Monthly Archives: July 2010

Learning to Cook, Part 2

Determined to never again serve “booger food”, I searched out recipes for healthy side dishes.  I collected piles of recipes from magazine, the newspaper and the internet.  We lived close to an historic farmer’s market, which I jogged to a few times a week in search of food.  The Market is one of my favorite places in the city – I salivated over plump blueberries, gorgeous bouquets, and perfectly fresh salmon.  I’d fill my backpack with food – whatever the recipe called for – and powerwalk up the long hill home.

One week, an advertisement in a weekly alternative newspaper caught my eye.  It was a coupon for a new organic produce delivery.  I was into organic food – mostly for environmental reasons – and decided to take advantage of the deal.  Every other week a box of assorted fruits and veggies would arrive to our building.  I had some room to substitute certain items, but for the most part, the weekly delivery was a grab bag.  In other words, exciting!

I encountered foods I already loved and many I’d never had before:  kale, beets, winter squash, blood oranges.   Our produce came with explanatory notes, storage tips and recipes.  The company was aware that most of their customers were, like me, unfamiliar with how to prepare, cook, and store real food (e.g.: carrot tops should be removed before you put them in the fridge; otherwise they’ll get floppy).  I learned that beets were better peeled after they’re cooked.  (Not to mention crazy delicious – nothing like the weird canned beets of salad bar notoriety.)  Pumpkin pie could be made from, get this, actual pumpkins!  It was a treat to be have all this goodness delivered, but also a challenge to figure out how to use it before it spoiled.  Lucky for me, I work best under pressure.

With my fridge full of fresh food, I sought out recipes and found some favorites.  As I’d always known, I loved to cook.  And there wasn’t much to it:  just follow recipes.  Some recipes, I noticed, gave some flexibility:  salads, stir fries, fruit-filled baked goods.  I normally resisted substitutions (it made me nervous), but realizing there was a framework to work within allowed me to break free and utilize both my creativity and the local bounty.  I started to see that recipes were based on formulas.  Once you learn what tastes great together, what takes the same amount of time to cook, you can use what you have or crave to create something unique.  I slowly developed a repertoire.  Our meals were still skimpy on the protein.  I relied on boneless, skinless chicken breasts  (BSCBs), tofu, and salmon, mostly.

By studying recipes, learning to cook whole foods (eschewing things in packaging, using fresh produce), and tentatively testing the waters of substitution, my cooking skills improved.  My first Thanksgiving as a wife was a blast.  Determined to serve all the holiday dishes we’d both grown up with (I in the South, he in New England), I cooked an even more ridiculous amount of food than I would have otherwise.

Clockwise from Top: Dirty Rice, Oyster Dressing, Mashed Potatoes, Pumpkin Pie, Green Bean Casserole, Asparagus Casserole, Sweet Potato Patties, Cranberry Sauce. Center: Roast Turkey Breast, Yeast Rolls. To Drink: Honey Mead, San Pellegrino, Some Sort of Red Wine

That’s for two people, folks.  I cooked all day.  I cooked so much (for P.F. and I) that he had to plug in a mini-fridge for all the leftovers.

My interest in organic agriculture led to an awareness of local, seasonal eating.  I am still amazed at how long I’d been eating, cooking, and caring about the environment before I realized that enjoying strawberries in January wasn’t natural.   A book I came to love,Simply in Season, became indispensable.  A Farmer’s Market opened in our neighborhood (we’d bought a house) and I realized it was my favorite place on earth.  I experimented with canning and preserving food, first turning the wild blackberries that grow on any vacant space here into jam.  I made just about every kind of fruit cobbler, pie, and sweet bread you can imagine.  Baking became my specialty.  A friend who baked bread regularly, encouraged me to make bread-baking a weekly occurance.  It really didn’t take much time and kneading felt good.

I bought a lot of tofu.  We probably had tofu and multi-vegetable stir fry once a week.  This is due, mostly, to my continuing trouble with meat.  I don’t know what was so intimidating about it.  It just seemed too easy to mess up.  Too bloody.  Tofu was easy.  And crazy-healthy, I thought.  I cooked meat on holidays (turkey, duck) and steak for Dave’s birthday.  Eventually, salmon became a frequent treat.  That was as easy as BSCB’s, except quicker and much tastier.

We’d been doing a lot of reading about sustainable, simple living.  The DIY aspect of growing and cooking one’s food appealed to me.  I often thought, “How can I make this myself?”, “How can we skip the packaging?”  We turned our rocky, tiny yard into a rocky, tiny garden.  I started out with a potted cherry tomato plant, but soon (as I am wont to do) planted every square foot.  It was (and is) too shaded, and rarely produced more than snack-sized servings, but I wanted to make the most of what we had. I absolutely relish the chances I have to dig in the dirt.  To put tiny seeds in the ground and harvest actual food as a result never ceases to seem miraculous.

