Saturday, March 20, 2010

My Graduation Speech

As you can probably tell from the lag between Day 365 and this entry, I'm in denial about ending this project. It's been such a fun and jam-packed year of cooking and talking/thinking about cooking that I'm finding it hard to let it go! But as every student must do when his education is complete, I proceed.

When I think about the things I've learned, the benefits I've received from spending this year in Martha Stewart's Cooking School, I don't even know where to begin, so I've created some random categories to help bring order to my thoughts.

What I've learned about cooking:

I'm not going to lie. Yes, I cooked everything in the book. But could I recreate everything in the book without using the book? No way. I have learned and had the experience of performing many cooking techniques this past year, but I am still a cook who needs a recipe/directions. It would take repeating these recipes over and over again, or studying and memorizing proportions and timings and temperatures to be able to whip them out with no notice.

Some things I have picked up along the way, though:

I have cooking instincts now! I know that a recipe is working or if it's not working. I know what to do to get it closer to the desired result. I know that it needs more salt, or it needs to be hotter, or it needs to be reduced, or it needs more water. And that's a big plus in the kitchen.

I have a new appreciation for lemon juice and lemon zest (fresh, of course). I used to ignore lemons completely, but now I know what a big lift a dish can get from a last minute shpritz from a lemon.

While we're on the subject, I have an appreciation for fresh herbs, too. There was never a day this year when I didn't have one herb or another in my fridge. What a difference from dried herbs - really, no comparison. As different as raw meat and dried meat.

I know now how important it is to be prepared before I start cooking, to have read the recipe a few times, to have as much laid out as possible, to really understand the concept of the cooking process.

What I've learned about entertaining:

I really enjoy it! I like feeding people. (I am Jewish, after all.) I also like bringing people together, friends or strangers, causing conversation and creating relatedness. Sharing a meal is a perfect backdrop for this, and I'm happy to be the host.

Entertaining is not as hard as I think it's going to be. And even if it is hard, it's worth it, for reasons mentioned above.

People are much more forgiving than I am of myself. The worst food I served this year was still met with a smile and a thank you. No one spit anything out, no one stormed out screaming or crying or vomiting, my greatest failures were mostly in my head.

There's nothing a little olive butter can't fix. What I mean by that is, everybody has their own likes and dislikes, some people won't eat this, some never eat that, but it seems like everyone loves fresh bread and is inexplicably dazzled by olive butter. So always serve bread and olive butter, and no one will go home hungry/unhappy.

The best recipes for entertaining are the ones that don't require major fussing and managing as serving time draws near. (Frankly, I'm not sure when it's a good time to cook those....) In the future, I'll choose dishes that are either mostly done by the time the guests arrive or take only minutes to prepare just before serving.

Having too much food is so much better than not having enough. Too much = leftovers. Too little = embarrassing.

What I've learned about taking on projects:

Anything is possible.

Declaring a project openly and blogging about it is a great way to put myself on the line for finishing it. I can have an idea for something that I want to do, but unless I've declared it, it's going to be really tempting/easy to quit the second it becomes annoying or something else comes up. By taking on this blog, I didn't give myself an out. And even though there were times that little jeff wanted to walk away, Big Jeff knew that there was something to be gained from doing it completely.

It's a good practice to expand the limits of one's comfort zone. If I hadn't, I wouldn't have gotten all the benefits listed here.

What I've learned about blogging:

Blogging is a big undertaking. Being responsible for writing/journaling on a regular basis is time-consuming, especially when you're neurotic about grammar and spelling like I am. Also, getting the layout right was complicated, finding places for the photos so that the text laid out nicely around them. Sometimes I'd have to edit an entry 10-12 times before it looked right.

But again, no blog, no accountability. So the blogging was what had me finish it.

What I've learned about myself:

I like entertaining, feeding people, hosting meals.

I like cooking.

I like following directions, i.e. recipes. (Unlike other people who resist/hate using recipes.)

I like lemon.

I don't hate okra.

I still hate peppers.

My new(ish) apartment lends itself really well to dinner parties.

What I forgot about myself:

What did I eat before 3/17/2009? With the leftovers slowly disappearing, it was time to shop for food yesterday. And without a shopping list in hand at Fairway, I stood there, stupefied. Eventually, I had a vague recollection of eating fresh fruit with cottage cheese and yogurt. Right....

Why I'm glad I did it:

I ate really well for a year.

I accumulated lots of interesting kitchenware.

I developed a cook's intuition.

I got to hang out with and feed a lot of amazing people.

Even with all the purchased kitchenware and groceries and feeding many people, I think I ended up spending less on food this past year than I have in past years of eating out/ordering in.

It gave me a mission, a goal, something to talk about.

And last but not least, I met Martha Stewart and got a private lesson from her on her show!!

What I'm going to do next:

I'm not sure yet. Maybe a project around writing. Maybe a continuation of this, possibly blogging once a month with recipes from the MSLO magazines.

Order in.

Write a musical or two.

Perform in Anyone Can Whistle in just a few weeks!

FYI, I just scheduled my first post-Jeff and Martha dinner party for next Wednesday. And I get to cook whatever I/we want!

Big Confession

There is one lesson in the book that I did not do: How to Clean a Soft-Shell Crab, and it's not for lack of trying.

