For 24 years of my life, I predominantly relied on other people to prepare my food. I'd made passing efforts to make meals — my repertoire consisted of spaghetti, burgers and salad — but my efforts were never very impressive or complicated.
I can point to a depressingly vast assortment of examples.
I once prepared homemade mac and cheese for my family but left the noodles in the boiling water for so long that they turned to mush (I didn’t want to waste good noodles, so I went ahead and used them anyway).
My burgers and meatballs are typically cooked so thoroughly that they look like either brown, malformed hockey pucks or large, bumpy ball bearings.
And for a while, my scrambled eggs were dry, fried disasters because I hadn’t learned that you have to stir in cream to make them light and fluffy.
One of my fondest memories of childhood was watching my dad make stew on weekends. It was a deliberate, whole-day affair for him. Somehow, the meat always ended up tough as shoes, but it was a hearty meal full of vegetables that, looking back, sounded immensely appealing to someone who spent four years of college eating pizza and subs from Quiznos.
Stew also gave me an excuse to eat a lot of bread.
Spurred by my nostalgia and my lack of cooking utensils, I Googled "easy stew recipes” several months ago, and one of the first hits was a New York Times recipe for “old-fashioned” beef stew.
I decided I could do without the two bay leaves, but I bought all the fundamental elements that were part of the broth (beef stock, red wine and red wine vinegar) and stew itself (carrots, potatoes, onions and the beef).
I did all the work in a single pot. The recipe called for coating the beef in flour and chili powder and searing the meat just enough to brown it on the outside. I mixed the beef with the beef broth, red wine and red wine vinegar and brought it to boil for 1 hour and 30 minutes.
I then added the carrots and onions, boiled it for 10 more minutes, added the potatoes, boiled it for 30 more minutes and I was done. I ladled a serving into a bowl (at that point I didn’t have a ladle so I used a mug), and dunked a corner of bread into the broth and took a bite.
I was dumbstruck. The broth was smooth and savory, and the beef and vegetables were so tender that it felt like I was biting through yummy, nutritious clouds.
The most complicated part of the recipe involved cooking the meat and holding back tears as I cut the onion, but I still felt a resounding sense of accomplishment. And it made me a little more confidant that I would be able to cook healthy meals for myself on a budget.
It’s not easy — and I do still find myself grabbing a frozen pizza at the grocery store every now and then — but it’s a start.