Kathye’s Thoughts on Hiding Joy

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I was listening to music on my mp3 player as I walked to the grocery store and back today.  The songs were catchy favourites, and I could barely keep myself from dancing and lip-synching along with the tunes as I enjoyed the sun, fresh air, and exercise.

On the way home, it struck me.  Why should I keep myself from dancing and lip-synching along as I walked?

Why do we feel the need to hide our joy?

So I danced my way home, and I’m beaming.

This isn’t a long post, but it doesn’t have to be.  Just… share your joy, when you feel it!

Kathye’s Thoughts on Atheist-Believer Relations

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A word of disclaimer, before we begin: I know that there are many different kinds of believers (a blanket term I’m using to refer to people who subscribe to a system of belief, including but not limited to Christians) and many different kinds of atheists.  Everyone is unique as is their experience of the world.  So when I say “atheists are…” or “believers believe” I know that that doesn’t apply to everyone of the group – just patterns I’ve observed in my personal experiences.  And I do welcome feedback and dialogue, if you want to comment.

Also, a word of background: Although I self-identify as mostly-Christian (with some pagan leanings in places) I am likely not ‘typical’.  I was raised in a household that values thought and intelligent exploration of ideas, and I was active in an exceptionally liberal and radical Anglican community during my formative years.

I’ve been thinking a fair bit about atheists, and believers, and the difficulty the two groups seem to have with communication.  And, from a personal point of view, my frustration with the atheist view that most believers are ignorant and foolish, that they would somehow also become atheist if only they saw the factual error to their ways.

Not true.  Not always, at least.

I don’t like raw tomatoes.  Never have, and I keep trying them from time to time, and I still don’t.  It’s just the way I am.  I also have faith.  It’s just the way I am.  I can question it from time to time, but I still find it’s there and strong.  I don’t think any less of tomato-eaters, and I would hope they don’t think me deficient for abstaining.

I do like cooked tomatoes – quite a bit, in fact.  And to me, having belief and faith is like adding red wine to a spaghetti sauce.  Sauce is delicious without wine, and life can be rich and fulfilling without believing.  But add that red wine, and the sauce has added body and depth – even if you can’t always taste it distinctly, it’s there and enriching the experience.

Likewise, there are a lot of things I feel that having faith and belief in my life have given me.  A sense of something bigger, a sense of wonder, the ability to believe in something bigger than myself, humility & openness to others, a rich sense of history and story… the list goes on.  I know not everyone will get these things from their faith, and that atheists can find them in the rational world if they want to and look for them – but I’m not sure they would be there, or as strongly, in me were it not for my faith.

In the end, I think it all comes down to what you value and how you view the world.  If you value facts and reason, and want the world to make sense, belief can’t hold a candle to atheism.  But I value magic and stories, and I want the world to be a place of wonder – and for me atheism is lacking.

Which isn’t to say that I don’t think science and rational thought aren’t valuable – they are, in the right context.  I like to think I have bifocals – I view the rational, external day-to-day world through the lens of science.  But when it comes to the big questions, personal reflection, and the ineffable internal world, I look through the lens of belief.

I would like to close with a few words about assumptions:

Atheists: don’t automatically assume people of belief or faith are ignorant, close-minded, trying to convert you, judgmental, conservative/right-wing, prudish, or homophobic.

Believers: don’t automatically assume atheists are heathen, angry, amoral, libertine, or soulless.

Just talk to each other – and treat each person as a human being, regardless of what they may believe.

Kathye’s Thoughts on This Little Light of Mine

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Seems odd to be writing this in a public blog, but I’m a pretty private person.  I don’t generally share my mind with people unless I know them well or they invite me to.  I don’t like to “put myself forward” or get in anyone’s face.  I prefer to operate behind the scenes and have people discover me on their own.

However, I’m discovering that isn’t working so well for me.  I work in advertising, and have at least one novel I want to get published – and if I wait for the public to discover me on their own I’m never going to succeed.  In my personal life, trying to date doesn’t really work if I’m just waiting for the right man to discover me.

