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And so it begins.

When our youngest became a vegetarian a few years ago, my Mom gave us her copy of The Ultimate Vegetarian Cookbook. I guessed now was as good a time to open it as any. (Sorry, Mom. I always meant to. Better late than never, right?) Our Little Dude is no longer a vegetarian, but I’m afraid to cook meat. If it’s over cooked it’s dry and terrible, if it’s undercooked someone can end up in the hospital. And meats aren’t cheap either. Who needs that kind of pressure? Not me. Not yet anyway. So vegetarian it is.

I page through all of the recipes in the dinner section and settle on Shepherdess Pie. It takes me about two hours to make this decision after pouring over 54 pages of choices in the Main Course section. It was finally decided on due to the Mashers Factor. Mashed potatoes are one of my favorite foods in the whole world and I’ve seen them made for me several times so I think I can repeat the process. And if the whole thing stinks, at least it’s a dish topped with mashers.

I read the ingredients list.

Potatoes, olive oil, salt, pepper, onion, carrots, garlic cloves, sunflower oil, mushrooms, aduki beans, stock, vegetable yeast extract, bay leaves, dried mixed herbs and dried bread crumbs.

I have no idea what aduki beans are, no idea what kind of “stock” I’m supposed to use….oh wait, its vegetarian. Nevermind. I end up figuring that part out. “Dried mixed herbs” sounds a little like this author thinks I’ve cooked before and worries me a little. I mean, I’ve at least seen the spice aisle. I know there is an awful lot to choose from.

I make the grocery list and head out.

I find myself in the market thankful for my first smart phone. I’m comparing cups and ounces in the recipe to the measurements on the packages at the market. How many cups are in an ounce? Thank you, Google. Thank you, smart phone. And to those of you in the market, no I wasn’t texting while driving (my cart). I’ve heard about Oprah’s No Phone Zone pledge. I know the dangers. I pulled over so I could try to accomplish something important as I made it difficult for you to all navigate around me, my cart and my phone. I really did wait until I got home to read texts about handbags.

I also find that while I don’t know what aduki beans are, someone else sure does, because they’re at the grocery store. Cans and cans of them all neatly stacked. Never noticed those things before. As far as the dried mixed herbs, we’ve got a million spice containers at the house. I just get the bay leaves and figure I’ll smell the things in the cabinet later and do a little mixing and matching. I can’t cook, but I do know what smells good.

Back home with all of my ingredients, I’m a little frustrated that I spent so much money at the grocery store. Since I don’t do the shopping, this has got to be the most money I’ve spent at the store in ages (what was left of my allowance for the week). And this is just one dinner! How does my husband do this? I’m gaining a new appreciation for that man.

I stare at the ingredients for a while and I read the recipe over and over. I’m psyching myself up. I can do this! No, I can’t. Yes, yes you can. Ok, whatever. We’ve got about a thousand dollars invested in this recipe so far, so I have to try.

Chopping potatoes. Ok, I can do that. Boil potatoes. Ok, I know how to boil. Poke. Poke. Poke. Ok, I’ve got boiled potatoes. Now what? Peel the potatoes and mash them. That sounds like its going to be hard and we don’t peel potatoes at home for mashing so I don’t do the peeling part. But what I do instead is have Samwise Gamgee in my head. “Mash ‘em, boil ‘em, stick ‘em in a stew.” That Samwise. I’d love to eat potatoes with that hobbit. Is this a sign of ADHD? I don’t know. Hey, I should really watch Lord of the Rings again some time soon.

“Gently fry” the vegetables. I don’t see a setting on the burner that says “gently”. I do my best to stay the course.

“Stir in the mushrooms, beans, cook for 2 more minutes and then add the stock, yeast and bay leaves.” Crap. I forgot to find out what vegetable yeast was. Oh well. Let’s keep moving.

So the veggies are cooked and now all it seems I’m supposed to do is put them in the pan, spread my mashers over the beany veggie mixture, sprinkle on the bread crumbs, put the thing in the oven and the go watch Ellen.

You know what? All this recipe reading, shopping, chopping, stiring, gently frying, dolloping and sprinkling business took up my entire day. At least it felt that way. But by the time I retrieve my maiden dish from the oven I’m only slightly angry with it. It sucked up any time I would have spent on work or Facebook, and I only got to watch Ellen’s monologue. It said “broil” and apparently, that was the quickest step in this whole deal. Sorry, Ellen. We’ll catch up with each other next week when I choose a recipe that doesn’t involve broiling.

But I can be satisfied. It smells edible, Ellen’s probably not upset with me considering, and I can feel proud I made my family what is probably a very healthy dish. All for about $85 per serving.

