adventure for my taste buds, in addition to skill acquisition.

Since I’ve got few to no cooking staples in the house, I’ll have to start with a quick trip to the grocer. I make a list and decide to go to the health food store, since a few of the ingredients are on the exotic side. Eighty-five dollars later, I’ve procured all of the supplies needed, including spices. And I thought cooking at home was supposed to be less expensive than dining out. It’s too late to back out now. I return home with my haul, fire up a cooking playlist for inspiration, and start studying the protocol.

I’ve already made a mistake and I haven’t even started cooking. The recipe says to soak the lima beans over night. I look at the clock. It’s just after 4 o’clock. Will a couple of hours be sufficient, I wonder? If not, it says I can substitute canned beans, but having already bought dry ones, I decide I’ll wing it. (Note to self: next time, read the recipe before purchasing.) If they swell, as the recipe calls for, I’ll use them. If not, I’ll have to brave another trip to the store.

I take a break to binge watch Jessica Jones. Four episodes later, they do look larger, although I can’t say if they’ve doubled in size. Perhaps I should have taken a picture? No matter. I’m emboldened by this progress and decide to soldier on. The beans go in a pot where they’re to boil for an extended period of time.

No time to linger, however. I’ve got to start on the vegetables. The recipe suggests I “roughly” chop onions and garlic cloves and fry them in a “gentle” heat. The language perplexes me. What does is mean to chop something roughly? I make a mean face and begin working my knife through the heap. I toss all into a pan and start frying as gently as I can imagine. The smell of garlic and onions rises from the pan. I swell with confidence. I attempt a quick pan flip to toss the veggies as they do on cooking shows, but this only results in oil spattering on my arm and onions falling on my floor. Maybe it’s not time to get fancy, after all.

The next step calls for a spice called ras el hanout. According to my recipe it’s a Moroccan mixture. A clerk at the store only stared at me blankly when I inquired after it, but a quick Google search told me it was comprised of cinnamon, cumin, coriander, cloves, pepper, ginger and sometimes dried rose petals. I’ve purchased all but the rose petals. I briefly contemplate digging an old prom corsage out of my memory box and crushing it into the recipe but think better of it.

The recipe also doesn’t say what amounts of each to put into the mix. I’ll have to improvise. The mixture is then to be added to the onions and garlic and cooked “until it starts to smell fragrant.” I add in my ingredients, and lo! It becomes more aromatic than anything I’ve previously cooked without burning something. This is going better than I imagined!

What follows is a vigorous session of more vegetable chopping. Tomatoes, squash, zucchini and dried apricots all get thrown into a pot along with the beans, broth and other flourishes. While it simmers, I’m to make the chermoula, which turns out to be a dressing.

I’m supposed to pulverize a handful of ingredients in a food processor, which I don’t actually own. Luckily, I’ve been to a few boot camp classes this month, so I wager I can use my arm strength just fine. All goes well until it’s time to zest a lemon. I also do not own a zester. International Woman of Mystery Pro-Tip: a once purchased (but previously unused, promise) Ped Egg, will also accomplish this. An enterprising innovation, if I do say so myself.

The dressing comes out a little chunky, but it should still taste fine, I suppose. Now it’s time to prepare the couscous. I follow directions and whip up an impressively fluffy batch with butter and lemon juice. It looks heavenly but I resist the urge to dig in yet. It’s time to put it all together and then I can at last enjoy the fruits of my labor. It’s nearly 10 p.m. now, and I’m starving. The mixture of veggies and sauce is to be served over the couscous with a dash of the chermoula and sesame seeds sprinkled on top.

I’ve plated my dish but realize it looks a bit different from the image online. The Vegetable Tagine with Chermoula and Couscous pictured looks colorful and succulent but mine appears to be lacking. It looks more like a colorless mush. Of course, appearances aren’t everything. I feel certain that once I taste my masterpiece, I’ll forget how it looks.

On an average night, you’ll admittedly find Jenny G. taking her dinners by the television, but this is a special occasion. I set my small table, fix myself a beverage and light a candle. I want to savor every morsel of my cuisine. I toast myself and then spear the first bite.

It tastes awful.

Well, that might be a bit of an overstatement. It actually doesn’t taste like much of anything. It tastes about like it looks. A colorless mush with the exception of the crunchy undercooked lima beans which add an interesting texture, but not much else. The dressing and the couscous taste all right, but overall it’s pretty inedible. The ras el hanout is way too heavy on cinnamon and cumin. Even I know that much. I sit in the candlelight and choke it down bitterly, too proud to waste $85 worth of groceries and hours of work.

As I clean up my mess of dishes and dirty pots and pans, I want to cry. I think about Mr. Poison and his moratorium on my cooking. I think about my brief surge of confidence and how off the mark I actually was. But then I think about how much fun I was having before I knew it was going to turn out this way, and wonder if it isn’t worth trying again. Worth a little persistence to actually conquer this once and for all. There has to be a way.

I return to my computer and Google: “Cooking classes in Denver.”

Stay tuned.

Jenny G.


One Response to “Mission: Learning to Cook”

  1. totallycaroline 01/13/2016 at 5:22 AM #

    Lol, so true about cooking at home being not cheap. At least u tried. Don’t give up. Since u have all the ingredients now, try making the same recipe again. Master this, you totally can!

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