January – 2013 Cookbook challenge


January 31, 2013
5:07 p.m.


I stood in the produce section of my local grocery store, scanning basket after basket of peppers and not finding what I was looking for. Great, this was only the first of the 12 cookbook challenges I’d set myself at the New Year, and I was already failing.

As outlined in a previous post, I had vowed to cook a minimum of one recipe a month from one of the many cookbooks in my sadly neglected collection, following said recipe to the letter as a way of broadening my culinary horizons. It was supposed to be easy and fun, and not supposed to find me tearing my hair out at the eleventh hour and questioning my sanity.

I had known exactly which book I wanted to use.


Ironically, the Betty Crocker Cookbook is the one book in my collection that has seen a fair amount of use. It was the first recipe book I ever owned, having been with me since leaving home and landing my own apartment with my very own kitchen for the first time. I might add that this was well before the invention of Google and its ability to pluck hundreds of recipes at a time straight from the ether with a few simple keystrokes. I didn’t even own a computer in those days. Shocking, I know. In spite of the fact that it had seen more action than the rest of my collection combined, Betty Crocker, that amalgamated icon of home cookery, seemed like the perfect way to kick off the challenge.

There was a dinner party planned for the third week of January. I’d committed to bringing a Shepherd’s Pie, and since I had never made the dish before, it seemed only natural to make it my first official 2013 Cookbook Challenge dish. And so my plan had been set. Easy!

One rather large problem: The Betty Crocker Cookbook doesn’t have a Shepherd’s Pie recipe! Or at least my edition doesn’t. Naturally, I discovered this two days before the planned party, three weeks into the month, and far too close to my deadline for comfort.


Original photo by Jim Sabo


“No matter,” I told myself bravely. “Failing to check the book at the start of the month was kind of boneheaded, but all is not lost. Consider this part of the challenge!”

It seemed I would need to choose a new recipe. Scanning my apartment for inspiration, my eyes landed on the fruit bowl and the two mangos lying therein. Perfect! I’d been hoping to find a fun, new recipe that involved mangos. Surely my 15 or so recipe books should yield plenty of dishes that called for their sweet, tropical fruitiness!

Nope. I found exactly two: one that involved slicing the mango and dipping it in a simple sauce (wheeee!), and one recipe for stir fry.

“Cookshelf Thai” by Christine France
Parragon Publishing Copyright 1999 Reprinted with permission

Click to enlarge

Ugh. Stir fry. Stir fry and I have a long history, and the way I tell it, it isn’t good. My dad used to make stir fry all the time when I was growing up, and I would dread every time he pulled the wok out of the cupboard. I don’t know that he was necessarily bad at making stir fries or whether it was just my childish reticence to dive into a bowl almost entirely full of vegetables that turned me off to them. All I know is to this day when I think of stir fry, the words that come to mind are “bland”, limp”, and “greasy”. The thought of making one on purpose seemed almost ludicrous.

And yet there I was. I had one week in which to pull something together; one very busy week full of day jobs and night jobs and chores and coffee dates with friends and all of those other things that come with moving through this life. I had that one life-filled week to decide on a recipe, clean the kitchen, shop for ingredients, and cook, taking pictures and making notes as I went along.

Stir fry it was!

“Alright, then,” I rallied myself with far less energy than previously, “It’s an adventure! Things aren’t working out quite like you wanted, but they will still work out. Just get this done, and then you can move on.”

And so I ended up in the grocery store, straight from work, on the last evening of January, feeling under pressure and far less enthusiastic than when I’d conceived of the original challenge. I was hungry, a little frazzled if I’m honest, and bemoaning this penchant of mine for biting off more than I can chew, but I was still determined to see it through.

Then I realized that not only did this store not carry the small, red chili that the recipe called for, they were also out of chicken thighs.

You know that proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back? This was mine that night. I was missing two whole ingredients, and I had no more time to shop. What would normally be a minor annoyance felt immense while in the combined throes of exhaustion and low blood sugar. I could easily substitute chili flakes for the fresh pepper…

Dried red pepper flakes


…and use some other part of the chicken…,

Boneless, skinless chicken breast


…but that wasn’t the point! I was supposed to follow the recipe to the letter, and now everything was ruined! Silly as it clearly was, I wanted to cry. I wanted to give it all up, drop my shopping basket in the middle of the aisle and walk out of the store, just to spite…well, no one in particular.

Thankfully, the rational side of me took over, propping me up and gently reminding the stroppy 12-year-old girl I was channeling that finishing the challenge at all was the more important point. That voice was right; it usually is. Giving up wasn’t a real option, anyhow. It would have only invited self-doubt to sit on my shoulder and whisper lies to me about how I’m a failure and why this is just one more reason I’ll never amount to anything. (Self-doubt, like self-pity, can be more than a little dramatic.) So I grumbled to myself the entire way to the cash register and half the way to my apartment, but I got my ingredients, and my substitutions, and I headed home to cook.

Here’s the truly beautiful thing about cooking, for me. It doesn’t matter what kind of mood I’m in when I start. I can be frazzled or angry or sad or elated. When I step into the kitchen, I get lost in the catharsis of slicing…

Sliced Red Bell Pepper

Sliced bab corn

Sliced Scallions

and dicing…,

Our star, ladies and gentlemen! (Mango)


…I get wrapped up in the joy of creation, and whatever I’ve felt before mellows. The angst disappears, the elation becomes peace. (Notable exceptions: “Thanksgiving dinner” and/or “Oh crap, guests are due any minute, and I’m half an hour behind!”) True to form, once I arrived home and shook off the dust of the day, unpacked the groceries, got my ingredients ready, and began prepping…,

Smashed garlic about to be mincedA ginger nub about to be shredded
A cup (and change) of snow peasSoy sauce, rice wine, and sesame oil

…the frustration just melted away.

More importantly, I also discovered a truly…


…stir fry.


What a revelation!  It was salty and tangy, not bland like the stir fries of my youth.  The mango brought such a light, lovely note of sweetness to the entire dish, and the veggies really brightened it up, gave it a fresh pop.  To my delight, nothing about it was limp or greasy, and in fact, I craved it for days afterward.  While I may not yet be a convert to the concept of stir fry in general, my mind has been opened, and my heart warmed to the idea.  This recipe, for sure, may need to be added to my regular rotation.

In the end, I may not have made the dish I set out to or used the book I’d originally intended, but I must dub this first challenge a rousing success.  I discovered a recipe I wouldn’t have given a second thought to normally in a book which I clearly have neglected for too long.  What’s more, I was also given a life lesson, an important reminder: we are never truly defeated unless we stop fighting, and sometimes, if we can just make it through the challenge, our reward may very well be peace and deliciousness!

Until next month, be happy, everybody!


Recipe from Cookshelf Thai part of Parragon Books’ range of Love Food cookbooks.




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