A year ago in December 2020, I made a goal to cook a 100 new dishes in a year. Here’s what I learned from the process.
1. Most of what I cook is yellow and brown.
I love me that Maillard reaction…either something’s up with my camera or I have a penchant for cooking yellow-brown foods. I probably need more vegetables in my diet.
2. Not all recipes are created equal.
When I buy ingredients and devote the prep time to make a new dish, it raises my anticipation for a delicious meal. It’s awesome when all the effort churns out something yummy. On the flip side, it’s devastating when it’s a bust. I try reminding myself to use the experience to avoid future mishaps, but it still puts me in a “heavy-sigh” loop.
I cook referring to a variety of sources from big institutions like NYT Cooking, Food52, America’s Test Kitchen to independent chefs like Marc Matsumoto (norecipes.com), Pai Chongchitnant (hotthaikitchen.com) and Elle (cookeru.com).
Some sources more consistently provide clear instructions and delicious ratios than others. NYT Cooking has yet to disappoint and I find once I make a dish from an independent chef I like, I’ll probably enjoy a majority of their dishes.
3. Cooking from recipes is slow.
It may be because I’m still a noob, but I prefer cooking a recipe the first time as written and then adjusting afterwards on the second or third run. This makes the process a bit slower than I would like because I’m double-checking everything. I’ve made the mistake of confusing teaspoon with tablespoon one too many times.
4. Factor cleaning up as part of the process
Like any DIY project on the internet that seems cool to try, there’re usually invisible steps to the process. Every cooking practice comes with a cleaning practice. My cooking aspiration was possible because of my wife, the patient unsung hero who cleaned up after my messes in the kitchen.
For this reason, one pot dishes, Instapot, air fryer, and sheet pan recipes are the way to go for at least weekday cooking. Always factor cleanup into the equation when deciding what to cook.
5. Most cookbook recipes are difficult to follow
I love the promise of cookbooks but the lack of reviews and notes is an added obstacle. When something is a bit unclear, videos are helpful. I wish there were more people who cooked from cookbooks and documented the issues they came across in the recipe. Even highlighting which recipes are worth trying out can be invaluable. This has sparked a seed of an idea for me to possibly try this for a couple recipes on YouTube to see how I like the process.
6) It’s more fun to cook without recipes.
I cooked several of the 100 dishes more than once throughout this year. As I grew more comfortable with a recipe, I could adjust the taste as needed and that’s when I felt the joy of cooking.
As I said above, cooking with recipes is slow (at least for me) and makes the process feel a little confined. I don’t feel comfortable enough to riff on things I’ve never made before, but when I avoid measurements and just cook with ingredients in the fridge, it feels like dancing to a good song. The more I can learn to cook confidently without recipes, the more likely I’ll sustain a cooking habit.
7) Satisfy the Fab 5 to qualify as a lifetime recipe.
From trying out so many different recipes, I uncovered the 5 key expectations a new dish needs to satisfy to get put into the Milani recipe circulation:
1) Healthy | I generally avoid deep-fried and oily foods, but this consideration is more about how does the dish make me feel afterward. Do I feel energized or sluggish?
2) Easy | Are the ingredients easy to get? A dish could have a bunch of ingredients but they all involve pantry items and maybe a couple easy to find fresh ingredients, which would still be relatively easy.
3) Fast | How quickly does everything come together in prep?
4) Low clean-up | Out of consideration for my wife’s time.
5) Delicious | The obvious marker of success when it comes to cooking.
It’s not that I always have to satisfy all of these, but if everyone one of these parameters is met, it’s an obvious keeper.
Personally, I have a difficult time continuing to do something when I don’t feel like it. Working out, cooking, meditating, and anything else that’s probably a healthy human habit are tough to maintain for any extended period of time. Having a project with an arbitrary number of dishes to cook gave me focus and a sense of growth.
I can’t say I loved documenting since it took additional time and work. Presentation is not my strong suit so most of the food looks ‘rustic.’ I was also frustrated to figure out I forgot to take pictures of a handful of recipes. But looking back over the year it’s cool to scroll through everything I made. I even got to hear from the independent chefs whenever I cooked one of their dishes.
I strongly suspect I’d have failed if I didn’t post my progress online. Posting on Instagram made me feel a bit more honest and accountable for what I said I would do.
Looking forward, I’m going to try to do it again. 100 new dishes in a year. This time I have more of a discerning eye for recipes. Maybe I’ll film some to see what all goes into that. Maybe I’ll take better pictures. Who knows. Maybe I’ll get to a 1000 new dishes in 9 years!