And that’s where This Little Light of Mine comes in.  It’s given me a new perspective on my paradigm.  Putting myself and my work and writing out there isn’t necessarily getting in other people’s faces – it’s letting my light shine, and sharing what I have to offer.  The more I reflect on the verses, the more I get from this simple little song.

This little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine: not make it shine, let it shine.  I have a light in me, everyone does.  I just have to get out of its way and let it shine.

Let it shine around the world, I’m going to let it shine: just letting it shine in my living room doesn’t do much good – I have to get out there.  Shine in person around my city, and further when I can travel – or shine in spirit by sharing my writing online.

Hide it under a bushel? No!  I’m going to let it shine: I’m going to take opportunities when they arise to actively share who I am and my passions with others.  Every time I choose to remain silent, I’m actively hiding my light under a bushel.

Won’t let anyone blow it out, I’m going to let it shine: This one applies more strongly to dating than professional pursuits… it’s easy to get discouraged when things don’t work out.  But nobody has the power to blow out my light – it may flicker for a while, allow the darkness to encroach for a day or two, but in the end my little light will come back and burn brighter than ever.

I won’t let anyone blow it out.  This little light of mine, I am going to let it shine!

Kathye’s Guide to Riffing Knitting

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Now I know, first off, that some of this is kind of specialized and of little interest to non-knitters (or crocheters) – but there are broad lessons that may have wider application.

I’m quite fond of improvising a knit piece as I go (right now I’m working on a hat for a friend) rather than following a pattern – and after years of doing this, I’ve learned a few things.

Get lots of experience following good patterns, first.  Learn from the experience of knowledgeable designers, get a feel for what stitches work where, and what good design principles are.  I find this is wonderfully applicable to culinary adventures too – don’t try to improvise a loaf of bread until you know what properly kneaded dough feels like, for example.

Know your gauge.  And know when you don’t need to know it.  For the uninitiated, gauge is simply the number of stitches and rows in a square inch.  If you’re knitting something that has to fit someone, gauge can help you choose the right number of stitches so it fits properly.  Oh, and write it down!  You’ll refer back to it a number of times. Be aware that different stitches have different gauges – there are more stitches to an inch in a rib or a cable than in stockinette with the same yarn and needles.

Once I knew the gauge for the yarn I’m using for the hat I’m working on right now, I was able to plan how many stitches to have at the widest point, and how many to decrease to make it mushroom delightfully and still fit.  If you’re knitting a scarf, on the other hand, if it looks wide enough – you’re good!  Knit until it’s long enough.  Doesn’t matter over much how many stitches are in an inch.

Know basic math.  I use a lot of math when improvising my knits.  Mostly simple functions like addition, subtraction, multiplication and division – but occasionally it gets a bit trickier.  If you know your mental math isn’t that great – use a calculator.  If you’re off by ten stitches because you forgot to carry a one, it can mean a lot of taking out and reworking later.

Pad your library with resources.  I don’t use many knitting books that have full patterns in them, and it’s even rarer when I follow one of their patterns exactly.  My favourite knitting books are  stitch collections (Beautiful Knitting Patterns, Knitting On the Edge, Barbara Walker’s Third Treasury of Knitting Patterns, to name a few) and resource books (The Knitter’s Handbook, Knit Fix) that I can consult for help or inspiration.

Know your stitches.  There’s a lot you can do with just a cast on, bind off, and knit stitch – but if you want to get into shaping and more interesting projects, learn all the techniques out there.  Short rows are a marvelous tool for clothing, and you can design interesting lace when you know all the myriad ways of decreasing and increasing.

Start at the tricky part.  When you’re knitting socks or hats, you have a couple of choices on where you can start.  If you’re not sure if you’ll have enough yarn for your socks, divide it in half and work from the toe up – you’re done when you run out of yarn.  If you do those socks cuff down, you run the risk of using up all your yarn before you’ve finished the toe – and then have to rip out the whole thing and start again.  The same goes for knitting a hat from the crown down – you can make the hat a little longer or shorter, depending on your materials.

