Learning to Fail

I had the amazing opportunity to once again join my friend Jen in studio on The Jennifer Fulwiler show. We had a great time chatting about many things, but there is one in particular that I wanted to share here in case you weren’t able to hear the show.

I started this blog to document my kitchen disasters, just a fun way to laugh while I learned. But since then it has taken on a bigger role. It has made me consider how we learn and why. And even more it has made me consider how important it is for our children to see us learning and more importantly to watch us fail and most important of all see us dust ourselves off and try again.

Growing up, I was a competitive equestrian, so I learned from a very young age how necessary it is to quite literally dust yourself off and get back in the saddle. The longer you waited to get back on the horse, the more time you had to think about all the ways you failed and how much it hurt, and the bigger the fear got that stood between you and trying again.

My children get to see me fail a lot. Not because it’s a planned teaching tool, but because I am a hot mess and because I am human. Believe me, I honestly buy the bulk organic mac’n’cheese at Costco solely so my children won’t starve on the nights that I utterly destroy a new recipe.

This summer my kids and I have started learning together. I’ve declared this our “Summer of Spanish,” and we speak in Spanish, play Spanish bingo, read kids books in Spanish. It’s been a lot of fun for all of us. But they have also had a front row seat to my own learning experiences, particularly in the kitchen. They’ve watched me attempt to cook, and it has actually made them excited to join in.

I shared a story with Jen about the girls’ first cooking lesson. I decided that the most important culinary feat that the must accomplish was cracking an egg. Was this because I researched how to teach children to cook? Heck no, who has time for that? It’s because I’m a classic film nerd, and in my head I was envisioning Audrey Hepburn in her role as Sabrina (must watch– go forth!). She is sent to Paris to learn how to cook, and burned into my mind in black and white is the lesson on cracking an egg. (Take away: “It’s all in the wrist.”)

I realized, I never officially learned how to crack an egg, so I had the foresight to consider that perhaps I was doing it wrong. If nothing else I have excellent instincts about what I don’t know. I googled “How to Crack and Egg” and up popped a Jacques Pepin tutorial. Now even I have heard of Jacques Pepin, so I clicked the link, ready to learn. The first thing he says (in his deliciously accented English) is to never ever ever crack an egg on the rim of a bowl or a pan; crack it on the flat surface of a counter. And I’m sitting there thinking– man! I even crack eggs wrong! No wonder I have so much trouble in the kitchen! So I watch the video and I’m feeling good about it. I buy a dozen eggs, just for us to practice cracking.

The day of the lesson, I get the girls ready, cover their clothes with their matching pink Williams-Sonoma aprons (dress for the job you want, y’all), and lecture them on the appropriate way to crack an egg (tldr: “wrist, counter”). And then for the first time in my life, I strike an egg on the flat counter as God and Jacques Pepin intended. Apparently, it takes a lot less force than cracking it on the side of a bowl, because in my culinary enthusiasm I just decimate this egg. My kids eyes are wide as saucers, and my 11 year old asks: “Um. Is that supposed to happen?” I can’t help but laugh, and then they are laughing, and I try again almost as clumsily. Soon we’re laughing so hard that my 5 year old falls off her step-stool which of course makes them laugh even harder. By the time I hand them an egg to make their attempts, they are relaxed and happy and fairly confident that they will at LEAST do better than their mama. And they do, even the 5-year-old sends two perfect eggs into the bowl without a single piece of shell.

There was a time when I would’ve been furious with myself for failing. I would have angrily wiped everything off the counter and into the trash, and then cancelled “cooking class.” Thankfully I’ve had more than a little time to think about how I want my kids to face failure. Especially when my 11 year old shows more than a little of her mama’s perfectionistic tendencies and the accompanying self-flagellating anxiety. I have realized it is important for them to see me continuing to learn and to be excited about learning, but it is vastly more important for them to see how I act in the face of failure, because every single one of us is going to fail, and fail repeatedly. If you are not failing, then you are not learning. And your attitude to that is going to make all the difference in whether you love or hate to learn new things.

And that is everything I want this blog to be about. I want it to be about how we learn and how we fail and how we try again. I want to document all the mistakes and laughter and, yes, hopefully even improvement, whether in the kitchen or while learning a new language or in some new and unexpected adventure. This is were the learning happens. In the failure, in the mess. Thankfully its a place in which I’ve spent a lot of time and am becoming more comfortable with by the day.

