101 in 1001, cooking, Goals, Homemaking

How Not to Be Closed-Minded About Food {Or, Thoughts on Cooking Through a Whole Cookbook}

A long time ago (okay, about six and a half years ago), I went on a cruise to Alaska. Each night, we went to the formal dining room for a multi-course dinner, and I came face to face with a truth I had never considered before:

I was a LOT pickier than I thought I was.

Or, as I put it to Matt–“It’s not that I’m a picky eater overall. I just choose to eat a wide variety within a few certain cuisines.”

On that cruise, however, I made myself try all sorts of crazy stuff I never would eat in my normal life, and you know what?

I hardly liked any of it. (Bet you expected a different answer to that query, ha ha!)

Now, at 32 years old, I still don’t see myself as picky–but I definitely have realized that after over three decades of eating various foods, I definitely have strong preferences for what I tend to go for. Namely, that I tend to play it safe, as it were, when it comes to what I prepare for our meals.

When I first set the 101 in 1001 goal of cooking my way through a whole cookbook, I hadn’t honestly put that much thought behind it–I simply had seen it on someone else’s goal list and thought it sounded awesome. Plus, I have quite the little (and by little, I mean it’s getting pretty big) collection of cookbooks that I don’t cook out of nearly often enough, so I thought it would be the perfect kick in the pants to remedy that, already.

What I hadn’t expected was for it to set in motion a kind of cooking revolution for me, so that my cooking life will forever be marked by the time period before I did this experiment and after.

Here are some things I’ve learned through this process.

(Note: for the record, I’m not finished with the goal–I’ve only made 73 recipes out of the 208 in The Food Nanny Rescues Dinner, but I’ve already learned a whole lot more than I expected to from it. Second note: the cookbooks in this post are affiliate links through Amazon, which means I get few pennies if you happen to want to buy them for yourself.)

1 – The more new recipes I try, the more new recipes I want to try.

Ever since getting married, I’d say that I’ve always felt I was pretty good at trying out new recipes semi-frequently. I would say that even when I was at my very busiest (when I was teaching 7th grade full-time and had a busy church calling and Matt was still in school), I still probably tried out 3-4 new recipes most months.

However, since starting this process, I have almost felt bored on the nights when I don’t try something new. Sure, everyone still gets fed and the food usually still tastes pretty good, but there has just been a much greater sense of adventure around our meals now that I make so many new recipes all the time, which has just been fun (and kind of addictive).

2 – Cooking more from one cookbook has made me better at using ALL of my cookbooks for inspiration and recipes.

I didn’t realize how much of my general meal inspiration came from online sources (usually Mel’s Kitchen Cafe, let’s be honest) until I started this experiment. Now that I’m frequently nosing through The Food Nanny, I’ve also found myself frequently dragging out my other cookbooks to shake things up every now and then, with the result that I’m cooking from ALL of my cookbooks much more regularly (and almost all new stuff, too!).

3 – Actually having side dishes with every meal has never been my strong point, but I have been MUCH more consistent with having some since starting this goal.

It always felt like a major win before if I served ANYTHING on the side of the main entree I’d made, but nowadays, I actually serve a side dish (sometimes even two!) on most nights. Part of this is because a lot of the recipes in the cookbook are FOR side dishes, and part of this is because I’ve found some really fabulous go-to recipes (like my new favorite one for breadsticks) since I’ve started this, which means that I’m frequently WANTING to make those things for sides.

(Also, as my toddler is not always super enthused about whatever new thing I’ve whipped up for the main dish, side dishes have been an easy way to make sure that there’s at least something semi-familiar on the table that she’ll probably enjoy.)

4 – Many of my favorite recipes that I’ve tried so far have been things I NEVER would have tried before going through this project.

