Overcoming Cooking Fears (with Extreme Simplicity)

I don’t fear much anymore about food. But I remember all the different phases of fear I’ve been through during my lifetime of gardening, entertaining, feeding a family, and just plain cooking.

The first phase was a fear of somehow poisoning my family and myself by serving something I shouldn’t. For instance, I knew rhubarb leaves were toxic, but what about eggplant skins? I’m still not sure whether or not you can eat the skin on ginger. What about beet leaves? Which berries are edible and which ones aren’t? Experienced gardeners and cooks often take their knowledge for granted, but I do remember being young and afraid. In fact, the only time I ever ended up in the emergency room was when I was little and had eaten a berry from a yew bush (even though my cousin begged me not to!). I survived, and so does the memory of hunching over a stainless steel bowl in the hospital’s emergency room after being dosed with syrup of ipecac.

Then there is the fear of people not being impressed by my efforts. Is my cooking or my garden good enough to share with others? Do they like it? Do they really, really like it? I started cooking at about the same time Martha Stewart was rising in popularity, and it all seemed so damned hard! Consequently, I went for more than a decade without throwing a dinner party just because I felt I wasn’t good enough. (It didn’t help that I became so distracted around guests that I more than once set the kitchen on fire. Stopping drinking helped my kitchen concentration skills.)

Only in the past 10 years or so have I vanquished most of my fears and come into my own as a cook. To do this, I developed and perfected a technique I call Extreme Simplicity. It basically stems from the fact that when you start with fresh, seasonal, organic ingredients, you really don’t need to do much to make them taste good. A little salt, a little olive oil, and shazam! You’ve got yummiful food. When I cook now, I try to get to the essence of a recipe and cut out all the complicated steps and unnecessary flavors…especially the bitter and toxic taste of pretension.

I know it works because my family devours my food. (In fact, my teenage daughter told me it’s what she would miss most about me if I died—high praise indeed.) For her sake, I’ve started writing down my recipes so that even after I’m gone, she and her children can share the pleasure of my extreme simplicity. You can find the recipes I’m in favor of on my blog and at the Rodale Recipe Finder (just type “Maria’s farm country kitchen” in the search bar).

I still have a few fears—eating organ meats, for instance. But, truthfully, not every fear in life needs to be overcome. What makes me happiest is that my family and I love sharing good food together. And that’s extremely simple.

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3 Responses to Overcoming Cooking Fears (with Extreme Simplicity)

  1. Donna in Delaware July 9, 2010 at 10:46 am #

    I know what you mean Maria. All of the older women in the family always cooked. I started cooking late in life, not only because I hated it, but was afraid because I didn’t know the steps. I was baking simple cakes and the like, but, real cooking scared me to death. Baking was always my passion. I must say, due to the Food Network and Martha Stewart, I have become a really decent cook. Not only do I make simple dishes, but somewhat gourmet dishes, with rave reviews no less!

    I have a lot of European friends, family and visitors and I cook many European meals for them and my husband. He started me cooking European foods because he is European and I just love doing so. It’s easier than I thought. The ingredients may be a bit different, but….

    Looking back,I have to smile about it. My fears were quite unfounded, but never having really cooked before, being young and asked to cook something or to entertain, well, it’s a scary and daunting task, and unless you have help, I would never attempt it, to be sure. I am still learning new things about cooking and enjoying every minute. I love good food, simple or not.

  2. Diane July 9, 2010 at 2:32 pm #

    I hadn’t thought of it before, but what a gift to have had my mother, grandmother, aunt and family friends all share their love of cooking, baking and canning (and their secrets). I grew up in Upper Michigan where eating from the wild (berries, fish, game, mushrooms) was commonplace. I have always canned jellies and jams and made my own juices and am surprised to hear people say that they are afraid to try. I now know not to take this for granted. My kids love all the home grown and home made stuff.
    I do have distinct memories of my relatives from the city (Detroit) coming up to our home and being afraid or turned off by my mom’s jams and bakery. Honest – they went to the store to get Welch’s grape jelly and packaged cookies. I feel pretty good when my teenage boys ask for a homemade pie — even for their birthdays.

  3. Denny Stanz July 12, 2010 at 12:59 pm #

    I am a man and really relate to your “fears”. I became a single dad with a 7 year old daughter. One of the biggest fears I had initially was learning hoe to cook – my daughter would not be eating fast food!
    So, I collected recipes that my mother and grandmother cooked when I was a child, started experimenting, and soon discovered that as you say, a little salt and pepper and keeping it simple and wham, you have a good meal.
    Now, many years later, my daughter and her family still enjoy some of the same meals I learned to cook “way back when”.
    Thanks for the memories.

    Denny Stanz
    Author, Food Stories

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