 

Fear Setting

We’ve been having an amazing summer so far, filled with Spanish, math work, reading lessons, library trips, and visits with my grandmother. Summer is also the time of year when the girls and I go in for our annual medical checkups. I never imagined that both my doc and the pediatrician would have news that would impact our kitchen adventures.

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My oldest daughter who has always been on the crazy tiny side (official medical term) of the growth chart, has basically fallen right off of it. Now, this isn’t wildly surprising as my sister and my grandmother never saw 5 feet tall, however, my daughter is also what I would call a “crackertarian.” She is incredibly picky about food and despite our best attempts mostly subsists on simple carbs. When the doctor saw the growth chart, she insisted on a few blood tests and a bone density scan. Everything came back within normal ranges, but the doctor encouraged us to get her on a veggie and protein packed diet before puberty starts in full force.

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A week later, I received a call from my doctor. My A1C (blood glucose) is the best it has ever been, but for the first time in my life, my cholesterol is horrible! Thanks, genetics and being on the down slope of my thirties! So, it’s incredibly important that I quit bouncing between fad starvation with marathon cardio sessions and simple-carb-fueled slothfulness and get myself on a regular workout schedule along with a healthy diet. Here comes the tricky part: sustainability.

I have already run through the terrible cycle of deprivation of “fun” food leads to depression leads to exhaustion leads to quitting my workout routine leads to more depression leads to binging on “fun” foods. Thankfully I recently learned an incredibly helpful exercise to do when contemplating a big life change. It came from the latest TedTalk by Tim Ferriss. I am an unabashed fangirl of this “life hacking” guru whose book 4 Hour Body was my first foray into popular fitness. In this (very brief– you have time) talk, he discusses something he applies frequently to his life. Instead of “goal setting,” it is called “fear setting.” It involves listing the failures you imagine and then allows you to create a way to combat and correct those potentialities ahead of time. Later you list what your chosen change might bring to your life even if you were only partially successful, as well as what you would miss out on by not making the change.

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I’ve already used it for a big life decision that I recently made (and will probably be sharing within the next year), and found it immensely beneficial, so once I realized that diet and exercise needed to be my top priority, I jumped right into “fear setting” my game plan. I’ll share a couple of my main fears and responses. I may tweak this as necessary, but for now it seems like a pretty solid look at my known weaknesses as well as the pros of jumping in with both feet and the cons of never getting started.

Fear Setting: Diet and Exercise

What if I… Prevent Repair
Feel too exhausted to get out of bed in the morning
  • Take your meds
  • Get enough sleep
  • Go to sleep and wake up every day on the same schedule
  • Make the next good choice: “One day at a time; one choice at a time.”
    • Just get out of bed
    • Just put on gym clothes
    • Just get to the gym parking lot
    • Just walk into the gym
    • Just do 5 minutes on the elliptical
  • Go for a walk around the block
  • Commit to go to the gym in the evening instead
  • If you really can’t get there; go in the morning and add 15 minutes to your cardio
Feel stressed and crave ‘comfort food’
  • Decide on replacement comfort food ahead of time
    • Sunbutter on a spoon
    • One piece of bread
    • Fruit
  • Drink a full glass of water first
  • Go for a walk around the block instead
  • Do a round of tai chi instead
  • If you cheat, drink a full glass of water with apple cider vinegar
  • Commit to doing an extra 20 minutes of cardio the next time you are at the gym
Starve?!?!
  • Keep healthy snacks with me at all times
  • Make sure to get enough protein at every meal
  • Eat regular meals
  • Stop what you are doing and eat a healthy snack NOW
  • Adjust how much you eat at your next meal to get full

What might be the benefits of an attempt or partial success?

  • More energy
  • Less depression
  • Lower cholesterol
  • Controlled blood sugar
  • Opportunities to use my personal trainer certification
  • Ideas to help others who might also be struggling with their health
  • More flexibility
  • Less injuries
  • A slimmer, more muscular physique

 

What might be the cost of inaction?