Take notes.  Especially if you’re making something that comes in pairs, like socks or mittens.  You want to be able to make the second one the same as the first.  Make the notes clear enough that you’d understand them if you found the pattern a year from now and decided you wanted to make another.  This is another place where you’ll benefit from having followed lots of good patterns – you pick up pattern conventions and short forms along the way, and can use them to make your own notes effective.  Make sure you record your gauge and needle size along with your instructions.

If you’re designing cables, lace or multi-coloured patterns, a cross-stitch design program can be your friend.  PM Stitch Creator is a free download, and you can specify the size of your project, draw lines at odd angles for cables, and plot out colour patterns to your heart’s content with relative flexibility and user-friendliness.  Graph paper also works nicely for smaller patterns, like simple cables.

If you have to take it out, that’s okay.  I take out most projects at least 3 times when starting – but I learn how to make it better each time.  Each ‘rip out’ isn’t a failure, it’s a step closer to success.

This is by no means comprehensive, but a decent start for crafters who want to take the plunge and create for themselves!  Happy knitting!

Kathye’s Guide to Sisters in Need

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My romantic life has been quite the roller coaster lately, and I’ve had some very dark days quite recently.  But there’s been a light in that darkness – I have so many sisters.  Two by birth, and so many more beyond, many of whom I will never even meet.  They have all helped me figure out who I am, and what matters to me, and recover stronger.

My older sister spent two hours on the inter-city bus, each way, one day so she could give me a much needed hug and a bit of spoiling, and a lot of listening.  It’s hard to doubt your self-worth when you have someone willing to do that for you.  My younger sister is often ready with advice I don’t expect, and when it comes to relationships I suspect she’ll always be wiser and more down-to-earth than I could ever manage, and I value her advice more than she may know.

My friend Audrey has been down the road I’m facing, and she’s always ready with kind encouragement and helpful perspectives.  I haven’t known her very long, but I still consider her a sister-in-need.

And then there’s the music.  It seems as though the Supremes have a song for every turn on the roller coaster, and Mama Cass is wonderfully encouraging and uplifting.  Cher lets me borrow her strength from time to time, and Gin Wigmore helps me put words and rhythm to my venom when things go sour.

I was curious, and looked up the etymological root of the word sister – and it seemed so profoundly fitting.  One of the most persistent and unchanging Proto-Indo-European words, it is thought to come from “swe”, meaning “one’s own”, and “ser”, meaning “woman”.  Thank you to my own women, who are there for me when things get hard.

(Etymology found at the Online Etymology Dictionary)

Kathye’s Thoughts on an unhelpful anecdote

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I was working through some body confidence issues the other day (I’m a 260 lb female in North America – it happens) with a friend, and he told me about a woman he knew once.  She was 110 lbs, and a cruel boyfriend would call her fat, bringing her to tears.  I think his point was that I shouldn’t let people calling me fat stop me, because it happens to everyone.

My first response to the story was that there is an important difference between me and this slender woman – I’d be hard pressed to find someone who doesn’t agree that I am indeed fat.  My friend agreed, and we left it at that – but the story still rankled in the back of my mind.

I was pondering it while walking to the grocery store a few days later, and I realized what it was about the story that bothered me.  Everyone involved, from the woman, to her boyfriend, to my sympathetic friend took it as obvious that the word “fat” is automatically an insult.  They had no reason not to – our society takes it for granted that fat is one of the worst things a woman can be.

I may not be able to change the world, or even other people – but I’m going to stop taking it for granted that “fat” is an insult.  The next time someone calls me fat, I will respond, if only in my mind:

“Yes, I am fat.  Does that excite you?”

Kathye’s Guide to Equalitry

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I am not a feminist.  The feminist movement is focused so heavily on women, trying to give them a stronger footing in Man’s world – often trying to encourage women to enter traditionally masculine careers and courses of study.  There are places in the world where feminism is still needed – where women’s rights are obviously lesser than men’s.  Where I live, though, people believe that feminism has succeeded.

Where feminism ends, equalitry should begin.  I am not a feminist, but I am an equalitrix.  I crafted the term some time back, and I believe it has some value as feminism’s successor.  For one, it isn’t inherently about the femina – the woman.  It’s about equality, and benefits both sexes.  Also, the very form of the word echoes one of the basic tenets of equalitry – the masculine (equalitor) and feminine (equalitrix) names are different, but equal.