Wanting to ensure goodness for The Boy, who’d come along by then, I took on the task of making his first foods.  Now that a growing little person was dependent on me to provide good stuff for him to grow on, I got even more serious.  Eventually, PH bought me a grain grinder for my birthday.  Obviously, milling one’s own flour is crossing some sort of threshold into health nut/survivalist territory.  I was into the arm workout, too (it’s human-powered).

I thought I had pretty much fully evolved as the family cook.  I cooked mostly local, organic foods for my family.  I was a sucker for sweet baked treats, but kept things low fat for the most part.  In mid-2009, I was hit with another paradigm shift about eating and cooking.  In Part 3, I’ll share how a cookbook recommended by my midwife blew my mind.

Learning to Cook: Part 1

I’m always dismayed when I hear others say they “can’t cook”.  Or worse, “hate cooking”.  Back in the mid 20th century, I suppose, women were “liberated” from their kitchens, “freed” to go to work so they could pay someone else to cook for them.  Even now, on certain AM radio stations, “get back in the kitchen” is an insult used against women in office by sexist blowhards.  As more and more women spent less and less time in the kitchen, real cooking became more and more specialized.  Basic cooking abilities, once as widespread a skill as shoelace-tying or self-bathing, was no longer necessary to feed one’s family.  Non-cooks have been raised by non-cooks.  Instead of homemade real food, we’ve bought into the Standard American Diet (SAD); and confused “making dinner” with mixing the contents of various packages or opening a bucket of take-out chicken.

I, on the other hand, have aspired to be a great cook.  I was raised by a home-ec teacher, who took great pride in her kitchen skill and showed affection by preparing yummy things for our family.  Mom’s jambalaya was legendary.  For Thanksgiving she’d pull out all the stops, preparing a heavily peppered cornbread dressing, dirty rice, and juicy roast turkey all the while dancing to the first official playing of Aaron Neville’s Christmas album.  Cooking was a skill.  Cooking was fun!

Despite all this, my brothers and I were raised on the Standard American Diet.  Mom, who worked a more-than-full-time job and raised five kids, relied on convenience foods for our meals.  Fast food was consumed at least once a week.  Soda or sweet tea was always on the dinner table.  Sugar-crusted breakfast cereals and store-bought snacks were welcome in our home.  And while love was shown with edible sweetness and comfort with deep-fried juiciness, our relationship with food was ambivalent.  Mom and I were both heavier than we’d like to be.  I followed her example and began fretting about my weight.  She raised hell on my behalf in elementary school so I could drink the previously “for teachers 0nly” skim milk in the cafeteria.  Even in second grade I had started dieting.  We were suckers for any low-fat product we saw advertised.  Olestra chips.  (Anyone remember the warning label?  Yikes.)  Diet soda (Gag).  Snackwells (cookies reminiscent of sweetened dirt).

By my college/single years I was a more adept cook than most of my friends, but almost all of my cooking involved opening box or can of  something.  I could cook greens, omelettes, and quesadillas on the stove.  I microwaved broccoli and baked potatoes.  In the rare periods I wasn’t broke, I ate a ton of salad – which came pre-washed in a plastic bag, of course.  I added sliced tomatoes, feta cheese and bottled dressing.  I ate Easy Mac, breakfast cereal, canned soup and veggies.  Meat was intimidating to cook, but I wanted to be thin anyway, so usually avoided it.

One thing I did learn how to do well was apple pie – I made a real crust using a recipe I’d copied out of a magazine.  It became my speciality and won a bake-off contest at our student ministry.  I’d acquired a few cookbooks and magazine subscriptions and studied them.  As long as I followed recipes, most things turned out fine.  There was a learning curve, though.   I didn’t know what all the cooking terms meant.  It took one batch of astonishingly pungent hummus to learn the difference between “one clove” and “one head” of garlic.

Early married life provided me the challenge of cooking square meals for the first time.  Rather than having leftover fried rice and Lucky Charms for dinner, it seemed like the thing real grownups did.   I was heavily dependent on bagged frozen chicken breasts, which I cooked to a leathery dryness – either in a frying pan or stove.  I served these with canned veggies and bagged salad.  My tactful husband declared the peas that I’d always thought delectable (LeSeuer – the Rolls Royce of canned peas!), to taste like “boogers”.  Having been raised by serious hippie gardeners, he was perplexed by my purchases of canned vegetables.  I, too, was confused.  Other than potatoes and salad fixins, the thought of purchasing fresh vegetables had never occurred to me.  It was a turning point.

Happy Fourth of July!

I am celebrating the Fourth with my family, thankful for the freedoms we are blessed with in the U.S. As I think on those, I am grateful for the freedom of expression, exercised here at Cultivating the Good Life.

Segue achieved.

I have a tendency to get ahead of myself. This blog has been something I’ve wanted to do for a while. I have several entries in the works and even more ideas simmering. I also have three kids, an overworked, often-gone husband, and responsibilities outside the home. So maybe posting twice a week won’t happen right away. I think this thing will gain momentum, though. Like many of my passions, I’ll manage to find the time. I’ve been bursting with ideas and look forward to sharing some of them with you. Stay tuned.