  • A heart attack– like your dad, uncles, and grandfather
  • Stroke– never to be the same again physically or mentally
  • Deprive my girls of a mother
  • Deprive my husband of his wife
  • Worsening depression
  • Additional anxiety
  • Continued weight gain
  • Further exhaustion
  • Increased effects of age exterior and interior
  • Less energy to play with the girls
  • Medical procedures that are not going to be pleasant

 

I feel pretty motivated when I have it all written out in a list, and have something that I can refer to in moments of doubt and disillusionment to remind me why this is a Very Important Thing. Here’s to balance and sustainability, and to a long, happy, healthy life with those whom I love most!

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Extra Ingredients

I’ve taken a little hiatus as we wrapped up the chaos that was the last month of school. The past year of “real” school has been a huge transition and learning experience for all of us. Before this, I homeschooled for three years. Being on someone else’s schedule, following someone else’s rules, and accepting someone else’s idea of lesson plans and curriculum was an enormous challenge for me. But we made it, and in the end we all came through smiling.

Now that summer is upon us, I have resumed my homeschool mom ways. We have a weekly schedule, we have read aloud time, math lessons for my oldest, reading lesson for my youngest, and beginning this week– cooking lessons for everyone.

I think one of the fool proof ways to ensure your children are lifelong learners is to let them see YOU constantly learning, constantly trying new things, and yes, let them see you fail and laugh and get back up again and to get back on that horse.

The girls have been fascinated with their mama’s (ahem) “adventures” in the kitchen, and they have been begging to get involved. I knew that was going to to be too much (for me, at least) while we were still precariously balancing all the school obligations, extracurriculars, and hours of homework, but now that summer is in full swing, I’m ready for Cate’s Cooking Class to commence.

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In med school, my sister was given an important adage that I think applies to learning of all kinds. In order to really grasp a new procedure, the formula for a student doctor is: “Watch one, do one, teach one.” Since I am in the presence of the master of culinary greatness, my husband, The Bearded Chef. I have observed a diverse range of dishes being prepared and perfected. As you may know from previous posts, I have managed to dip my toe in the water of preparing some dishes of my own, and now I feel like the time has come to add a pinch of pandemonium to the kitchen and start helping my kiddos learn more about kitchen basics and beyond.

My greatest aspiration is to help them enjoy the process of attempts, failures, and improvements, and hopefully I can add a few life skills to their toolboxes in the process, and we’ll all improve our cooking along the way!

 

Starting to Go Off Script

After reading Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma, I stopped eating meat. I plan to flesh out (pardon the pun) more about this book and that choice in a future post. For now, I will say that I no longer felt like I could believe in the choices that I had been making thinking them ethical, because of the shady labeling practices that most food companies use. Until I could do more research, I didn’t want to risk eating animals that were not well cared for during their lives.

As a once (and little did I know then, future) vegetarian, I had remembered a few recipes that were very basic and filled me up, but not many, so I began pouring over cookbooks and websites to find new ideas. One that I found first in the bookstore and later visited the website was Love and Lemons. To my delight, the author was a fellow Austinite. I became intrigued by several recipes, and when I came across one for veggie enchiladas, I was inspired. I’m slowly, slowly learning to do my own thing. I’ve learned to trust my own tastebuds and not measuring spoons when it comes to seasoning, and I felt ready to branch farther out, and make substitutions with what I had in my kitchen already.

I used the leftover half of a spaghetti squash sitting in my fridge with a can of black beans as the enchilada filling. I wasn’t entirely sure how that was going to pair, but I figured that since I liked both things, it would all turn out right. Along with a little seasoning, and some Mexican cheese blend, I wrapped up the filling into corn tortillas and arranged them into two separate pans.

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For the first pan, I made Love and Lemon’s adobo sauce recipe for my husband. Now me personally? I think adobo sauce tastes exactly like bandaids smell, so in deference to my probably overly picky palate, I topped the second pan with a Hatch green chili verde sauce. Next I rained down the rest of the Mexican cheese blend and decorated the top with sliced fresh jalapeño.

Into the oven they went until the most glorious smells filled the kitchen. They came out amazingly, if I do say so myself!

adobo.jpg

Eric loved his adobo, the girls delighted in both flavors, and my littlest culinary adventurer even asked for more jalapeños! She’s definitely my mini-me, inside and out. I was pretty darn proud of my verde version and indulged in an extra helping once I’d polished off the first plate. Thumbs up all around!

A girl could get used to following her own flavor whims!

