How I started cool cookin’

July 7, 2009

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One of the fondest memories I have of the last couple of years is being told by someone close to me (constantly) “Rashid…you have a very poor relationship with food.” Wait, what? Me? The pickiest eater alive? The guy who, when he remembers to eat a meal, orders everything plain has an unhealthy relationship with food? Really?

Hm.

I guess that’s an understatement if you look at my eating habits. I used to have a really bad habit of not eating anything. Not because I wanted to lose weight, I was and still am very happy with my Buddha belly. It’s not even because there was a lack of options (even though there just aren’t a lot of spots with good inexpensive food these days) but because I just plain forgot. Since the end of high school, eating was always a social activity. I’d gotten into the habit of hanging out with my friends almost every evening, and after class or after work, what would we do? Go out to eat. I’d get a phone call from one of my homeboys that went something like:

Him: Yo, whats good?
Me: Nothing, what-chu tryna get into?
Him: I dunno, but I’m outside.
Me: Aight. I’m on the way.

20 minutes later, we’d be at TGIFridays, Red Lobster, Olive Garden or Applebee’s.

Faithfully.

Religiously.

Every night was a new place with the same items on the menu. Buffalo wings, fries and a brownie with ice cream. I’m an easy guy to please. I think I may have had more variation in my drink choices than my actual diet…I was notorious mixing different juices with lemonade.

This trend continued into my first year away from home in college. You have breakfast, lunch and dinner with your friends on campus. Having an unlimited meal plan was great, because since we were all dirt poor, it was just assumed if we were gonna kick it, we’d kick it in the cafeteria. It was a ritual. It was a show. It was what you did to meet new people. I can’t tell you how many friends I made at Temple just through hanging out in the cafeteria, but that formed my habits of eating.

Even though I lived in an apartment far from campus that you had to catch a shuttle to eat, it was still a ritual. Even though my mom would come through once every two months and take me on a shopping spree in the market, there was nothing like eating in the caf, and even though that’s where some of my earlier food experiments began…a lot of that shopping spree food went bad.

Flash forward, I take a year off, move to Baltimore and get back into the habit of hanging out with my friends every night where food dominated our social activity. I got a job selling phones downtown a bit later in the year, and it was again, a ritual to find somewhere new to eat. I had maxed out the bagel place, McDonalds, the Fudgery, Legal Seafoods (which I still think was ran by the mob), and countless other places, and I didn’t know what to do.

I’d moved back to Philly with some of my new found brothers that September, and since we were all without a meal plan, there was only one logical thing to do…eat out. My best friend at the time had a fried chicken diet…which is exactly what it sounded like. He ate almost nothing but fried chicken, and since I’m in the habit of eating when and where other people eat…so did I. Though I’d alternate fried chick with potato wedges or mac & cheese, our diets were pretty much the same.

Then some thing miraculous happened. Maybe the best thing that’s ever happened to my eating career.

I was broke.

Ok, not flat broke, but I wasn’t making very much money, so eating out became less and less of an option. The problem of course, was since I wasn’t eating out with friends…I wasn’t eating at all! I remember going for days on what my brother Matthew called, “An all candy diet”. It became very  normal for me to eat a pack of twizzlers as my daily meal. I couldn’t tell you how long this lasted, but I can say it was at least a semester. Probably two.

I can’t tell you when the change happened. I was losing weight…and fast..and not healthily. I was working out with my roommates pretty consistently, and I was riding a bike as my primary mode of transportation. It made sense to start eating a little healthier…which meant…well…eating. This was back when I had a pretty decent routine going, so it was easy to get started. I’d bike to the Hollywood video once a week to rent movies, and there was a Whole Foods in the same shopping center, so I’d stop by…pick up about 20-30 bucks  worth of food which would get me through (which isn’t very much in Whole Foods, lemme tell you, lol).

I don’t remember when that changed…but I want to say it was around the time I started dating my last serious girlfriend. I was too broke for us to eat out all the time, and since she still had a meal plan, she ate lunches on her own or with friends, but the more time we spent together, the less we hung out…or went out. So, it just made sense to start cooking. I’d try simple recipes’ at first and expanded until I was eating pretty consistent home cooked meals.

I couldn’t stop.

When I found  a recipe, I had to keep making it every time I ran out of it just to make it better. To try something new. My obsessive, probably Capricorn nature kicked into hyper-drive. I just cooked, and made everyone try what I made. I didn’t make a lot of food in that span of time, but what I learned to make was solid. Once I was able to make 3 or 4 different meals, I threw them in rotation and tried something new each time.

I remember the first time I tried paprika. I still don’t know what it does, but things seem to go better with it.

Flash forward to now, and I can’t remember the last time I ate out (ok it was last week, but before that….lol). While my eating habits aren’t that amazing, I’ve grown to really really enjoying cooking for myself and other people. I think my challenge is to learn other recipies and mix and match. This blog is as much a collection of stories on how we came to find these recipies as much as it is a collection of them. Each spice in any recipie I’ve ever made as a history, and what would be the point of us sharing this without that history…right?


