The Practical Home Cook
Megan McArdle, who loves to cook, says that the “tyranny of the home-cooked meal” business is silly. It doesn’t take rocket scientist or a social scientist to figure out how to make home-cooked meals for your family, despite various challenges, she says. Rather than shame those who don’t want to do it, she offers advice. Excerpt:
1. Don’t cook from scratch if you hate to cook. Cooking is a joy. So is rock climbing, or ice skating, or reading science fiction novels. That doesn’t mean it’s a joy everyone shares. There’s no reason that you should cook from scratch if you don’t like doing it. America’s supermarkets offer an ever-more-stunning variety of quick, tasty, relatively healthy frozen entrees. Virtually every grocery store has a giant freezer case devoted to making dinner time a snap, another big refrigerator case filled with things that take barely more time, and a huge prepared-foods section that is still cheaper than takeout. So is a box of pasta and a bottle of decent sauce like Rao’s. For that matter, I still remember very fondly my grandmother’s signature kid dish: hamburger meat, pasta shells and Ragu.
2. Don’t make the perfect the enemy of the adequate. The primary object is to keep everyone’s stomach filled without giving them Type II diabetes or busting the budget. Do that first, then stretch to more ambitious goals such as mastering coq au vin.
5. Pre-prep and freeze. Yes, you can be one of those people who pre-preps nine slow-cooker meals, carefully freezes them and dutifully puts them in the slow cooker on the appointed morning. I am not one of those people. I am, however, one of those people who freezes big batches of soup or chili, throws some marinade on a roast before popping it in the freezer, or flattens and flours chicken cutlets, freezes them on a baking sheet and pops them in a freezer bag to be prepared later as needed. There’s no need to defrost before cooking as long as they’re relatively thin. Steaks can also be cooked straight out of the freezer, as can pot roast or stew meat. Loaves of bread can also be prepped (cut into servings, or turned into garlic bread), then frozen in foil for later use. So do those things when you have time, then at a hectic dinner time, you can have a full meal on the table in 10 to 20 minutes.
Read the whole thing. Every one of these suggestions is spot on.
For this thread, I would like home cooks to add to Megan’s list of helpful hints for cooking at home when one is pressed for time. Here’s another one from me: Make your grill (and your husband, if he’s the grillmaster) work for you. It’s a minor hassle to fire up the Weber, but we love grilled meat in my family, so I do it a lot. When I do, Julie and I usually cook much more meat than we need for a single meal, and feed the family from that batch for days. If we get a couple of days down the road, we freeze what we haven’t yet eaten; that gives us grilled chicken or beef for dinner anytime we want, simply by thawing it in the microwave. Not only is it nice to have grilled meat without having to work the grill every time, but it’s an efficient way to use your time on the weekend to cook for the rest of the week.
One more: Experiment with spices. If your kids are super-picky, as mine are, this won’t work, but it’s worth trying to, um, spice up boring, simple meals. Last night, I took some ground turkey from Costco, worked in a healthy amount of chermoula seasoning (a Moroccan spice blend) and salt, put it in a meat loaf pan, and stuck it in the oven. It took about six minutes of prep, plus an hour in the oven, and boom, I had a turkey meatloaf that was so delicious I would have proudly served it to dinner guests.