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And Other Lies

When I started Cate Can’t Cook, it was because I was an absolute disaster in the kitchen. Most of my forays into food have ended in culinary disaster and tears, if not fire. Just the question “Mom, what’s for dinner?” fills me to brimming with existential dread and leaves me reaching for the car keys, to find a faster solution. Healthy food is really important to me and it’s incredibly hard to find that if you are headed to the nearest drive-thru or TexMex joint. I wanted to try to do better for my family, though I knew it would be a huge sacrifice on my energy and my ego to attempt to cook something more difficult than a box of mac n cheese. Taking my husband’s favorite saying to heart “Failing to plan is planning to fail,” I spent time researching food prep and cooking skills, but I knew I also needed to address the biggest hurdle, my own self doubt. I took a good hard look at what helps me relax, what helps me to learn, and realized that I would have to find a way past my own criticism and fear of failing. I love to diffuse tension (especially my own) with laughter, and it gives me great joy to have people laugh along with me. So I began documenting my kitchen disasters here. It helped me keep everything in perspective. It helped me be less self-critical. And it helped me to accept failures as opportunities.

fall

Ever so slowly, I began to notice that the disasters grew less frequent and less appetite ruining. And one day I found myself not only creating my own recipe after being inspired by one that I’d read, but cooking something that delighted my family without burning any of the food or myself. It was a proud feeling to know that I had cooked something healthy and delicious for my family that everyone enjoyed. I didn’t feel overly stressed. I didn’t feel embarrassed to set this meal on the table. I didn’t feel frustrated that I’d made something else the kids wouldn’t even try. (Yes, I’ll be sharing this recipe soon!)

enchiladas.jpg

Cooking is still not one of my charisms. I have to work hard to create in the kitchen without getting sidelined by mistakes. I’m not sure that it will ever be something that I love, but it has reminded me of something important. Everything takes a willingness to fail, often repeatedly, and it also takes practice, practice, and more practice. I’ve been learning so much about food and nutrition, and I hope to continue to do so, but I don’t want to stop there. I want to carry these lessons into doing what I love so much, which is learning new things. And I want to continue to tell a good story about all the fun and failure along the way.

So I hope y’all will continue to laugh along with me as I discover more lies I believed before I tried.

tothefuture

My Empty Cup

Mea culpa! I have sorely neglected this little space. I wish I had a more interesting excuse or at least a neat and tidy resolution, but the truth is, y’all, sometimes your cup overflows and other times it is drained to the dregs.

emptycup

I came down with some weird throat and respiratory virus that lingered for 2 weeks. The doc said it looked awful, but it wasn’t strep. It seemed to exacerbate what had already been taking me out at the knees– extreme exhaustion.

After about three months of steadily worsening symptoms, I finally called the doc to get some blood work done. In the meantime, I tried all the things: Cutting out all sugar (Ten days of this just made me more tired and depressed to boot). I added sugar back in (I wasn’t less tired, but I was definitely happier). I started drinking green smoothies at least 4 days a week (not a sacrifice, I love a good spinach and berry smoothie). I began monitoring my water intake attempting to get at least 80oz a day (I officially know where all the restrooms in town are). I draaaaaaaagged myself to the gym (okay so far, I only made it 3 days last week, but it’s a start!)

When my blood work came back- it was flawless. I don’t think I’ve ever had a better A1C level in my entire life. My thyroid looks healthy. My iron levels are spot on. Which is fabulous… except that it really doesn’t get me any closer to figuring out what is wrong. However, just as I slowly sunk down to this level of exhaustion, I seem to be just as slowly regaining some energy and strength. Bodies are weird.

So, I apologize for the long hiatus, but I’m thrilled to finally feel energetic and clear-headed enough to start filling up this space with more adventures, and I’ve been saving up new dishes and new disasters, not to mention more than a few tasty books!

Kitchen Skills

On the same ill-fated bookstore trip in which I discovered not only do otherwise westernized people eat reptiles and amphibians, they actually wrote a whole book of recipes about it, I also came across something from The Great Courses. If you haven’t seen these before, and you are addicted to learning new things like I am, I highly recommend them. I have several courses on history and science topics that are pretty amazing. (I know– Nerd alert!) It’s like getting to go back to college lectures without worrying about all that pesky homework (ie- my version of heaven). This particular course was entitled “The Everyday Gourmet: Rediscovering the Lost Art of Cooking,” and it was a STEAL! Basically a quarter of the normal price AND I had a coupon… not that I’m completely obsessed with getting bargains (lies. totally obsessed).

