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Out of My Mind: The secret ingredient, follow the directions

by Debbie Carini

I like to cook. Not in the “Julia Child’s-I’ll-just-whip-something-up” manner of culinary proficiency; more along the lines of “I-think-I-can-follow-these-directions” mode.

That’s actually how it all started for me—by following directions.

Even though my mother made us dinner every night when I was a child, I tried not to pay attention, lest I be roped in to helping. Her “mom” job looked difficult to me—organizing, planning, chopping, carpooling, changing diapers—and cooking seemed like an enormous undertaking, one in which people’s very lives were at stake (in particular, she yelled at us not to eat raw meat, “You’ll get worms!”)

With four children, her job as a chef was as close as a person could get to running a 24-hour diner without actually being paid. And despite the convenience foods that came to be popular in the 1960s and 70s like PopTarts, Instant Breakfast and Banquet Boiling Bags (literally, a bag of sliced mystery meat that could be quickly cooked in a pot of boiling water and then poured over a piece of white bread; the only danger being in possibly scalding your hands and lower arms upon opening the bag), she made us something different almost every night.

The whole thing just looked incredibly difficult and dangerous to me and so I went off to college without ever intending to learn the difference between squash and zucchini.

But of course, life had different plans for me. I ended up with a man who likes to eat good food.

It was the daily commute on the train during my first job in New York City that led to my transformation. Once, I picked up a Gourmet magazine that had been discarded on the seat next to mine. At first glance, the pages were filled with lavishly cooked dishes that looked like they had been prepared by a celebrity chef, but upon closer inspection, I realized, “Hey, these are basically just instructions!”

Like all the great mysteries of my childhood (such as, how did clean clothes get back in my drawers?), the cooking conundrum was suddenly solved. I picked a recipe (I don’t even remember what it was for) and decided to make it that weekend.

As it turned out, following directions was even easier than it looked. And so, I started to cook, and I also got a subscription to Gourmet, which sadly ceased publication in 2009. We had tomato phyllo pizza, ham fontina and spinach bread pudding and chicken breasts with apples in cream.

Today, I look through dozens of magazines each month and cut out all kinds of recipes. I even created my own cookbook system, whereby newly-clipped recipes await their turn to be cooked. If they are deemed worthy, they enter a permanent spot in one of several large three-ring binders that hold Debbie Carini’s hodgepodge of gastronomy. My husband thinks we will not live long enough to eat all the recipes awaiting their turn to be sampled.

And guess what, mom, last year I went to Amsterdam and paid dearly to eat raw meat (steak tartare). It was dusted with herbs and served with thick slices of fried potato. No one yelled at me, and it was delicious!