Before I learned to cook, I looked at the people in my life that could make magic in the kitchen, and I thought it was just that, magic. My sister Sarah, my cousin Connie, the countless chefs that I worked with over the years in restaurants and catering. I just kind of assumed that they were all gifted. I guessed that they had been born with a special gene that allowed them to work miracles at the stovetop. It never occurred to me that I could catch up to them, or learn how to prepare things that made me stop and say "mmm".
I burnt things, you see. Though I did have a flare for rolling sushi, when it came to most cooking I was clueless. I developed an active interest in cooking after my husband, Scott had a kidney stone. The doctor said that he had to avoid salt, and that meant eliminating pretty much all processed food. At the time, I was an ovo-lacto vegetarian, and he was, let's just say, "vegetable averse". Luckily, we both loved beans, so beans we had, day in and day out, as I slowly investigated our options.
With my best friend's help I learned to make pasta sauce, adding spaghetti to my repertoire. It was a while before I ventured past those three things: beans, spaghetti, and sushi. Eventually things got better. My sister, Sarah, taught me how to make her vegetarian chili, and her famous veggie burritos, both of which greatly enhanced our quality of life. I picked up a simple minestrone recipe from my friend's mother, and remembered a few weeknight dishes from my own childhood.
The wheels started turning, and I started to pay more attention to things I was eating outside of the house. "How did you make this?" became an everyday question. It turns out that people who like to cook also really love to share. I began looking at potluck parties in a whole new way, not just as opportunities to pig out snacks and get tanked on alcoholic jello, but to expand my culinary horizons. I became that person who spent half the party trying to figure out the genius behind the artichoke dip.
My creativity eventually took over, prompting me to try recreating things I encountered. I also started mixing and matching elements from the dozen or so things I knew how to cook. I would add my sauce to ziti, then bake it with cheese, or sandwich my burrito filling inside a quesadilla. It wasn't rocket science, but I was starting to think outside of recipes. Looking back, I can see that step as one of the first I took toward really knowing how to cook.
Just a few years later I had really gotten into cooking. I learned to make my own stock and bake my own bread. I even tried my hand at cheese making. Later, I went to culinary school, and took these skills to a higher level, but I believe that in time they would have progressed naturally, even without formal education. Like most skills, becoming a good cook is mostly just about practice.
Just keep cooking, trying new things, using new tools, and learning new techniques. You have to eat anyway. When you turn around to find the last few months, or even years, have quickly gone by, you'll be a much better cook than you were the day you started.