I didn't use recipes growing up. My mom (the original Iron Chef) just taught me by example. A pinch of this, cook that until it smells right, take it out of the oven when the edges turn golden — you know the type.
Let's just say we didn't own any measuring cups and nothing ever tasted exactly the same way twice. Which is why the most important thing I learned about cooking after having a baby was a total shock to my system.
Use a recipe.
I know. I also just felt the earth shatter and saw a pig fly. But I'll be damned if I didn't have to start using recipes when my little one was born. Why? Because my hormones were regulating and I suddenly had a hard time gauging the difference between savory and what was a total salt lick. Because I was so incredibly tired from hourly wakings and feedings I once accidentally bought parsley instead of cilantro and let's just say that pico de gallo was downright tasteless. Because I was so overwhelmed and in love with my new baby (yes, those feelings were both totally simultaneous) I couldn't even get through a rerun of Frasier without being distracted, let alone remember to blend gazpacho before I locked the lid to my blender (yes, this actually happened).
The idea of cooking to taste made me, for the first time in my life, feel unhappy. I didn't want to hope things turned out well. I didn't want to waste time, money, and precious nap time on cooking something we would have to throw away (sweet potato chicken pot pie, I hardly knew ya). I didn't want to feel stupid or inexperienced in my own kitchen, a place I have known and loved all my life.
Then, one day in desperation and a few weeks postpartum, I pulled out a cookbook from my shelf. I looked up a recipe for a classic chicken marsala. Almost robotically, I measured flour, wine, and butter. I chopped mushrooms and read how many seconds I should sear the chicken. I followed the suggested accompaniments and made no variations whatsoever. It was methodical, measured, almost mechanical. Basically, the opposite of the way I had ever cooked.
But it was also magical. In fact, the meal was fantastic. It bolstered my confidence, it brought me back to life, and it reminded me my time wasn't really my own anymore. At least, not for the time being. And I couldn't give all my attention to both my newborn child and my dinner (to say nothing of my job, the rest of my family, and other aspects of my life that also needed my attention). For a short time (which ended up being a good eight months, by the way), I always used recipes. It was so comforting to let somebody else think of logistics and just feel like I could rely on my skills and my dinner once again.
This phase passed and I now mostly rely on my cookbooks for inspiration. But on a night when my young son is extraordinarily fussy or I'm feeling a little overloaded from work, I pull out one of my favorite, uncomplicated cookbooks and follow a recipe word for word.
Guess you're never too old to learn something new — even if it's not from your mama.