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COVID-19 brought about a lot of changes to the world and to all of us individually. For me, the changes were not what anyone would have anticipated.

Not to brag, but I am a very good cook. Also not to brag, I happen to hate cooking. It’s a lot of work for not nearly enough reward and it’s “expected” work, too. I turn in a manuscript, many people are happy, thrilled even. I turn out a good dinner, that’s a daily expectation, nothing to write home to the folks about. Which makes me hate cooking even more.

I also don’t like the work of cooking, and hate the complexity of much of it even more. If a recipe has more than about 6 ingredients, I look at it suspiciously and do my best to stay far, far away from it. This aspect of my personality probably came about because, at age 12, I was required to cook every holiday meal (including sides, appetizers, and desserts), and at age 15 I was required to cook every meal. Cooking was a chore and a punishment, and my mother was not, shall we say, an appreciative or supportive audience.

I turned, therefore, into an Accolades Cook. I’ll make it, but if you don’t, by bite three, tell me how delicious whatever I made is, I’m never cooking for you again. The hubs is a wise man and apparently sensed this when we were dating. His early-in-the-relationship raves over my cheeseburgers, steaks, and stroganoff ensured he’d see hot meals for the rest of his life.

I’m also against anything “foofy” or overly wrought. You want me to zest a lemon, use cornichons, make a radish into a flower? I’m done with your recipe. You want me to make six different kinds of sauces for one dish, requiring ingredients I’ve never heard of, can’t pronounce, and cannot find in a normal market? We are through. Read my lips: 6 ingredients or less, and salt counts as an ingredient, oh yes it does. And, to be crystal clear, I’ll chop, slice, or cube, but I won’t zest.

Some of my resistance also comes from the fact that I have a 1980’s version of The Joy Of Cooking and while The Joy has brought much hilarity to our family (the older The Joy, the more “homespun,” aka ridiculous, the recipes) – such as suggesting that “unless ones strangles a duck themselves and immediately plucks the downy feathers from its breast, one cannot be said to have TRULY made a Rouen Duck,” and other dead serious statements – The Joy is notorious for making simple recipes incredibly complex. There’s a reason I won’t make scalloped potatoes, and that reason was 10 hours of work and tragedy and a lot of tears because the dish was barely passable at best, only to have one of my oldest friends tell me that it takes her 1 hour and is dead easy. The Joy is fun to read, but evil in many ways. And it was my main source for recipes for at least half of my life.

But 2020 was a weird year and that weirdness took me in a direction I’d never imagined – it made me interested in cooking, and in cooking more interesting things. This was not the direction my agent, editor, or readers were hoping for, but the hubs was quite thrilled and I live with him, so his opinion tends to win the day. And besides, a well-fed author is a happy author, and a happy author is much more likely to write than an unhappy one. Trust me on this.

I started out, for no reason I can give you other than total boredom and a desire to eat restaurant-quality food without the ability to go to a restaurant, making my own Alfredo sauce. It’s dead easy and so much more delicious made at home, where you can add in all the garlic and parmesan your garlic and parmesan loving family wants. I was amazed. And the accolades were plentiful, because the hubs remains smart and my mother-in-law, who lives with us now, is also not slow on the uptake.

The expansion came quickly. Homemade fudge here, seafood delights there, more Mexican and Italian perfection than you could shake a stick at. Suddenly, I was making exotic things, things with…wait for it…MORE than 6 ingredients! Yes! And I didn’t mind! Well, not too much.

Sure, there were the occasional disappointments – the less said about my attempted homemade chili sauce the better – but they didn’t dissuade me so much as make me look for alternatives. In the olden days of 2019, an unappealing sauce would have sent me into a tailspin. In the bad days of 2020, it just made me more determined to do better next meal.

I was already an expert on the “big” meals – roasts and such, pretty much any kind of big deal main course and the sides that traditionally go with it – but now I had the time to really perfect other things. Plus, I bought a couple of mixes from a great specialty boutique bakery (Buttercream Bakery in D.C.) that mean I am also making homemade baked goods. I know! It’s like I’ve turned into Rachel Ray. (A friend suggested Martha Stewart, but I was quick to explain that there was no way I could ever touch even the hem of that beyond OCD and perfect cooking garment and fun, cute, and perky Rachel was darned well good enough for me to emulate, thankyouverymuch.)

In no particular order, and in addition to my regular repertoire, I now routinely and casually make:

• Any alfredo dish you might want to suggest
• Tuscan shrimp with sundried tomatoes
• Buttery scallops with spinach in cream sauce
• Gorgonzola sauce
• 3 cheese macaroni and cheese
• Panko “fried” chicken
• Garlic mashed potatoes
• Oxtail soup/stew
• Stuffed pork chops
• Mexican chocolate chip cookies
• Queso
• Pico de gallo
• Burrito bowls
• Fudge – milk chocolate, white chocolate, and praline
• Oven baked bacon
• My own Italian herbs blend
• Vanilla icing

This is by no means a complete list, but a listing of what I can remember (as I’m writing this and with no desire to go pull out every recipe and look at it because it’s late and I’m tired and deciding to cook something at 2am tends to make the family worry) making “new” this past year. For many reading this, this list will seem ho-hum. For me, however, this list represents a bold new me, one who, when faced with a less-than-exciting dinner option now heads for not The Joy but to the AllRecipes site (they tend to have the easiest-to-make stuff) and finds an exciting and delicious alternative.

What will 2021 bring? God willing, a lot less trauma than 2020 gave us. As for me, I’m hoping for less cooking inspiration in the way of lockdowns and pandemic terrors, but more 6-ingredients or less recipes whose ingredients I can find in my local Publix. It’s the little things you treasure, after all, and I’ve learned to treasure becoming Rachel Ray.


copyright 2021 Jeanne Cook. All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce any portions thereof in any form whatsoever.
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