GreatCourse

I settled in a night later to watch the first couple of lessons. Sure, the graphics were a little, shall we say– ’90s, and maybe I was a little snarky about the chef’s exuberance (because my own Bearded Chef agreed to watch them with me, and I just love to make him laugh), but I soon settled in and began to learn. The first lesson was mostly a review of the five basic tastes: sweet, sour, bitter, salty, and umami (which is basically a savory flavor). Then the chef began to discuss the importance of knowing how these basic tastes, interact with each other and which will bring out the best in others. It was probably quite simple, but I found it an important reminder. The next lesson was on basic skills.

For as long as my husband has been cooking in our kitchen, I have teased him mercilessly about how many little ramekins and other containers he uses while he cooks. I’ve told people that he uses more accoutrements than a Food Network show. The second lesson had me eating my words! The chef discussed the importance of mise en place. I love some well-placed French, don’t you? (Pun intended). Mise en place basically means putting everything in its place. Further it means organizing and arranging your ingredients, so that they are easily accessible as you prepare a dish. I had always thought those televised cooking shows were just creating food for the eyes, and that may be part of it, but as the chef explained more, I found myself truly appreciating the meticulous set up that my husband constantly creates in our kitchen. I also realized that this lack of preparation on my part is probably why things get chaotic and steps get missed when I attempt to fix even the simplest of dishes. The lesson also involved knife skills. Once again my husband was vindicated as the chef explained the exact chopping technique that Eric had attempted to show me so many times.

I was excited to try out my new skills and a couple of nights later. I pulled out my recipe for a vegetarian curry and read the directions carefully (see, every teacher since kindergarten, I can do it if I want to!)

curry

And slowly (oh so frustratingly slowly) practiced my knife skills as I created my mise en place. I chopped the spaghetti squash, the turnip, and finally the carrot. I learned in the knife skills lesson, that an important part of chopping vegetables is to be very uniform. If the pieces are not the same size, then they will not all cook at the same rate and then you’ll have some over and some under cooked. Doing this with carrots is tricky, because they are naturally thick to thin. Enter the roll cut. I learned that if you cut at an angle and then turn the carrot 180 degrees as you cut, you end up with more evenly sized pieces, and that the unique shape gives them more surface area for a better cook. It took me ages, but I was pretty proud of the outcome. Look at those beginning to border on almost being the same sized root veggie pieces. Ha! I’m trying here, y’all!

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I was so excited by the Instagrammy goodness of my veggies, that I set up a whole other plate for the seasonings. At this point, my gracious husband exclaimed: “See? SEE?!” Before God and this whole blogosphere of three, I proclaim: My husband was right. I was wrong.

This ONE time.

I should also confess at this point that beautiful mise en place is much easier to embrace when you know someone else is doing the dishes. Thanks, honey!

mise

I was feeling pretty fantastic. The veggies were roasting in the oven. The curry was simmering and filling the house with delicious smells. Nothing had caught fire or burnt up. Clearly this whole mise en place thing was the magic that was missing from my kitchen life.

The oven timer went off and I checked on the veggies. I consulted with Eric, who said they probably needed a little more time. I hit the cancel button on the stove interface to reset the timer. Nothing happened. I punched it harder. Nothing. The timer went off again (as it does every minute until you turn it off). I punched the clock, the timer, and then the off button to the oven. Nothing. I couldn’t turn the oven off!

Eric came over and began pushing buttons at random with no more success. We decided to just turn the thing off from the breaker. All the kitchen lights when out. When flipped back on, the oven remained in the same state- permanently stuck at over 400 degrees. We tried punching more buttons. Then back to the breakers two more times. Suddenly, I smelled it. Burning. Ach!! In the chaos of trying to fix the oven, I had been blocking out the timer that kept shrilling one minutes at a time.

The top pan of veggies seemed unscathed, but the bottom baking sheet contained decidedly (ahem) “blackened” fare. Eric gave a fierce punch to the off button and suddenly, off it went. Thanks for that, oven. Strong work.

In the end, I plated the less carbon-charred veggies over the curry, and Eric quite enjoyed it. I felt that it lacked complementary seasoning to help give the curry flavors more depth, but decided that the fact I could taste that difference was proof that I was learning more about this whole cooking thing. I’ll take the wins where I can get them.

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