Don’t be afraid. Cooking is a friendly auntie, inviting you into her kitchen and giving you permission to play as you will. Take her up on the offer.
Short of 1) burning something to a crisp and setting off all the smoke alarms in your house; 2) ignoring common sense and sickening your guests with raw meat juice-laced foods; or 3) mistaking the salt for the sugar in batch of cookies, there are very few food screw-ups that can’t be fixed or forgiven. If you overcook the broccoli, throw it in a blender with some broth, spices, and cream, then call it soup. If your veggie burgers end up being 14 different sizes and shapes, serve them family style and pat yourself on the back for giving your guests a choice.
This approach might strike you as flippant, or over-simplified. It should. Learning how to cook is mostly about attitude. If you are willing to try, forgive your own culinary mistakes, and take in the details of what’s going on – how ridiculously sweet those green peas are, the smell that fills the kitchen as you sauté onions and garlic, how soft flour feels in your hands – then magically, cooking becomes familiar, manageable, maybe even fun. If you’re terrified from the get-go, though, the food will know it and misbehave on purpose.
If you’re really lost, it might be worthwhile to try a short, inexpensive, hands-on cooking class offered by local co-ops, grocery stores, and food clubs. Sometimes they’ll center around a technique (like braising) that can be used to make a variety of dishes, while others guide participants through creating a whole dish or meal. Go with friends and make an afternoon or evening of it.
Another way to help take the edge off the fear of cooking, especially with local ingredients, is to ask farmers at the market for simple veggie prep ideas. They eat this stuff all the time and have come up with ridiculously quick and tasty ways to prepare their harvest. For instance, I never would have thought to put a fava bean or half-head of radicchio brushed with oil on the grill if Spencer from Half Pint Farm hadn’t told me to do it. Both were amazing.
Finally, ask friends for the recipe when you find a dish you like. It’s easier to make something when you know how it’s supposed to turn out versus translating a ridiculous recipe from a cookbook and wondering if what you’re doing is correct. Added bonus: you can always call the friend behind the recipe if something is confusing or questionable. And when in doubt, make it up. The finished dish could be awful, or it could be the best new delicacy anyone has ever tasted. Just give it a try.