You may remember that soft-shell crab season sneaked by without my finding soft-shell crabs. Fairway never had any, and I didn't know that Chinatown was a good resource until I had already ordered frozen ones, which incidentally come pre-cleaned.

The day I saw fresh soft-shell crabs in Chinatown, I had forgotten about having to do this lesson, so I didn't buy any. And I haven't seen them since, there or anywhere else. At my cream puff graduation party the other day, I was talking about this issue, and Adinah said "I saw some at Chelsea Market," and I got all excited. But I checked, and it turns out they only sell frozen ones there. At least at this time of year.

So even though my project is done, and I feel complete about that, I'm going to do one final entry when I can get my hands on a dirty (i.e. fresh) soft-shell crab that can be cleaned.

Or maybe Martha can teach me how to clean one on her show!!

In Conclusion

It's my hope that people will be inspired by my journey to:
  • Take on a similar project
  • Entertain more
  • Cook more
  • Challenge themselves
  • Use my blog as a resource before setting off to cook a recipe from this cookbook
  • Check my blog as a curiosity after cooking a recipe from this cookbook

And I hope that people will continue to discover the blog and post comments, even though my year is complete.

It's been a pleasure sharing my odyssey with you all, and I thank you for reading and commenting and being my inspiration for finishing, whether you knew it or not.

Until we eat again....


  1. Jeff,

    Congratulations from snowy Chicago and thanks for sharing the adventure with all of us. You are a braver man than I.

    I've truly enjoyed reading about your year-long self-study cooking school. (Even if I don't like okra! (sacrilege in my Texas family)) :-)

    Enjoy getting to cook what you want!

    If you are looking for another cookbook to try out, I'm a huge fan of one from a while back..."Bistro Cooking" by Patricia Wells. She's strong on quality ingredients and simple, hearty food.

    Well done!

    Have fun as Treasurer Cooley! I wish I could be in NYC that week!

  2. Congratulations Jeff!! I'm so happy for and proud of you for taking on such a huge challenge and for completing it so beautifully. And thanks for cooking me some wonderful meals. :)

    Happy Graduation!

  3. Jeff! I just want to congratulate you and thank you for keeping me thoroughly entertained this past year (or since you told me about it in October...)! I'm so inspired by your dedication, mister.



  4. Jeff, with this blog you have revolutionized my attitudes toward and my practice of cooking and entertaining. Friday night it was steamed fish en papillote for five happy friends and Charles. It was fun to make - interesting, challenging, and even relaxing. The timing didn't work, but that was entertaining for our friends, and it finally came out great! I will continue to check your blog before tackling any new dish - it's such a valuable resource. Thank you, my dear friend, for opening this whole new world to me.

  5. Oh! And for starters I made your highly-rated Indian-Spiced Split Pea Soup (for the second time). Fab!

  6. Congrats on a great blog. I really enjoyed reading it and seeing all of your friends enjoying the fruits and vegetables of your labor. What's next? Martha's Cookie Book?

  7. Thanks, you all!

    Michael, I'm not even remotely considering another cookbook project right now, but I appreciate the recommendation. :-)

    David, thanks for posting and for donating so many of your cheat meals to my project.

    Gretchen, thanks for the sweet acknowledgment! I didn't realize you were reading along!!

    Annie, I love that you're cooking again and getting how gratifying it can be! Go, girl!

    Carmie, thanks! If I did the Cookie Book next, then my project after that would have to be going on The Biggest Loser! :-O

  8. Jeff Thank You for taking on such a great project! I didn't know about the blog until your visit to Martha's kitchen, and I've really enjoyed reading along since then. It's going to be fun [& definitely educational] to go back to the beginning for the entire My Year of Cooking Fabulously! Thanks again for all the inspiration!!

  9. Congratulations! And, it looks like you have some really amazing upcoming endeavors!

  10. I stumbled across this and wow. Thank you for a powerful beginning, a powerful ending, and a middle that is full of yummy surprises. I saw you on MS, and screamed at the TV.

    Sometimes I do that.

    Much much love.


  11. Congratulations Jeff! I will still be talking about your blog over on my blog so I hope people continue to stop by! I just reached the 6 month mark in my project and I am so with you on the blog keeping one accountable! Without it I wouldn't have made it this far! ANd as for the editing of posts... it really should take as long as it does... why can't the computer just duplicate what I have in my head???

    Anyway I have really enjoyed the entire thing and am sad I won't have new episodes to read each week. I look forward to seeing everything new you come up with!

    Congratulations again!
    Outrageous joy,

  12. You amaze me. I LOVE LOVE LOVE this blog!! What an incredible journey. Wonderful!!!!!!! Congratulations graduate :)

  13. What a wonderful year long excursion into the uncharted territory in supermarkets that most people never explore known as "food that actually needs to be prepared." I've enjoyed reading about your trials and your triumphs, and cheered for you when you took the 'on camera master class' (that's what I call your appearance on the Martha Stewart show).

    Your journey of self discovery, in which you've uncovered what's undoubtedly one really terrific scrabble word (Spatchcock!!), has been highly entertaining, and written so well I could practically taste EVERYTHING!

    I can't wait to see what adventure you COOK up for yourself next!! (Sorry, couldn't resist).

    Who knew when I was busy cackling in a black cape in that junior high production of Curly McDimple that I had appeared on stage with a man who would single handedly conquer 365 Days of Martha!! You go, JEFF!!

    KUDOS :)