We live in a society that believes that the base state of humanity is male.  Man is the standard, and woman the variation.  Just look to the toy store for glaring examples – there’s the basic ‘doctor’ toy set, and the pink version ‘for girls’.  Ideally, the standard should be a sexless “person” – with both man and woman as varieties of person.  Different, but equally distant from the standard.

Instead of trying to artificially insert women into ‘masculine’ jobs and studies, we should value ‘feminine’ jobs and studies more highly.  I’m not saying women don’t belong in the sciences, for example, but if a woman would rather study language than science, she’s not letting down her sex. 

Many traditionally feminine courses of study and careers are often undervalued and underpaid.  Education, especially of younger humans, is an excellent example.  This is a female-dominated field, and notoriously underpaid.  It is also of incredible value to society – what we learn in our formative years shapes our futures, and a good education makes people valuable to society. 

An excellent example of this paradigm is my answer to the question “are men or women smarter?”  My answer is that both sexes are equally smart, but in different ways.  Each sex is more likely to think their own is smarter, because they can communicate more effectively with their own sex than with the other.  Men are more likely to “get” men, women more likely to “get” women.  And we tend to think that people who “get” what we’re talking about are smarter than people who just don’t understand.

I have found a quick, handy test for sexism is to swap the sex of a person in a situation, and see how it changes.  It isn’t foolproof, of course, but the goal is not to angrily shout “sexism” at any situation without perfect equality.  The goal is to identify when there are differences, and question why they are there.  There may be a good and valid reason – but there might not be.  Going back to the toy store, how many toys have a regular version with a variation ‘for boys’?  How many with a variation ‘for girls’?  Is there something inherently different about the girl version that makes it more suitable for girls, or did they just paint it pink?  And if so, why?  What is the value in creating a pink version of everything?  Maybe girls are inherently drawn to pink, and it actually encourages them to take up an interest in medicine, for example.  Maybe it’s just insulting.  I don’t profess to know the answer, but that doesn’t stop me questioning.

So, keep your eyes, ears, and mind open, and maybe we can start treating each other as equal but different.

Kathye’s Guide to Cooking: Part 2 – My Mental Toolbox

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Just as you stock a pantry with foods you want to have perpetually handy, it’s worthwhile to stock your mind with a few recipes/dish ideas/techniques that ensure you can whip up something tasty consistently without having to think about it.  Make it tasty from scratch, and get creative with variations!

Popcorn is surprisingly easy without specialized equipment! 

What you need: Kernels, oil and a decent sized pot with a lid.  One quarter cup of kernels fills a 6 cup pot nicely.

What you do: Heat the oil in the pot with 3 of the kernels with the lid on, over medium heat.  Shake occasionally to prevent burning, if you like.  Once you hear 3 pops, the oil is hot enough.  Remove the lid, pour in the remaining kernels, and let the popping begin!  It’s good to shake occasionally to keep those kernels from burning, and to send the unpopped kernels to the bottom where they have a better chance of popping.  When the popping has pretty much stopped, remove from the heat and season how you like it!

Notes: A word about the oil – either use an oil with a higher smoke point (like canola) or mix your lower-smoke-point oil (like olive, or butter) with canola to reduce the chance of burning.  Ghee works wonderfully, and has a nice, high smoke point!  Consider tossing herbs or spices with your popped kernels – cumin, chili powder and cayenne with a pinch of salt make a tasty Creole popcorn!  Avoid water-based additives (juices, soy sauce, vinegars) though – they dissolve the starch of the kernels and leave you with a sodden mess.  Oil-based liquids are fine, in moderation.

Salad dressing is easy to pair with your salad when you make your own!

What you need: usually oil and some sort of acid; herbs, aromatics and flavourants; sweeteners (optional); mustard (optional); a jar

What you do: combine the ingredients in a jar, and shake until blended.  Taste and adjust flavours as necessary.  Shake again.

