How a Christmas present gave me all of the confidence I needed in the kitchen.

By Bridget Hallinan
August 08, 2019
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I grew up surrounded by people who could cook. Food was our love language, an expression of affection that went beyond nourishment and, instead, was a uniting force. Our kitchen was always tinged with the rich, grassy smell of simmering olive oil and garlicky homemade green pesto; when we visited my grandparents in Vermont, my grandfather would patiently sit with me and show me how to make delicate crêpe-like Swedish pancakes for breakfast—slathered in butter, of course. It all came to a peak during the holidays, when my mom, grandmother, and I would gather around the flour-dusted island and roll out dozens of gingerbread cookies, piped with delicate white buttons. Halloween and Easter had their own cookies, too—I particularly liked frosting the glossy orange pumpkins, with little stems I’d bite off as soon as they came out of the oven.

Yet for all the passionate home cooks in my family, I wasn’t as confident myself. I’d dabbled in cheesecakes here and there, and could definitely whip up an impressive panini. But spices? Sauces? Making roux and searing steak? The knowledge was there, but I wasn't sure I could execute it—at least on my own. After all, I was a reformed picky eater, so much of my childhood was spent “cooking” boxed mac n’ cheese for myself and throwing mozzarella sticks in the oven. I took small steps as I grew up, joining my mom in making pizza chiena (read: Italian meat pie) every Easter, frying zucchini flowers, and, one mind bogglingly-brave time, daring to attempt Crêpes Suzette, which yielded pleasantly surprising results. When I was in college living on my own, I taught myself the basics and found plenty of recipes I was comfortable with. Still, I wasn’t totally at home in the kitchen—until a Christmas present two years ago gave me the push I needed.

Courtesy of Amazon

I tore apart the wrappings to reveal a book—Half Baked Harvest Cookbook: Recipes from My Barn in the Mountains. It was the debut cookbook from Tieghan Gerard, who runs the popular (we're talking 847k Instagram followers, popular) blog Half Baked Harvest, loaded with creative recipes. I’d never heard of her before, but the cover struck me right away—a take on a steak shawarma bowl, packed with avocado slices, feta cheese, cherry tomatoes, sweet potato fries, flank steak, and bright red pepper hummus. My next thought was immediate and resounding. I needed to make this. There was no doubt, or wistfulness—only a burning excitement, which would soon burgeon into me making an entire career out of my love for food. The flame didn’t die after the goodbyes had wrapped up that night, or even after we’d made it home to settle in our living room. Instead, I made a beeline for the armchair and curled up with the book spread across my lap, eagerly leafing through the recipes and adding bookmarks for later. “Zucchini and roasted corn pizza,” I called out to my parents. “No, wait! Pumpkin and oregano-butter gnocchi.” Each flavor combination sounded more irresistible than the next—and it was all described in Gerard’s approachable, friendly voice, which immediately made me feel less intimidated. 

Half Baked Harvest Cookbook: Recipes from My Barn in the Mountains, $23 (list price $30) at amazon.com

After about a week of reading my way from breakfast to dessert and back again, I’d found my launching pad—Miso Beef and Ramen Noodle Peanut Stir-Fry. I’d never had regular ramen soup, let alone a stir-fry version, so I was in unfamiliar territory. But I knew that if I pulled this dish off, it would give me the encouragement I needed to pursue my curiosity and shake off any lingering kitchen anxiety. Reader, it wasn’t perfect—I had trouble operating our electric wok, definitely overcooked the steak, and grew more exasperated than I’d care to admit when I was preparing the sauce. But when I spooned the noodles into three bowls and topped each with two slices of perfectly soft-boiled eggs, it hit me. I’d done it. I’d cooked an elaborate, impressive dinner all on my own, and it was pretty damn good. The sauce was rich; the flavor, complex, and perfectly complemented by the richness of the egg yolk. My parents raved about the meal in a way I knew wasn’t just moral support. I was triumphant, I was proud, I was confident. And it was only the beginning.

Bridget Hallinan

The more I cooked, the more my curiosity grew. Cuban Mojo Pulled Pork Tacos were up next, followed by the zucchini and corn pizza—I also found a Ginger-Miso Roasted Eggplant side dish that’s become a regular in my dinner rotations. Commanding the kitchen was beginning to feel like a source of comfort rather than insecurity, something I lived and breathed. And with the success I got from Half Baked Harvest, I was hungry to find even more cookbooks to resonate with. My collection, formerly comprised of one book, has multiplied to dozens—friends and family tease me from time to time for the strain I’ve put on our shelves, but I can’t help it. I have this insatiable, burning desire to find my next meal—be it a simple pasta from Missy Robbins, or a sheet pan meatloaf from Let’s Stay In by Ashley Rodriguez (aka Not Without Salt). I’ll also scroll through Instagram, look up restaurant menus, and read blogs—even go rogue, boldly experimenting with ingredients in a way I could never have imagined myself doing before.

Yes, there are times where I get sick of cooking. I’m often too tired to whip out the cutting board, and get frustrated when I feel uninspired. But every so often, I’ll spot that shawarma bowl peeking out at me from the kitchen shelf—and the flame burns once more, as though it never left.

Half Baked Harvest Cookbook: Recipes from My Barn in the Mountains, $23 (list price $30) at amazon.com

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