I know a few people who think I’m a fantastic cook. Those people should put down the crack pipe. Somewhat similarly, I seem to know a lot of people who think cooking is “hard.” Personally, I tend to believe in my mother’s oft-repeated adage, which is that if you can read, you can cook. Improvising on recipes is something different, of course, but even that comes with practice, I think.
The thing about me and cooking is that 1) I like to cook (because I like to eat, duh) and 2) I do it a lot. This is one of those areas where I believe “practice makes perfect” isn’t quite correct, but “practice makes you pretty good” certainly is.
I am not a fabulous cook. I am a pretty good cook; I am an experienced cook; and—perhaps most importantly—I am an unafraid cook. That’s all it is, really. I’m willing to try new stuff, and most of the time it works out.
Not always, though. Ahem.
Oh, sure. My successes at this point still outweigh the failures, by a lot. But every now and then I make a recipe that just… misses. And to add insult to injury, the misses are almost always when I’ve bought some sort of expensive specialty ingredient specifically for that dish. ARGH. But, you know, it happens. No biggie.
[Brief unsolicited plug: This is why I nearly always pull new recipes from blogs I like, these days. The commentary is invaluable in helping me to decide if I really want to try that dish or not. It's a level of insurance you simply can't get from pulling a recipe off a cooking site where the comments are things like "I loved this! I changed the white sugar to brown and the chicken to pork and the asparagus to broccoli and the potatoes to cauliflower and I pan-seared instead of baking and changed all the spices and IT WAS WONDERFUL!"]
My current cooking challenge is that I try to fix at least two vegetarian entrees each week, both for our overall health and so that Chickadee has enough variety in her diet. (Chickadee’s preferred version of vegetarianism, if left to her own devices, would be a steady diet of cheese, cookies, Skittles, and the occasional faux meat patty from the freezer section.) That’s not super challenging, actually, except that I’m finding MANY vegetarian recipes also rely heavily on wheat and OH YEAH, I can’t have wheat, so suddenly I’m trying to fix gluten-free vegetarian entrees, and that’s a bit more complicated.
We have our favorites, but I’m always trying to branch out a bit.
So I don’t know what happened, exactly, but I came across a recipe for “lentil ricotta meatballs” and possibly I was abducted by aliens and when they returned me to terra firma, I was so delighted to be back, my first thought was, “Lentil ricotta meatballs sound DELICIOUS!” (No, it’s not a very good explanation. It’s all I’ve got.)
I can count on one hand (with fingers left over) the number of times I’ve made regular meatballs. What I forgot, before embarking on this recipe, is that making meatballs is a complete pain in the ass under the best of circumstances. I really don’t know what I was thinking.
The first problem was that the recipe called for breadcrumbs, and I really don’t do gluten-free bread for the most part, so I decided to substitute brown rice. That seemed reasonable, to me, because rice is bland and sticky and would be appropriate filler. Fine. I made a giant batch of brown rice.
The second problem was that I always forget how visually unappealing lentils are. Maybe it’s just the way I cook them? Maybe it’s because I’ve never been able to find those mythical french green ones I always hear people talking about? And the saddest part is that Chickadee LOVES lentils, and I like lentils just fine, even, but let’s face it—cooked lentils always end up looking like cat barf. I made a giant batch of lentils and the cat barf jokes began.
But then I had to PUREE some of the lentils and then they REALLY looked like cat barf. Yum yum yum.
I wasn’t sure what happened, but in retrospect I think the fault lay with my substitution of rice for breadcrumbs. The recipe called for a couple of eggs, which I added, but because cooked rice doesn’t soak up liquid, the mixture was… somewhat soupy. Uh oh. Well, the recipe called for it to rest in the fridge for a few hours, so maybe it would firm up!
It did not. I added more lentils, and adjusted the spices. Okay. Time to start frying!
I blithely plunked down five or six meatballs on the first round. They all sizzled and… completely disintegrated. I used my slotted spoon to scoop the carnage out of the pan and adjusted the heat and added more lentils to the mixture and tried again.
The second round held together somewhat better, but it became clear that my balls were too big. (Heehee! Hi, I’m a 10-year-old boy, amusing myself.) I used my slotted spoon to scoop those monstrosities out and added some more oil and gave myself a pep talk about how the third time’s the charm.
Success! Round three and onward actually worked, and the resultant balls actually looked more or less like meatballs. I cooked and scooped and drained and then gingerly placed a pan’s worth into a bath of marinara and slid the mess into the oven.
By this time, I had used nearly ever pot and plate and utensil in the kitchen, seemed like, plus I’d splattered oil all over the stove. I am not a tidy cook.
I made pasta for the rest of the family and got out salad fixings and in short order we sat down to dinner.
I cut into a meatball and tasted it. “Hey!” I said, completely relieved, “This is pretty good! I wouldn’t have known it wasn’t meat, I don’t think, if I didn’t know.”
“I would know,” said Otto. “The consistency is too soft.” I made a sad face, because I am a child. “I mean,” he hastily continued, “that it’s softer than meat. But it’s good! I like it.”
“I’m just glad it’s edible, after all that,” I said, taking another bite.
Chickadee carefully cut into a meatball. “Looks like cat barf,” she said. She and Monkey cracked up. I tried not to laugh. I failed. But let it be noted for the record that there were NO LEFTOVERS.
See? Not every kitchen adventure goes all that smoothly, even when you’re a pretty decent cook. But sometimes, your cat barf balls turn out okay.
(I am totally stitching that onto something and hanging it in the kitchen.)