Notes: The classic ratio for oil and vinegar dressing is 3 parts oil to one part vinegar (or lemon/lime/orange juice), but you can adjust that to whatever suits you best. Also, mustard is an emulsifier – an ingredient that helps water-based liquids mix with oil – so if you want a dressing that doesn’t separate and the flavour suits, consider adding some mustard to the mix.  Your dressing may benefit from sitting for an hour or more, to allow the flavours to mingle – just give it another shake before pouring on your salad.  Make your dressing match your salad even better by sharing its ingredients – use a bit of grape juice in the dressing for a salad with raisins, for example.

Bechamel is a basic white sauce – a versatile ingredient in a variety of dishes. 

What you need: equal parts butter or margarine and flour, milk

What you do: melt the butter in a saucepan, and add the flour.  Cook, stirring, until the mixture is a little bubbly.  This is known as a roux, and can be combined with other liquids to make other sauces.  The longer you cook the roux, the darker and richer it will get.  For a white sauce, you want a fairly light roux – so proceed to the next step while the butter/flour mixture is still pale yellow.  Slowly pour in splashes of milk, stirring and letting it cook a bit between additions, until you’ve added about a cup of milk for every tablespoon of flour.  Depending on what you’re making the sauce for, you may want it thicker or thinner – add less or more milk accordingly.  You should now have a pot of white creamy sauce!

Notes: Stir in a pile of grated cheese and mix with cooked noodles and bake for your own baked mac’n’cheese.  Stir in herbs, chicken and cooked vegetable and top with a crust before baking for a chicken pot pie.  Stir in herbs and pour over vegetables for a tasty side dish.  Stir in pureed vegetables and broth for a cream soup.  To avoid curdling, make sure you remove the bechamel from the heat before stirring in cheeses, and add broths a bit at a time.

A French Omelette is a quick and versatile meal!

What you need: A flat frying pan, 2-3 eggs per omelette, a solid fat (butter, margarine, or ghee), filling (make sure everything that needs to be is already cooked)

What you do: Melt the fat in the frying pan while you beat the eggs.  You can add a little water or milk to the eggs if you like, or not, if you don’t.  Pour the eggs into the frying pan and let them cook – don’t stir them, just let them do their thing.  If the egg layer is thick and the top is staying runny, you can lift a corner and drain some egg down under the cooked bit, but let it form a big disc.  When the top is a little runny but mostly set, it’s time to top.  Scatter your filling on one half of the disc, and carefully flip the other side over the filling.  Let it cook a little while, then flip the whole thing over so the other side cooks a bit.  Slide it onto a plate and enjoy with toast, fruit, or whatever is tasty and goes well.

Notes:  This is a very versatile food.  It’s usually good with cheese on the inside, along with veg (and/or fruit).  Some fillings that I’ve found extra successful include pizza (mozzarella, tomato sauce and pizza toppings), chicken and mushroom, and smoked salmon cream cheese with a bit of dill.  You can further enhance flavour by adding herbs to the egg mixture – consider poultry seasoning in the eggs with turkey, cranberry, squash and cheddar for filling – leftover turkey dinner!

Fried Rice is a fun variation on a classic stir-fry, and not much more work!

What you need: oil; cold, cooked leftover rice; egg; stir-fry ingredients; sauces/herbs/other flavourings

What you do: heat your oil over medium/medium-high in a wok, frying pan, or whatever it is you use to make a stir fry.  Beat 1 egg for every 1-2 people you’re serving.  When the oil is hot and shimmering, pour in the egg and watch it quickly bubble and cook in strands.  Feel free to help it along by stirring it a bit.  When it’s cooked (should only take a few seconds) drain it on (paper) towel while reserving most of the oil in the pan.  Cook your stir fry (I usually put in the aromatics and herbs first – onion, garlic, spice powders – and any raw meat, then the sturdy veg like carrot, then the delicate veg like mushrooms, with a few minutes between each set to allow things to cook), and when your veg is how you like it, toss in the cooked rice.  Stir it in, breaking up any lumps, and making sure it gets well integrated and warmed up.  Pour on any sauces (soy sauce is traditional, and ketchup adds a pleasant sweet-sour tang) and stir until everything is hot and coated.  Just before serving, stir in the egg just until it’s incorporated.