Dinner is served. And you know what? It sucked. It was soupy and bland and ick. But it was an investment in our future as a family. My first step in cooking. And you should know. I’m only able to be this optimistic about this horrible food because this didn’t happen last night. Shepherdess Pie and I have some distance from one another now. We’ve had time to reflect on our relationship. We ultimately decided to part our separate ways. She has goats to herd and I only want one named William in my back yard to trim the grass.

Do you know that stupid dish sat in the fridge for more than a week? No one wanted to eat it but everyone was too afraid to throw it out. It was like a combination of “Mom’s first effort and I can’t insult it” and “Hey, I think my college tuition is in that casserole dish”.

Lesson learned: Mashed potatoes are not the duct tape of foods. But I still love them and my favorite hobbit.

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I’m going from ramen to recipes

You know how as an adult your relationships get compartmentalized? Your work friends know you for being able to whip up a great presentation in no time and for a few clever jokes about the boss. Your girlfriends know you for your laughter and the way you constantly dole out unsolicited advice (and love you for it anyway) and your Facebook friends know you by the funny quotes from your kids and constant requests for another cup of Starbucks. Well, that’s how most of my relationships are anyway. I wear a lot of hats and the people in my life know me in different ways. Very few people know the whole picture. I imagine that’s how it is for most people. But there is one thing I think every single person in my life knows about me. I can’t cook.

When I was 12 I decided to make a batch of cookies. They turned out to be more of a huge mush of goo in the middle of the cookie sheet. I’m not really sure what I did to them, but no matter how long they stayed in the oven, it remained goo. My childhood friend on the other hand, had quite a knack for cookies and brownies. So the teasing began (Not that I minded it. You’d know I earned it if you had seen those “cookies”) and it just became easier to let her bake them. It’s not like I had any interest in learning how to cook anyway. I just wanted cookies. It was like that all the way through high school. I’d choose a snack and she’d make it perfectly.

By the time I got to college, I didn’t even know how to make so much as a grilled cheese sandwich and I really didn’t need to. I’d either eat ramen noodles or rely on the generosity of my friends who were excellent in the kitchen. Besides, I still had zero interest in learning anything kitchen related and, for whatever reason, no one had any problem believing I couldn’t cook. So an unspoken deal seemed struck. I’d stay out of the kitchen in exchange for being grateful for anything they’d make. My favorite college friend with mad cooking skills still talks to me so it must have worked out alright.

When I dated, we ate out. When I married, I married a man who could cook. When my oldest son was a toddler and we were really getting in to the Christmas spirit together, I tried, for the first time, to get in touch with my inner Martha and made Christmas cookies and frosting from scratch. I gave him an awful case of food poisoning and that was the end of me as Martha and a reminder of why I hadn’t set foot in the kitchen all these years in the first place.

I just can’t cook. It makes sense. I never really tried and I never really wanted to try. How would either of those things add up to a great meal or poison free cookies?

I just can’t cook. It became a refrain in my life, from both myself and from those around me. I didn’t mind it. I earned it. It was just a simple fact about me. My eyes are blue. I can’t cook. I’m not exactly a very “domestic” type of girl anyway, so the fact that I didn’t cook just seemed to complete the picture.

Fast forward 10 or so years. My husband and I have a perfect system nailed down by this point. We sit down every Sunday and make a grocery list together, planning out all of the meals for the week.

Each Sunday he’d say something like: Ok, I’m not here to cook dinner for you and the boys on Monday and Wednesday this week, so what would you like to plan for those nights? I’d then suggest meals based on my ability to really only do three things in the kitchen. Keep an eye on a frozen thing in the oven, boil water, and use a can opener. While you might be surprised (or not) at how far that can get you, they weren’t exactly the healthiest meals on our weekly menus. But the kids loved the once a week frozen pizza tradition and I loved having dinner ready “in 18-20 minutes. May vary by oven.”

And then it happened. My husband’s work schedule changed. It wasn’t going to keep him out late, but just late enough most evenings to prevent him from cooking the family dinner and still allow us to keep our homework/books/bath/bed schedule for the boys. I was going to be in charge of the kitchen. Gulp. While a steady diet of frozen pizza, ramen and fish sticks sounds a lot better than the Ultimate Punishment of having Mom in the kitchen, I knew this was the end of the line for me. The coasting had ended. It had been a good run, but it was over. I had to learn how to how to cook. It was either that or watch my family, literally, turn in to giant packages of processed noodles and sodium. Oh boy.

We’re going to have to go from ramen to recipes.

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