Welcome to the Cool Cooks’ Kitchen!

June 9, 2009

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by Nuala Cabral

“You’ll make a terrible housewife,” my Nana said while watching me make a mess of the saran wrap as I struggled to tear off a piece to cover a plate of leftovers.

A sheepish and then devilish grin sprawled across my face as I took a moment of silence to think of a proper response, respectful and honest. I probably fell short when I finally blurted out, “Nana, I’m not planning on being a housewife,” before laughing from my belly while my grandmother just shook her head, raising her eyebrows. (She was not laughing).

Clearly, my grandmother was disappointed with my perceived incompetence as a homemaker and my disregard for this role. Today, I still cannot tell her that I’ll become an ideal housewife. I just ruined a roll of tin foil last week and I still can’t fold fitted sheets correctly. Anyway, I have no interest in perfecting certain arbitrary skills related to housekeeping. My mother used to make me iron out the creases in table cloths and cloth napkins at holiday dinners, and it would make my blood boil. I was just so irritated because it seemed like such a pointless waste of time. Who cares if there are creases in the table cloth from being folded? Certainly not me. And I never saw a man iron such a thing. After years of complaining about this task and pleading to do anything else to help prepare for dinner, one day my mother decided it was no longer necessary to iron them at all. This was the best holiday I ever had. It was probably around this time when I started helping my mother cook more and started hearing my grandmother allude to it. The everlasting question (at holiday dinners, cookouts, etc.) is “Nuala, what did you cook?” Clearly, there became a point when saying “nothing” felt embarrassing and unacceptable.

While today I cannot promise my grandmother that I will be an ideal housewife or homemaker, I do have a couple of promises to make to her and myself concerning my abilities in the kitchen. These pacts are less about gender roles and more about nourishment, and cultural and familial responsibilities. The first promise is that I will be able to nourish myself (and others when I choose). And the second promise is that I will do my best to learn how to cook family recipes, including Cape Verdean dishes she and her elders grew up cooking (gufong, cachupa, conje, etc.), so that I can pass the recipes (and connected stories and culture) on to my family’s next generation.

These intentions along with my reality, helped me put these promises into motion. Like many other twenty-somethings, living on my own has forced me to become responsible for my own nutrition and what a better way then to start with family favorites. Unfortunately there was one problem right from the start: I don’t like to cook.

Now baking, that’s another story. I started baking regularly in the sixth grade and never stopped. All the sweet stuff– cookies, fudge, pies, cakes, pies, brownies. A family friend recently called me “Queen of the Cocoa Bean” and I felt both amused and honored. I enjoy the simplicity of baking– there is one product, not several that must be ready at the SAME TIME. And plus, I have a sweet tooth. Unlike baking, I’ve found that cooking tends to involve more multi-tasking and timing is important. Let’s just say that these are not my strengths in the kitchen.

In order to reconcile my dislike for cooking and need to nourish myself with non-desserts, I decided to focus on learning the recipes for dishes that I absolutely LOVE. Lately, whenever I eat a delicious dish I try to get the recipe and make it soon after– while I’m still excited about it. By focusing on specific recipes and trying to perfect them, I have been able to develop a small, but substantial menu of foods, other than sweets. Getting a recipe for a dish I’ve tried and loved, created by an individual I know (a friend, co-worker or relative), is a gift. Knowing the story behind the dish (there’s a story behind every dish) makes this gift even more meaningful.

Upon moving to Philly last year for graduate school, I met a circle of friends from diverse backgrounds who like me appreciate a social scene that is laid back, inexpensive and fun. They are other twenty-somethings like myself, graduate students and young professionals with hectic schedules, slender wallets and hungry bellies. Throwing potlucks just made sense and so we started having them habitually.

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A couple of these friends enjoy to cook and some hate to cook, but most of them are in a similar boat as myself–  learning to cook out of necessity.

Instead of treading this irritating journey alone, we’ve decided to help each other by sharing our favorite recipes with a little humor and pizazz through an online cooking series: Cool Cooks.

Some of these recipes we have learned from our elders and are reflective of our respective cultures (African American, South Asian and Palestinian for example). Others are simply recipes that rock our world. And yes, there will be some baking in there. Can’t ignore the sweet tooths! We’ll just try to have some balance.

To ease the painfulness of cooking, we will teach only the dishes that motivate us to cook and make us FEEL like Top Chefs. We hope you enjoy our recipes and “how to” videos. Please feel encouraged to share recipes of your own.

They say “if ya cant take the heat than get the eff out of the kitchen!” Cool Cooks may not like to cook, but we can take the heat because we gotta eat. And we’re getting better. Just you watch, dear grandmothers and dear world. Welcome to our kitchen.