Are you a food artist? Throw a little of this and a little of that together in a pot or skillet, and it comes out delicious?

Well…that’s not me. I am no food artist…but I can follow a recipe, and I am proud to say that I have accelerated my learning in recent months. I am getting better all the time.

They say that necessity is the mother of invention. Well, high prices, loud restaurants and food boredom are the mother of my dive into expanding my culinary skills. Combine this with the fact that both of my daughters are very good cooks who enjoy creating healthy and unique meals, and I’ve definitely had to step it up a notch to keep up with them.

Rising food prices have been in the headlines for months, and I know that restaurants are seriously suffering from that and pandemic/post-pandemic closures and staffing issues. But when dinner for two at a casual Italian restaurant costs $100 (for chicken marsala with a side salad, one entrée salad and one glass of wine)…and the steak my husband got when we went out with friends last week cost $68…it just seems crazy not to expand my repertoire beyond grilled chicken and salad.

Honestly, even at $30/pound for filet mignon, I could serve four people the same quality steak, potatoes and vegetables for the price of that one steak at that same restaurant, which was, by the way, packed.

But it’s not just about saving money or the noise level at the restaurants. I enjoy the creative challenge of trying new things and minimizing waste by using what’s in the fridge or buried in the pantry. I haven’t had any major flops (except the day I cooked off all the fluid in my chicken soup), and I am proud to be stepping out of my comfort zone by trying new things and creating great food to share with family and friends.

Some of what I’ve tried lately…

Thai Quinoa salad from Run Fast. Cook Fast. Eat Slow: Quick Fix Recipes for Hangry Athletes by champion marathoner Shalane Flanagan and chef and nutrition coach Elyse Kopecky. There is so much that I eat that, frankly, leaves me listless an hour or two later. But this salad truly fills me up and keeps my blood sugar running evenly for hours. I served it to a friend last week who doesn’t especially like quinoa, yet even she went back for seconds!

Chicken Paprikash and Braised Beef with Red Wine and Cherries. Both of these are from my new favorite cook book How to Braise Everything by America’s Test Kitchen. I recently discovered braising as a cooking technique. It’s super-easy to do and relatively fool-proof (which is definitely what I need). All you do is brown the protein add sauce ingredients and then let it simmer either on the stove or in the oven. Braising provides unique flavors and great texture to meals so anyone can seem like a gourmet chef—and the leftovers are great, too.

Half the fun I’ve had with cooking is being resourceful—such as using milk and lemon juice for recipes that call for buttermilk. The braised beef recipe called for dried cherries, which I didn’t have and store-bought ones are sweetened with sugar. So instead, I used frozen cherries that I’d had in the freezer for smoothies and laid them on a cookie sheet at 200°F. Six hours later, I had perfectly dried cherries…sugar-free.

I am proud that I figured out a way to make my own healthier—and cheaper—version of dried cherries. I actually was going to order some dried cherries from a catalog because I like them in trail mix and salads, but making these was so easy that I’m simply going to make my own in the future.

What else have I made lately?

A beautiful Pear Tart for Christmas dinner. A family member sent us a lovely “fruit tower” gift that included pears, apples and assorted other sweet treats. The pears were perfect, but too many for us to eat before they became overripe. I’d made apple pies before and even apple tarts but never a pear tart. This was so easy—frozen puff pastry, sliced pears and apricot jam—and I looked like a pro.

Foccaccia. Next to ice cream, my favorite thing is fresh hot bread, but I rarely eat it since I avoid wheat. So when I do eat it, it better be good and fresh. Yesterday’s bread is not fresh…only today’s bread is fresh.

Since I now live at an altitude where things don’t bake the same way as they do at sea level, I’ve avoided making traditional baked goods like cakes and muffins for fear that they will fail. But one day, my daughter announced that she was going to make Italian focaccia…and that it was easy and didn’t require kneading. Easy and no kneading? Hmmm, worth a try. Only four ingredients— instant yeast, flour, water, salt…plus olive oil and seasoning on top. It did require some planning, however, because the dough has to rise for 12 to 18 hours (overnight) and then again for three hours. But I’m not doing the work—the bread is. Five minutes of mixing and lots of sitting. So easy. So delicious. And…in spite of the altitude, it came out perfectly!!

There is a saying that food is the language of love. It provides comfort and connection. With every new recipe, I feel like I have provided extra love to my family and friends while also expanding my mind and creativity. My daughters and I share recipes and photos of what we’ve made and enjoy cooking something new when we are together.

Cooking definitely takes some time, but with a well-stocked kitchen, there are many things that can be prepared far faster than the time it takes to drive to and from a restaurant, wait for a table and to be served, and then eat the meal. The braised beef I made required 10 minutes to cook bacon…five minutes to slice onions (while the bacon cooked)…and five minutes to sauté the onions. After that, it was simply babysitting a pot on the stove/in the oven while I enjoyed the delicious smells. Even making the cherries took zero effort beyond preheating the oven and putting them on a pan. The oven did all the work for those six hours.

It saddens me to hear the number of otherwise intelligent, creative people I know who insist that they don’t cook—flat out don’t do it. It’s not that they don’t have the time or the ability to do it – they’ve simply decided it’s not “their thing” and are happy to spend extra money…and perhaps similar time…ordering in, reheating precooked food or going out.

Expanding my tastes and skills has been a very satisfying journey for me, especially since part of that process has been the realization of how easy it can be to make many dishes that seem so difficult.

I invite you to expand your palate.

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