Your First Ingredient: Love

The quotes that link cooking with love have always resonated with me. I believe that the work of preparing a meal required a certain amount of dedication and effort but mostly, love.

The cynics (mostly men) would point out that the best chefs are always men. The Jamie Olivers and Gorden Ramseys outnumber the likes of Julia Childs. It is not because men are better cooks, as some would want you to believe. Women were always traditionally duty-bound to cook, but only men who truly love cooking and are passionate about the culinary arts ever start into this profession. It is their passion and love that makes them successful and not their gender.

My mom’s history in the kitchen illustrates this perfectly. As a young bride of barely twenty, she had little experience with cooking, and she did not enjoy it. First she relied heavily on her big recipe book with cuttings from magazines and handwritten ingredients, with elaborate cooking methods that listed the simplest things like cooking rice. She did not have a great relationship with food. Even as a twenty-seven-year-old mother of two, she remained painfully thin. So it was no wonder that the meals we enjoyed at home remained wholesome but mediocre for a long time. My father relates stories of a few cooking disasters that illustrate my mom’s ignorance in the first years of their marriage. Men love to boast about these for some reason.

In contrast to her failure at traditional meals, my mother loved to cook western dishes. Our favourite family meal was roasted chicken in the oven. Mother always stuffed the belly cavity with an apple, and all of us fought over a piece of that apple, cooked soft to perfection and infused with chicken fat and spices. I remember how tasty it was, although I now cringe at the tremendous fatty content.

My mother also loves baking. She was always very good at it. The extended family was rarely invited to elaborate lunch spreads prepared by at our home, with some outside help. But they regularly shared tea and cake with us, she was easily the best among her sisters in law in making western pastries and cake. This is also part of love and tradition. My mother learned making cakes at the hands of my German grandma, and learned to love the art of baking. Amazingly her baking always turns out good, even when she experiments with it.

These days she reads a baking recipe, and changes it to make it simpler. She even modifies the amounts of leavening agents, by feel. And the results are always fine, sometimes even incredible. She meticulously records the successful ones to repeat them later, or refine them further.

This goes against traditional cooking principles. In my own experience with cooking, my ex husband once strictly warned me against modifying baking recipes. Cooking recipes can be modified, but baking, he said, is chemistry and one has to adhere to the ingredients, otherwise it will never turn out well. This is not true, or at least fearfully exaggerated. Every new baking recipe started out as an experiment, and if you experiment carefully based on experience and with the courage of love, then you can perhaps come up with something new or at least learn something important. In any case, your altitude, your oven, your pans and everything else you have in the kitchen is unique, and even a tested baking recipe could turn out wrong within the parameters of your kitchen.

The short gist of this long post, is to throw away your fear, and love what you are cooking. A meal prepared with love will always go down better than one made under the burden of duty and compulsion. Even when you prepare a meal just for yourself, try to enjoy it. Sometimes I feel like cooking a whole meal with salad and desert, and other times I do not feel like cooking at all. On those days, an avocado on toast with some pepper, or an open cheese sandwich is the best meal in the world.

Once I succumbed to the demands of my child and tried to make him a meal he asked for. It was late evening and I was tired. Despite all my efforts and good intention the result was dismal. The pasta sauce lacked taste, and some spices or ingredients were forgotten. The pasta was overcooked. I do not remember whether my child ate it, but the experience gave me pause. Even a simple pasta sauce can fail if you are not paying loving attention to it.

There is a saying in Arabic: What you put in the soup pot comes out in the ladle. And although this aphorism is meant to apply to life in general, it is quite true for cooking as well. o make sure that you put love and empathy, not judgement, in your pot. Because it will be in your next serving.