By the time I went to college, I had never cooked more than scrambled eggs or a waffle in a waffle maker. My first two years, this wasn’t a problem as we lived near the cafeteria where I had unlimited meals.
By my final year, I lived in an apartment-styled dorm complete with a kitchen. It was my first time having a kitchen as an adult and being expected to make food for myself.
I still remember the first meal I made - mac and cheese. I didn’t need a recipe; the two ingredients are in the name. So I boiled my macaroni for the time it specified on the box and then I added my shredded cheese, stirring it until it mostly melted.
It did not taste right. Not sure how I could have gone wrong with something so simple, I switched tactics and made chili.
First I had to learn how to “brown beef.” I saw the phrase everywhere, but didn’t know what it meant. My roommate Carly graciously showed me, and I became a quick pro at browning beef.
From there I developed a problem I still have to this day — I can only make chili in quantities big enough to feed an army. I followed the instructions on the back of the McCormick chili seasoning packet and made my batch of chili.
I don’t know if it was the tomatoes with green chilies I used or if I dumped a bucked of cayenne pepper in there, but this chili was so spicy I could barely get a mouthful down. So here I am with 32 servings of chili I can’t eat.
I began to learn and follow recipes, but I stuck to the basics. I figured out instant mashed potatoes and even how to make a bland pork chop. It was awhile before I bought spices other than the basics. I remember at one point buying allspice, genuinely believing I was getting a deal on all the spices in one container.
I remember coming home on winter break my last year in college. I stayed in the house my now husband Patrick was living in with some friends as they attended UW-Platteville for college. Patrick had a job on a farm and would come home from chores just in time for dinner.
I felt like the most proud 1960s house wife as I watched the driveway, waiting to see his truck pull in so I could scoop a pile of hamburger helper onto a plate and have a Sam’s Cola ready for him as he came in the door.
We lived on hamburger helper for probably a year. Have you seen how many flavors they have? We’d stock up every time we hit the grocery store.
We began to branch out. I made chili that didn’t kill me when I ate it. Spaghetti was an easy one. We made our own recipe of egg noodles, cream of chicken, chicken and corn that we would top with tater tots. We still make that one.
The crock pot was a game changer for us. “Dump meals” were the best because I couldn’t really mess anything up - just dump it in and leave it. Crack chicken became a staple. It’s just two pounds of chicken, two blocks of cream cheese and a packet of dry ranch seasoning. Shred it and put it on a sandwich and it’s delicious.
Then there came the point where I transitioned from frozen and canned vegetables to fresh ones. I learned how to dice an onion and figure out which vegetables would work best in which dish.
In our kitchen, the holy grail is the air fryer. We all know frozen french fries and chicken strips taste better in the air fryer, but that’s not what I’m talking about.
We only make chicken in the air fryer now. I buy a big pack of chicken thighs and separate them out into 1.25 lbs sections. You take that chicken, season it with salt, pepper and Famous Dave’s chicken seasoning and put it in the air fryer on 375 for about 14 minutes, flipping halfway through.
It is the juiciest, tenderest, most flavorful chicken you’ll eat. This week we made stir fry and I won’t pan fry the chicken, it’s got to be air fried. It’s that good. I’ve also made empanadas, shrimp, pork chops, potatoes, all in the air fryer.
I still take short cuts. I use minced garlic instead of fresh garlic. I also used dried herbs instead of fresh ones. I’m sure it would be better if I adjusted, but there’s a part of me that will always be that 20-year-old who didn’t know how to brown beef.
I’m proud to say I now make a banging macaroni and cheese (turns out it has more than two ingredients) and my husband and sister always ask for my enchiladas. Turns out it’s never too late to learn.