I’ve never been what you might call a cook. There was a period in my early 20s when I wanted to be a cook, and I made a lot of fancy recipes from various cookbooks and they mostly turned out edible and some were even good, but they still didn’t make me a “cook.” If a recipe had an ingredient I lacked, I would balk. I had almost no idea what I could substitute to make it taste the same (or similar). And simple, yummy dinners (that were not pasta)? Impossible.

Since I’ve started this “part-time stay-at-home-mom” thing, cooking dinner has sort of become part of my job. It just wouldn’t be very fair to Peter to come home at 5 (or later) and have to make the meal for the night, when I had been home all day (doing things, sure, but still at home). At the beginning, it was still really rough, but recently, I like to think I’ve been getting a little better, for two reasons.

One: Emmie has begun eating too. It’s amazing what a difference this makes. I’m making her baby food (SUPER easy, very tasty), so it’s motivating me to buy more things for us, like sweet potatoes (which we LOVE, but never buy for ourselves). I also am trying to be more conscious of dinner as a “mealtime,” not just something to shove in our mouths, to foster good eating habits for her for life.

Two: Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything (Amazon link, but I don’t get anything from it). I’m late to the party, obviously, since this is a 10th anniversary edition, but it’s been a revelation for me, a novice cook. I feel like the things I tell people about the book aren’t that unique (simple recipes, usually lists lots of substitutions you can do, etc.), but somehow the things I’ve made from this book have been more impressive to Peter (a tough critic) than anything “fancy” I’ve tried in the past. We’ve only had one dud, a meatloaf, and I think that was because Peter is violently opposed to raw-ish onions and the minced onions just don’t get cooked enough for him in the loaf. I thought it was delicious, but I’ll be precooking the onions next time (if there is a next time for that ill-fated recipe).

I love that it gives lots and lots of variations on a dish, and not just specific ways to alter it. He has lists like “12 excellent additions to fried rice” (I just made that up, but I did just make his fried rice and there is something like that there). I made his recipe for fried rice even though I did not have every singel ingredient on the list. In fact, I think I only had 2 or 3 of them. And then I added my own things. That has NEVER happened before. And it still tasted pretty good! (It might have been the third time that poor beef had seen a dish, but fried rice is for leftovers, as my wonderful friend Anne used to tell me!).

So while I may not use it as my go-to for things I feel more comfortable with, especially baking (love me some King Arthur Flour Baking books for that), it has helped me 1000% with things like meat and other main dishes that are not pasta-based. And Peter even likes eating my food now! (Usually.) Just don’t look for any pretty pictures of my food here; I’m still working on just making it edible!