Chermoula is something you can buy at many ethnic food stores cheaply; ours came via mail order from Kalustyan’s in NYC, where you can find all kinds of delicious spice blends (Berbere, an Ethiopian kind involving ginger, cardamom, dried onion, pepper, dried garlic, allspice, cumin and salt, is also great, as are all the various curry powders from the Indo-Pak tradition). It might sound intimidating to use this stuff, but when you grasp that poor people in these cultures cook with spices like this every day, it may be less so. You can dress up ordinary cuts of meat, including ground turkey and ground beef, in amazing ways with just a little bit of these spice blends, which, again, are not expensive (don’t buy them at your standard supermarket; if you can find these spices there at all, the mark-up will be ridiculous). You just have to experiment. Go to the Kalustyan’s site and explore, or even better, go to an Indian or Middle Eastern store, if you have one, in your town, and see what they have. You probably don’t want to eat meat and vegetables spiced like this all the time, but it’s a quick, easy, and inexpensive way to take the boring out of something as pedestrian as meatloaf and chicken. If our kids won’t eat it, well, too bad — I’ll make a plain meatloaf for them, but something actually interesting for Julie and me. This solution is not for everybody; you might not like spices like this. But if you do find that you’ve had Indian or Middle Eastern food before and have liked it, you can integrate those flavors into your own home cooking.
Here’s an example. Above, a photograph of a dinner I made for myself the other night. A neighbor gave us some fresh okra from his garden. Another neighbor gave us some late-summer tomatoes. What could I do with this? I thought. I chopped the okra, which took hardly any time, chopped the tomatoes, and threw it all into a black iron skillet with some olive oil. Then I added some curry powder. In about ten minutes, I had dinner. It cost virtually nothing,was quick and easy, and was pretty special, if you like that kind of thing (and I do).
Anyway, I believe that home cooking is for most of us a matter of intimidation. We don’t think we can do it well, so we don’t try. Or, we just don’t like to do it, so we come up with rationalizations for why we can’t. This, from a story I did for TAC last year:
On a recent trip to the [St. Francisville] farmer’s market, I spoke to Brian Branch, a 30-year-old beekeeper who was selling honey, about food and cultural politics. He says that he sees a generation gap more than a cultural one.
“You see a lot of the older people coming out and buying things here, fruits and vegetables,” he said. “A lot of people who are my age, they just buy stuff that’s convenient. They’ll buy a pizza that’s already made, or something like that, and they’d rather do that than take the time to make their own food. It’s really a question of what you think is important.”
He added that young adults tend to be more strapped for cash and favor what’s cheap over what’s healthier. Granted, nobody on a limited budget can afford to shop exclusively at Whole Foods. But then again, Americans expect to spend far less of their income on food than do other industrialized nations. The USDA reports that in 2010, the average American spent 7 percent of his income on food—roughly half of what Western Europeans do, the UK excepted. European Union 2011 statistics show that though Britons spend only 9 percent of their income on food, they are the most obese population in Europe.
Clearly there is more to the story than economics. My cousin Amy Dreher is a trained chef who teaches culinary arts in the local public high school under ProStart, an educational program backed by the restaurant industry that teaches cooking skills. She told me that many of her students show up knowing little about nutrition and nothing about cooking. Food traditions that have been preserved over countless generations have disappeared.
“These kids aren’t getting any home education from their parents,” she said. “A lot of families don’t have money, but around here, fresh vegetables don’t have to be expensive. But because people don’t know how to cook or use fresh vegetables, they jump to using a bag of frozen French fries and premade chicken patties.”
Amy commiserated with me over how unrealistic most people are about their own food choices. People who complain that they have no money to buy quality meat, dairy, and produce don’t get very far with this public school teacher.
“These kids are having drive-thru McDonalds for dinner every night. Can you imagine the cost of that, not to mention the empty calories?” she said. “They’ll laugh at me for going to Whole Foods, but I’m like, ‘You have $800 rims on your car, versus me shopping at a grocery store that has the reputation for being more expensive? Come on.’”
She also has no patience for the claim that people have no time to cook healthy food for themselves and their families.
“It’s just excuses. There are plenty of quick and easy things you can do with carrots and lettuce. People just don’t want to do it, and a lot of them don’t even want to learn how to do it,” she said.
Psychologists call this “learned helplessness,” a term that refers to a condition in which one comes to believe, falsely, that one has no control over a bad situation.
I would like to hear from readers who have positive, practical solutions for how to make daily home cooking easier for busy people, especially those who are resource-strapped.