Notes: This is a great way to use up leftover rice, and to dress up a normal stir fry.  The egg step isn’t strictly necessary, but it does add a pleasant element to the dish and I like to include it whenever I have an egg to spare.  Citrus juices can brighten the rich flavour of this dish.

Stovetop mac’n’cheese is a quick and easy variation on a comfort food classic.

What you need: a deep frying pan, wok, or wide pot; noodles; water; milk; add-ins (including cheese)

What you do: Put 1 part noodle, 1 part water and 1 part milk in the pot/pan/wok and heat over medium – and it’s a good idea to keep an eye on it, and stir it occasionally.  As they cook, the starch from the noodles will blend with the water and milk to make a cream sauce.  If the liquid reduces before the noodles are fully cooked, add a little water and/or milk.  When you’re left with cooked noodles in a creamy liquid, remove from the heat and stir in grated cheese and other add-ins as desired. 

Notes: The original version of this, from a Milk calendar of a bygone decade, called for parmesan cheese, ham and peas.  It’s just as good with sauteed onion, mushroom, red pepper and chicken, and cheddar cheese.  Or mozzarella, pepperoni and tomato sauce.  Or whatever you can dream up!  You don’t have to make the sauce a cheese sauce – stir in herbs for an unusual variation.

A week doesn’t go by when I don’t use at least one of these!  Add them to your repertoire and have fun playing with variations!

Kathye’s Guide to Kathye’s Christmas Movies

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I’ve never been conventional, and I like my stories to be a little unusual.  I’ve seen “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “Miracle on 34th Street”, and they’re nice, but they’re not my Christmas movies.  I’d like to share a few favourites that I try to get to every year around this time – and invite you to share your ‘off the beaten path’ favourites in the comments!

This is by no means a complete list – just a few highlights!

Comfort and Joy (1984) starring Bill Paterson

A Scottish radio host is abruptly left by his long-term girlfriend shortly before Christmas, and while coming to grips with the loss stumbles upon a war between two rival ice-cream truck companies.  He is sucked into acting as mediator as the hostilities escalate.  He ultimately arrives at an ingenious solution that brings the rivals together, and finds, if not joy, at least a bit of comfort.  It’s funny, unusual, and a pleasure to listen to Bill Paterson on the job.

Hogfather (2006) starring a lot of people!

A miniseries of 2 parts based on the Terry Pratchett novel, it’s a story about the importance of hope and belief.  In the Discworld, there’s a jolly, red-cloaked figure who comes during a winter festival to give gifts – named the Hogfather.  Someone has made the Hogfather disappear, and is trying to kill him completely – so Death takes on the robe to try to drum up some belief in the Hogfather while his granddaughter Susan tries to stop the assassin.  The miniseries captures Pratchett’s deft touch with the human experience and the nature of belief – and always leaves me feeling as though my “heart grew three sizes”.  I like to watch the first half on Christmas eve, and the second on Christmas day, if I can.

The Ref (1994) starring Denis Leary and Kevin Spacey

An acerbic chaser to all of the sweetness that comes with Christmas, this is a therapeutic choice for watching after the relatives have gone.  A cat burglar has a job go wrong, and ends up taking a couple hostage.  The couple is on the brink of divorce and cannot stop bickering – much to the frustration of the burglar.  When the in-laws arrive for Christmas dinner, the problems escalate – which ends up bringing a lot of emotional baggage out into the open. The ending is happy, the journey funny and fierce.  Genuinely heartwarming in the end.

Honourable mentions also include A Wish for Wings that Work (Bloom County), Blackadder’s Christmas Carol, Desk Set, and Breakfast with Scot.

Happy watching – and other things ending in -olly!

 

Kathye’s Guide to Really Cooking: Part One

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First, let me explain why this is a ‘Part One’ – I’ve been composing this post in my head for months, and while I keep coming up with more things to add to it, I keep having the nagging feeling that there’s still more I’ll miss, more that I’ll wish I’d included.  My solution is to make this an open-ended series – when I have more to share about my cooking philosophy and methods, I’ll make another post.  Until then, I can be content starting the guide, without worrying that it’s naturally incomplete.

