Part III: from frozen dinner queen to healthy weeknight cook

This is the third installment of a four-part series on how I transformed myself from frozen food queen to healthy weeknight chef. Yes, it is possible to go from almost never cooking anything from scratch to cooking virtually everything from scratch. Even if you work full-time like I do. It may take awhile (I took a full year), but you can do it.

If you missed the other installments, you can read about phase I (Fits & Starts) here and phase II (Mastering the Basics) here.

Experimenting with New and Fun

This third phase of the year of my transformation was all about branching out from the basics and experimenting a bit.

As we headed into the summer months, our local farmers market opened and shopping suddenly became really fun for the whole family. We got in the habit of walking to it every Sunday and discovering new things to try, from leeks to kale, mustard greens, pasture raised chickens, and tomatillos…

Typically I’d create the week’s menu by outlining the building blocks for our meals, namely the proteins and the grains. But then I’d leave the vegetables and sauces up for grabs. The overflowing bins of vegetables at the market never failed to steer me in interesting directions.

One evening, a tomatillo salsa verde made a wonderful accompaniment to talapia.

The kids loved it, and my husband begged me to make the salsa again just to have on hand. It was that good.
{image & recipe via: Pinch My Salt}

Another night, I whipped together a leek tart. This is a wonderfully fast and relatively easy dinner to make. Perfect for those nights when you look in the fridge and don’t have too much left in there. I had tried my hand at an apple pie or two, so making my own crust wasn’t entirely a new thing. The good thing about a homemade crust is that it is generally delicious – even if it doesn’t come out perfectly flaky. Don’t be intimidated.

While at the beach with family, on my night to cook, I tried my hand at homemade pizza.

While not something I recommend for large parties (we were 28 people – oven space fell a little short), it is a great and really easy dinner for a single family. I have fallen in love with Tyler Florence’s pizza sauce recipe and use the pizza dough recipe from the back of a package of Fleischman’s pizza yeast. It has become our new go-to Friday night recipe.

Quinoa burgers made it in to the menu set.

I’ve tried these with and without eggs (without when my vegan relatives were visiting at Christmas). When making them without the eggs, just use something like cornstarch or a little extra flour to make them stick together. The tzatziki sauce that goes with this recipe is insanely good, but I’ve found you only need 1/2 to 1/4 of what’s called for, so I usually half the recipe. In general, Eating Well Living Thin is a wonderful resource for delicious and healthy recipes. I highly recommend perusing her blog.

Fish tacos were another hit of the summer.

And super, super easy. The tangy sauce is delish, but like the tzatziki sauce for the quinoa burgers, a little goes a long way. Definitely 1/2 the recipe for it.
{image and recipe by Daisy Cooks Sometimes}

And how could I forget this beautiful recipe for Thyme Scented Salmon with Tuscan White Bean Salad that I found in a Cooking Light Magazine from May 2003? I had stashed it away with my cookbooks and forgotten about it until I was hunting for some new and different dishes. It took a little longer to make as there are quite a few fresh ingredients to chop. But aside from all the chopping, there is nothing complicated about it. I think the elbow grease is worth it as it is both melt-in-your-mouth delicious and wonderfully nutritious.

The bottom line is, once you’ve mastered some basics, branching out an adding new and exciting dishes to the menu set is critical in helping maintain momentum. For me, I found that experimenting kept interested and excited about cooking in this stage. It kept me from stagnating.

Of course, not every dish I tried came out beautifully. But as I gained confidence, my fear of failure melted away. Nothing was ever so bad it was inedible.

My rule of thumb is that I have to prepare a dish three or four times before I really “get” how to both cook and flavor it to my (and my boys’) taste.

Confection Heaven

Dinners weren’t the only thing that I experimented with in this phase. I also threw my hat into the baking and confections arena. Because I love me some sugar.

It all started with my oldest son’s birthday. We decided to throw him a monster truck themed birthday party in our back yard, and I felt compelled to bake him a proper monster truck cake.

Miraculously, my gamble paid off. You can read the step-by-step monster truck cake tutorial here.

Bolstered by my monster truck cake coup, I leaned on my aunt to teach me how to make bread from scratch and she kindly obliged.

Now, once a month, I turn to this step-by-step bread-making tutorial and make four loaves for the month. I keep one loaf out and freeze the others, pulling them out as needed.

Once you start making your own bread, it’s pretty impossible to go back to the store bought kind. I’ve only had to buy bread twice since last summer. Once when we were just back from vacation and had nothing in the pantry, the other when I was battling the flu.

As the summer fruit season kicked into high gear, we also enjoyed

Strawberry shortcakes

{image and recipe via Fine Cooking}

Julia Child’s apple tarts

I followed the recipe from Julia Child’s The Art of French Cooking, but this recipe from the Little Blue Hen looks about the same.
{image and recipe via: Little Blue Hen}

Paula Deen’s peach cobbler

Now, this one isn’t for every day as it is not the healthiest concoction. But can I just say, we all went weak at the knees on this one. With fresh picked peaches, it is simply divine.
{image and recipe via: Food Network}

A doggie birthday cake for my youngest

And my personal favorite, raspberry jam.

Since raspberry jam was the very last thing my mom ever made, making it held special significance for me. Surprisingly, it only took 35 minutes from start to finish. And wow, so good. Next summer, I will be making lots, lots, lots more as we plowed through ours before winter really ever set it.

Looking back, the key to maintaining my momentum in this arena was clearly just being willing to experiment – and fail. My first apple tart looked pretty sad. But it tasted great. Each time I make it, it gets prettier and prettier. My first batch of raspberry jam was a disaster. I had to toss the lot because I overcooked it. But I tried again and it turned out beautifully.

Indeed, the overarching theme to this entire journey has been: if at first you don’t succeed…try, try again.

What would you cook if you weren’t afraid to fail?