Growing up, I was an incredibly picky eater. When we would go out for dinner, my brother would order some sort of fancy beef dish no one could pronounce… and I would get a grilled chicken breast. When I went vegetarian at the beginning of my freshman year, I had to completely reevaluate the way I approached food. I had to abandon the brisket and meat bourekas of my Eastern European ancestors and find a new cuisine to fall in love with. To my family’s surprise (and my father’s chagrin), this was Indian food.
After my brother and I were sent home from college in March, my mom quickly realized that she now had five mouths to feed, including a vegetarian (me) and a teenage boy (not me). This led to her instituting the rule that each child has to cook dinner once a week. On Sundays my brother would barbecue, Mondays my mom would make pasta and Tuesdays I would make curry.
No one was ever very happy with my curry because I had no idea what I was doing. I threw veggies, spices and some sort of plant-based milk in a pan and called it a day. It never occurred to me that I could just try making a different Indian dish or even just use a recipe. At this point, I think part of my aversion to recipes is based on principle. I’ve spent so long refusing to use a recipe that following one is such a foreign experience. I balk at the thought of structure and completely lose any sort of culinary skill I might have possessed.
This week, I combined those two novel ideas, and I made samosas from the Moosewood Cookbook. By some stroke of luck and even after getting sidelined to go grocery shopping by Cornell’s infamous prelim season, I had all of the necessary ingredients. Before class, I mixed all the ingredients for the dough together and left it in the fridge to firm up. As long as we’re discussing my toxic kitchen traits, I might as well expose myself fully. I’m really good at pretending I know what’s going on when I cook. Take the samosa dough for example: I have no idea why I’m refrigerating it — could be to firm it up, or marry the flavors or even so the yogurt in it doesn’t spoil while I boil the potatoes for the filling — your guess is as good as mine.
As the dough rested in the refrigerator, I threw some potatoes in a pot to boil and walked the ten feet from my kitchen to my desk for class. As I’m writing this, I’m realizing that I probably shouldn’t have left a pot of boiling water on my stove unattended. However, this cookbook journey is all about learning from my mistakes so that I know for the next time. I came back an hour later to perfectly mushy potatoes. They were ready to be mixed in with the frozen peas and stuffed into (my now very firm) dough.
After adding the salt, ginger, cayenne pepper and coriander to the potato and pea mixture, it was time to roll out the dough. The samosa dough was pretty tough and not too elastic, so it was difficult to get it pretty thin. The whole rolling production was definitely exacerbated by the fact that I don’t have an actual rolling pin and was using my handy-dandy canister of PAM wrapped in saran wrap; a rolling pin is now on my Hanukkah gift list. After a very sweaty fifteen minutes, it was time to start filling.
As I began to stuff, I realized that it was not so easy to keep the samosas closed for baking. I’m also not an artistic cook; I care much more about the way something tastes than the way it looks, so I wasn’t crimping the edges or even folding them ー I just smushed them closed. After samosa number three, it also became glaringly obvious that I had way more filling than I needed, even though I followed the recipe exactly.
My samosas were stuffed, more or less closed and ready for baking. After putting them in the oven, I realized that I needed something more than just samosas to serve for dinner, even though it was just me and my roommate. One really great thing about The Moosewood Cookbook is how Mollie Katzen suggests other recipes that pair well with the dish you’re making. So, I took Katzen’s advice and decided to make ginger carrot soup too.
As I was boiling my carrots, I looked to see what the next step was, only to discover that I needed cashews. I panicked and was fully ready to run to Wegmans for cashews. This is what I meant when I said cooking from a recipe makes me lose my bearings. I very easily could have just abandoned the recipe, put other vegetables in the pot to make a vegetable soup and had a lovely dinner, but no, that would have been too easy. My first reaction was to leave the warmth and comfort of my apartment, drive ten minutes to buy nuts and then come home to make soup. Thankfully, some semblance of logical thinking took over, and I went looking for a new soup recipe in the cookbook. If anyone asks, I actually planned to make herbed carrot soup the entire time.
While I was immersion blending the carrots, my roommate walked in. She was surprised that even after not having gone grocery shopping, we still had all of the ingredients for not just one, but two dishes. Well, all I needed for the carrot soup was water, some spices, two pounds of carrots… except 16 ounces isn’t two pounds. After realizing this, I tasted the “soup” only to realize that it tasted like waterlogged carrots and dishwater.
At this point, I’ve been cooking for the past two hours and just didn’t have the energy to attempt to fix it. I put the carrot mush in a container and sat down to a dinner of samosas. The samosas were definitely better than I expected, just a little bland. There was a recipe for a dipping sauce in the book as well, which I think would’ve added some much needed flavor, but that’s a later project.
The next night, I took out my sad excuse for a carrot soup and set out to make it edible. I boiled a bunch of sweet potatoes and blended them into the carrots with salt, pepper, ginger, cinnamon and sugar. It turned out OK ー definitely edible, but not my best work. It was almost like the soup could feel my discouragement from the epic fail the night before and tasted kind of flat because of it. After adding more spices and another sweet potato, it was almost like beating a dead horse, and I just had to admit defeat. I don’t want you to think that I just wasted all of these vegetables; I froze all of the soup, and my roommate and I finished it off in a matter of weeks. If you ask her, the soup was good, but she wasn’t constantly haunted by the memory of the carrot water.
Although this week was definitely not my finest culinary moment, and I was uncomfortable for the majority of the cooking process, it was fun. I’m learning to laugh at myself (because what kind of college sophomore doesn’t know the difference between 16 and 32 ounces) and correct my mistakes. My carrot soup might have sucked, but it was cool to figure out which vegetables and spices I could add to create something completely new and all my own. I already knew I was exceptionally gifted at causing problems, but I didn’t realize until The Katzen Carrot Soup Catastrophe that I also have the capabilities to fix them.
Sarah Austin is a sophomore in the Cornell School of Hotel Administration. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.