This goes back to me being pickier than I think, again — while I’m usually pretty open about what I’m willing to try, that doesn’t always translate to what I’m usually willing to make myself. Part of it stems from fear of wasting a whole bunch of food and ingredients if no one likes the dish, and part of it stems from fear of working with lesser-known/tried ingredients. Or sometimes, I simply judge that a recipe will be boring or not as great as something else I could try instead, so I pass over it.

Well, the beauty of this experiment is that it doesn’t allow you to pass over anything (at least not for long), so I’ve been trying all sorts of new things I never would have otherwise. Some have just been so-so (like the recipe for the coconut tea bread that was just too intensely sweet and coconutty for my taste), but there have been MANY that have been totally amazing, including a recipe for cheese enchiladas that now regularly makes appearances on our dinner menu (and which I never would have made before because they seemed so boring).

Moral of the story: don’t knock a recipe until you’ve actually made it.

5 – Making all these recipes is actually making me into a much more intuitive cook, though that seems contradictory.

Years ago, I lived and died by the recipe–if it called for an ingredient I didn’t have, I either wouldn’t make the recipe, or I would go out to the store for that one thing. Wanting to feel more confident in the kitchen, I did my 100 Hours in the Kitchen project awhile back, which was meant to help me get much more comfortable with altering recipes and even making up my own (which it totally, totally did).

Now that I’m facing the daunting task of cooking my way through over 200 recipes, I have made it seem a little more do-able by letting myself tweak any of the recipes, if need be. So the constant trying out of new recipes, combined with the alterations that frequently come up (mostly due to not having specific ingredients on hand) have made me MUCH more confident in my cooking skills. And, because we tend to analyze new recipes much more than familiar ones, I’ve found myself thinking a lot more about WHY certain things work and others don’t, or why a particular flavor profile is more appealing than another. All of this has combined together to just making me feel like a much better cook. Period.

6 – Cooking my way through a whole cookbook has GREATLY simplified my meal planning.

I’ve written before about my on-again, off-again relationship with meal planning, but I can at least recognize after many years that when I DO make a meal plan for the week, it makes my life a LOT easier. Now that I know the basic source I’m getting a lot of my main meals from, it makes it a much easier matter to simply pick a new recipe I haven’t tried yet and put it on the menu (and it’s also familiarized me with dozens of new go-to dinner options that I can schedule on the nights when I don’t want to be trying out something brand new).

7 – Writing notes in my cookbooks is an excellent idea.

While I have been making little notes to myself in my cookbooks for years, I have never usually been one to make notes on EVERY recipe…until now. With this experiment, because I’ve been trying out so many new things or substitutions or had to modify cooking times (because our oven is weird), I’ve been writing notes to myself each time I try a new recipe. And I’ve LOVED it! You think you’re going to remember stuff you’ve already tried when you make that recipe again in the future, but you don’t. And it’s also just helpful to note which recipes are good so that we don’t forget to make them again.

8 – I’m already planning on repeating this experiment in the future (with a different cookbook, obviously).

Even though I’m only just over a third of the way through the current cookbook I’ve chosen, I’m totally already narrowing down which cookbook to make my way through next. Matt and I are both tempted to cook our way through the new cookbook he got me for Christmas–America’s Test Kitchen’s Vegetarian Cookbook–just because it would make us about a billion (yes) times healthier, and everything we’ve tried so far has been awesome (within our current comfort zone, meaning pizza and pasta and veggie sides and not so much tempeh or tofu). Other contenders might be Our Best Bites (which I’ve seriously loved everything I’ve ever made from it) or Giada de Laurentiis’s Everyday Italian, which I’ve only barely scratched the surface on. Or you know, the other 25 or so cookbooks I own currently. So many choices!

All told, this is an experiment I’m tempted to recommend to just about anyone that ever spends any time in the kitchen making meals. Seriously, though—try it! It very well might change your life.

If you were to cook your way through a whole cookbook, which would you choose? (And yes/maybe I’m just asking so I have the excuse to buy yet more cookbooks…)