So what is Really Cooking?  How is it different from plain ol’ cooking?  To me, really cooking is creating with food, with only your intuition, skill and knowledge to guide you.  Yes, following a recipe is cooking, and you end up with good food at the end.  But it doesn’t take a guide to follow a recipe – the recipe is a guide unto itself. 

Why really cook?  Well, it’s fun – experimenting, playing around with ingredients.  There’s a freedom that comes from eyeballing amounts instead of measuring them, making spice decisions on your own.  It’s exhilarating to create something new, and even more thrilling when it ends up being delicious!  It also makes a dish special when you know it won’t be replicated – it’s a unique creation, rather than yet another instance of following the directions reliably.

It can also be scary – especially if you don’t have a lot of experience working with food.  If you haven’t done much cooking even with a recipe, the alchemy of creating food from scratch can be intimidating.  So here, in no particular order, are a few tips to get you started!

1) Try it!  Grab some ingredients, throw them together some way or another, and see what happens.  There are a few basic formula dishes that really don’t need an ingredient and allow you to experiment freely and confidently.  To make a stirfry heat oil and add veg, protein, spices and sauces; add some cooked rice and soy sauce into the mix, and you have fried rice.  Mix veg, protein, maybe some grains, and some sauce in a baking dish and bake until everything’s cooked and bubbly – easy casserole.  Once you’ve mastered classic ones, try substituting – bake veg, sauce, and protein with pirogies instead of pasta for example.

2) Food Failure Happens.  I’m a pretty good cook, and I can create a variety of delicious things without so much as a glance at a recipe, but I have had my share of spectacular failures.  Before I had any inkling of what really went into a Caesar salad dressing, I tried to whip one up with what I had in the fridge, experimenting with what I thought ‘should’ go into it.  The end result tasted like stomach acid.  As comedian Christopher Titus said, “I don’t fail.  I only succeed in finding what doesn’t work.”  In the kitchen, this is definitely true.

3) Brush up on your science.  If you know the science behind cooking rules, you can better decide which ones you need to follow at any time.  Know which oils have higher smoke points than others, and why that matters.  Know what differentiates types of flour, and how it will affect your baking.  For a while, I was having trouble with my bread not rising nearly as much as I wanted it to.  I did a little research and found out that unscalded milk has enzymes that break down the proteins in the bread flour.  Now if I really want my bread to rise, I either omit milk or scald it before adding.

4) Learn what goes together.  Specifically, what elements can give a dish a distinct cultural flavour – what makes your casserole taste Thai or Mexican?  Often sauce and spice combinations and authentic vegetable choices can make all the difference.  Look at a variety of recipes from a culture you want to emulate, and pick out the common ingredients.  There’s a theory that I heard about once, suggesting that foods pair well with other foods from the same part of the world.  Choose spices that are local to the vegetables you’re cooking, and you can’t go far wrong.

5) Pay attention to the results.  Notice what worked in your latest experiment and what didn’t.  ‘This would have been great with a little less cinnamon.’ ‘You know what would have made this really pop?  Almonds!’ ‘I love how the cheese balances the tomato.’  Make a mental note to grow and improve if you attempt a similar dish again.

6) When in doubt, try it with a recipe first.  I make bread without a recipe these days, but I’ve made many loaves from recipes before I tried striking out on my own.  I had to be confident in my knowledge of how much liquid made a loaf. I had to get a feel for how dough feels when it’s properly kneaded.  I followed a recipe the first few times I tried making custard, because I didn’t know what it should look or taste like.  I may try a few more times with a recipe before experimenting on my own.

7) Don’t run before you can walk.  If you’re just starting to experiment with cooking, a souffle might not be the be the best first thing to try to experiment on.  Learn what dishes are fairly forgiving, and which ones are a little more tricky.

8) Cook with people who know how to.  And observe.  And ask questions.  They can help bolster your confidence, and give you tips that they’ve learned the hard way.  They can tell you when something looks right, or feels right, or is thick or thin enough.  I had my sister confirm the doneness of my salmon the first few times I cooked it on my own.

Ultimately, just get yourself into the kitchen and have some fun – and don’t feel too bad if not everything turns out!