When my boyfriend Jeremy and I first started dating, I made him pasta limone for dinner. I had no idea how to make it beyond boiling the water. But I envisioned this whole romantic scene with me cooking in the kitchen, casually drinking wine from a glass in one hand while stirring some type of sauce with the other, music in the background.
Well, it did not turn out like that. Instead, it was me feverishly bouncing back and forth from the stove to my laptop, trying to understand the five-step recipe. The pasta came out inedible. It was so sour, it tasted acrid and poisonous. I can be dramatic at times and actually cried from true embarrassment, while Jeremy managed to eat his entire bowl without dying. He reassured me that it was “not that bad” (which made me cry harder) but I knew the truth. It really was that bad.
I was 30 years old when that happened and I decided soon after that I didn’t like not being able to cook very basic things. I had just quit my job in social services and with time on my hands to explore something new, I started an Instagram account as a fun way to document my learning process. I thought my family could follow along, since they found my newfound desire to learn to cook very amusing.
Teaching myself how to cook and bake became a half job/half love affair. I say job not because I make any money from it, but because I dedicated seven hours a day, six days a week, to playing in the kitchen. It became a love affair because I discovered along the way how truly beautiful the process of cooking can be. I enjoyed making things for the ones I love, the intentionality of grocery shopping and picking out ingredients, the act of plating something I made with my two hands. It became a new and meaningful way to treat myself with care and kindness, which has saved me in a lot of ways.
Three things I found helpful during this process:
Set Your Mise
When I was learning how to cook, my brother gave me a set of 10 metal bowls. They were cute and charming in their own little sterile way. He asked me if I knew what ‘mise en place’ was, and I said ‘uh, no, absolutely not.’ He explained that it meant ‘everything in its place’ and that measuring out the ingredients and organizing them in bowls would be extremely helpful. And he was right. It was almost meditative. I began to appreciate the process of prepping — setting each ingredient in its own bowl until it was ready to play its role. It’s much more pleasant to cook when you don’t have to stop to measure every ingredient.
Cook What You Love
Find recipes that look good to you. It feels like magic when a recipe looks delicious and then I take the time to make it and taste it. This method also encouraged me to keep trying dishes. If I saw a photo of a three-layered chocolate cake, I could find a recipe and try making it. Even if it didn’t turn out perfectly, it was still motivating.
Taste As You Go
Trust your instincts! Use recipes as a guideline, not rules! I followed recipes religiously when I was learning how to cook and it taught me quite a bit, but I learned there is just as much value in trusting your palate. Food is personal, and it’s okay to treat it as such. Do you feel like it needs more salt? More spice? More acidity? As I became more confident in cooking, I steered away from following each recipe to a tee.
These days, I can cook a variety of different dishes, with a lot less crying. I’m still haven’t re-attempted that pasta limone, but I love making a simple-yet-robust pasta, like this one with Tomato-Garlic Confit — which I think 30-year-old Ethaney would have been proud of.
Tomato and Garlic Confit Pasta
So simple, it’s barely even a recipe.
1/2 cup + 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 cups cherry tomatoes, whole
1 head garlic, halved crosswise
A few sprigs of fresh herbs like thyme or rosemary
Flaky sea salt to taste and freshly ground black pepper
8 ounces dry pasta of your choice (I love a classic spaghetti or a fun shape like fusilli corti bucati)
Fresh basil, torn or shredded (for serving)
Parmesan cheese, freshly grated (for serving)
Preheat your oven to 250°F degrees.
In an oven safe pan, coat the bottom of a baking dish with 2 tablespoons olive oil. Place the tomatoes in the dish, along with the halved head of garlic (facing up) and your fresh herbs. Pour the remaining 1/2 cup of olive oil over everything, then season everything with salt and pepper before placing in the oven.
Roast the tomato and garlic for two hours until everything is melty and cooked down. Check on this periodically. If the garlic ever looks a little dry, spoon the olive oil in the pan over the top of the garlic. Once the tomatoes look cooked down and the garlic is soft, remove from the oven, set aside, and let cool.
Heat up a large pot of water that is well salted and boil the pasta, until it’s just about al dente, with a little chew. (You don’t want to overcook your pasta because it will cook a bit more in the pan with the confit). Save about a 1/4 cup of pasta water before you strain the pasta.
In a separate large skillet, set over medium high heat, add the tomato and garlic confit along with the olive oil it was cooked in and let it heat up in the pan. Add the cooked pasta in the pan and sauté everything, tossing it all together until they’re well acquainted. As necessary, add a drizzle of pasta water to help loosen the sauce and evenly distribute it.
Taste for seasoning and add a bit more flaky salt if needed. Top with fresh basil and freshly grated parmesan cheese.
Ethaney Lee loves to cook for herself, her loved ones and the people in her community. She lives with her boyfriend, Jeremy, and their Taiwanese rescue dog, Cleo, in Berkeley, California. She has also written for Cup of Jo about chaotic pavlovas. You can find her photos and thoughts on Instagram.
Thank you, Ethaney!
(Photos by Ethaney Lee.)