Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Who Taught Me to Cook, part III

Well, since it's been too hot to cook plus husband is out of town and kids don't actually like regular mom-cooked dinners all that much, I haven't cooked much exciting in the last week. Made some zucchini fries and battered carrots--that was kind of new--in an effort to elicit more enthusiasm for vegetables from the offspring, but no luck. Overdid the dessert making last week, so that's on hiatus. And, quite frankly, I don't have an abundant repertoire of hot weather dishes which don't require turning on the oven or standing over the stove or grill. So voilĂ , here I am, postless.

Time to continue the saga of how I learned to cook. See May posts if you haven't read the first two. If you've read the first two, you know that while I don't come from a long line of fancy cooks, I did grow up in an environment where I was exposed to people and cuisine from many different parts of the world. This helped turn me into a somewhat more adventurous eater than what I ate at home would suggest, and helped to somewhat mitigate my picky tendencies (and I do have them!). I still really didn't care for vegetables, though, and my range of fruits was still pretty narrow.

When I was a young adult (senior year in high school through my undergraduate degree), I was to meet someone who greatly improved my understanding of how to cook. I was hired, at first, as a dishwasher in a medical research lab at the University of Michigan Medical School. In the lab was a research associate named Dr. Oksana Lockridge. She took me under her wing, and began to teach me how to do actual lab work. Eventually she hired me as a lab assistant and finally promoted me to research assistant. She was an incredible mentor to me, and even though I didn't go on in the sciences after my undergraduate degree, her intelligence, kindness and work ethic continue to influence me to this day. The salary I earned also put me through college and enabled me to be declared an independent student in the eyes of the financial aid office.

Aside from all she taught me in the lab, she also helped teach me to cook. She was (and I imagine still is) a fantastic cook. She told me that anyone who was good in the lab could also cook--the two processes were largely the same. If I could successfully follow the guidelines for carrying out an experiment, I could read a recipe and follow it. Since she had taught me how to be a reasonably decent lab assistant, I believed her that I could probably cook.

Oksana sometimes tried new recipes herself, but she also had an innate sense of how to cook without a recipe. Occasionally I was invited over for Sunday brunch (as well as other meals), and was always astonished that she made crepes by simply tossing eggs, milk, flour, butter and a little salt and sugar together, without measurements, adjusting until the mixture was the right consistency. Then she churned out the beautiful crepes, which she served with sour cream and jam. She taught me how to make them.

Everything she made was delicious. I credit her with teaching me how to cook vegetables so that I would find them edible. She would often stir-fry them until they were hot but still a little crunchy. And they tasted good! And I could duplicate them myself! She showed me how to read a recipe all the way through before I started cooking, so that I would be prepared for all the steps. She showed me how to use my knife more effectively, and to prepare ingredients in the proper way for the recipe I had chosen.

She couldn't, of course, teach me all she knew about cooking, but she taught me some good techniques. She taught me what a confident cook looks like, and she gave me confidence that I could read and follow a recipe, as well as begin to get a sense for how to cook without one. I am still grateful to her for all she taught me, and I still make those crepes at least once a month for my own family.

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