I clearly remember the first recipe I ever cooked of my own volition. I’m not talking about opening boxes and mixing cans; I’m talking about cooking, the kind with real, fresh food. I was seventeen, and with no prompting from parents and no occasion to warrant a special meal, I prepared a Spinach Florentine Quiche. I cooked it on an ordinary, weekday afternoon, before the days of Pinterest and an easily accessible blogosphere full of recipes. The cookbook from my grandmother’s ladies club lay open on the counter, and I followed it precisely, taking far longer than I should have for such a simple recipe. I even made the crust from scratch.
I was so proud of that quiche. Proud enough that I still remember it today, all these years later. These days, with chickens in the yard and freshly made goat’s milk cheese in the fridge, a farmhouse quiche is a regular occurrence. We’ve nicknamed it “Egg Pie” because that appeals more to picky toddlers, and since there is always a full egg basket on the counter, it is my fall-back when I don’t feel like cooking something difficult. I no longer reference a book for a recipe, having long since branched off into a version all my own. Occasionally, though, making quiche strikes up some nostalgia in my heart as I remember struggling to produce that special meal as a young woman.
That first foray into the world of cooking sparked a love affair that has continued to evolve over the sixteen years that have passed between then and now. It has developed through multiple kitchens and changed just as surely as my family has. With six kids to feed and an extended family that sits at my table nightly, I’ve had a lot of opportunities to hone the skill of feeding people. And then, of course, there’s the farm. Mornings start before the sun, milking goats, tending the garden, gathering eggs. I don’t think it was entirely intentional, but at some point along the way, my life became themed around real, fresh, delicious food.
Anyone can cook. I really mean that. All it takes is one good success, one meal that makes someone close their eyes at the first bite, and your confidence soars. You’ll be as hooked as I was the very first time I made quiche. So, here are a few tips, from my kitchen to yours:
1. Good Tools Matter You wouldn’t expect to paint a masterpiece with a frayed paintbrush or build a structure with broken power tools. One of the biggest struggles I see happening in the kitchens of the self-proclaimed “bad cooks” is the use of poor cooking tools. I also see people try to become good cooks by spending an arm and a leg on pots/pans/etc. they don’t yet know how to use, then getting frustrated at their lack of knowledge. My advice is this: go buy a twelve-inch Lodge cast iron skillet for twenty dollars at Walmart and get a single, well-reviewed, chef’s knife on Amazon for about the same. If you want to really widen your arsenal, add a cast iron Dutch Oven (Sam’s Club sells a Tramontina version for around forty dollars) for soups and braising. Now you literally have everything you need.
2. Stock the Basics Cooking with real food is easy. It doesn’t have to mean always having an elaborate plan. It just means being prepared. My pantry is always stocked with shelf-stable basics like chicken broth, whole wheat noodles, rolled oats, honey, flour, and an array of seasonings, kosher salt, and cracked black pepper. Basics like eggs, cheese, butter, onions, carrots, celery, and garlic are staples. And in the freezer, I keep frozen berries, frozen veggies, individually bagged and frozen chicken breasts and cooked bacon. These ingredients guarantee that with no notice or prior planning, I could make muffins for breakfast, bacon and egg sandwiches for lunch, and chicken noodle soup for dinner, along with many, many other options.
3. Keep It Simple If cooking feels overwhelming, stop what you’re doing, take a breath, and go at it from a different angle. Cooking is a labor of love. Feeding your family nourishes far more than their bodies, so believing that it’s just a chore will steal your joy! Read recipes for real food. If they seem complicated, find a different recipe. We live in an age where you can literally learn to cook anything with the help of the Internet.
You don’t have to cook four-course meals that take all afternoon to prepare. Just cook the things your family likes to eat. They like that blue-boxed mac and cheese? Find a recipe from scratch and give it a try. If they don’t love it, find another one. Be persistent. Enjoy yourself. And if you don’t know where to start, I recommend the quiche. Or maybe it’s “Egg Pie,” depends on who you’re feeding.
This essay was originally published in Do South Magazine, a beautiful publication out of Fort Smith, Arkansas. Visit their website here for more of my contributions.