Please don’t be afraid of your kitchen

November 15, 2011 § 5 Comments

E: My best friend from college and I have been doing some research around nutrition, and what has contributed to the growing eat-out and take-out trend in American society. We’re thinking of building a web/mobile phone app to really help people make healthy eating choices. But both of us cook, and trying to figure out where to start attacking the problem of kitchen-averse Americans requires a certain amount of getting inside those people’s heads.

I’ve been surfing the web, reading surveys and opinion pieces (from the likes of Mark Bittman and Michael Ruhlman) and readers’ comments thereof. And something struck me about the way Nombudsman has been approaching cooking and recipe, and how unconsciously we’ve written without considering our audience. Now this site has never been about a social purpose–it’s just about our adventures with food, and if they encourage you to try something new in the kitchen, that’s just a bonus from our point of view. But I decided I had to take the time to share some of my thoughts about food, nutrition, and cooking, and to develop a logical consideration of these issues that made me thoughtlessly passionate on first reading about them.

I was recently preparing for the GRE, and one of the practice essay questions I ran into in my book asked me to argue whether or not restaurants should have to provide FDA-style nutrition facts for their food. The book’s sample response said yes, and I said no. But that something like that could even be considered on a universal scale surprised me. I argued, and I hold to this, that it is one thing to require fast food restaurant chains to provide nutrition information, but quite another to require it of every independent or family restaurant. It would unfairly affect restaurants with menus that change seasonally, weekly, or even daily based on what is available locally. And it would be an unnecessary waste of taxpayer money enforcing it. Instead of making restaurants get the contents of their dishes certified, spend the money getting people into their own kitchens to cook. Restaurant food should be a sometimes-food, not an all-the-time food. And occasional consumption of restaurant fare isn’t going to make anyone ill. It is the frequency that’s the problem.

I know a lot of our readers are our age. Many of them are friends from college or before, or maybe friends of friends. Which means most of our readers probably don’t have children or family obligations to deal with. And that they are reading a food blog in the first place means I may be preaching to the choir here. But, naming no names, a frightening portion of people our age don’t know how to cook, so maybe that’s you as well, whoever you are, reading this. So this is my pitch to set down the frozen meals, to learn to cook fresh. And I’m going to try to cover not only the why but the how.

My kitchen epiphany:

My parents cooked a lot when I lived at home. Something got cooked, from scratch, pretty much every single night. Occasionally we’d have a rotisserie chicken from the grocery store, but most meals consisted of a protein (chicken, fish, maybe a frozen veggie burger), some rice (brown or wild) or couscous, and some blanched, steamed, or lightly sautéed veggies. My mother did a lot of the cooking, though my father helped at times, and though she hasn’t ever–during my lifetime at least–loved to cook, my mother has always understood the importance of eating healthy, natural, simply-prepared food.

But I didn’t cook before college. I could certainly “cook” mac and cheese from a box, and I knew how to lightly boil veggies, but cooking wasn’t something I did. The shift for me came after I met my friend Aditya during my freshman year and watched him prepare lentils, potatoes, and other family staples. He taught me three simple Indian recipes–which I’ve since made my own (read: possibly butchered)–that changed my life. When I discovered that I could easily make delicious, authentic Indian food in my own kitchen, and in sufficient quantities that an hour of cooking could feed me for days, I was sold. Cooking, I realized, could be easy, productive, and even kind of fun, and the products could be better than what you can buy in most restaurants.

The line we toe:

Nombudsman treads a fine line between spaces. The more Joanna and I have cooked, the more comfortable we have become with it and the more we’ve tended to enjoy the experience. I love to cook, both for myself and for others. I love the feeling of taking raw ingredients, putting them together with skill and care, and producing something delicious. I’ve always enjoyed building things (whether from legos or plywood or lines of code) and cooking is just a (much more edible) extension of that obsession.

So we sometimes do recipes here that do take time or skill. And we’ve got a few failures lurking in the closet that we haven’t unveiled. We try to challenge ourselves sometimes, because we enjoy doing so. But that means I couldn’t honestly recommend someone try to make a weekly menu out of what we do. There’s no truffle or kobe beef or 24-year-old prosciutto to be found on Nombudsman (at least not yet) but I couldn’t recommend everything we make to a burgeoning cook on a budget who works 2 jobs and has to feed a family of four. (If that’s you, the “easy” tag would be a good place to start.)

We fall between the realm of crazy, out-of-the-park gourmet meals, and the more plebeian place where some people might have to start cooking. I work freelance, so I can set my own hours and be home when I need to prep ingredients. But Joanna’s grad school is pretty much an 8-to-6 job for five days of the week, and most of our cooking still happens after she gets home. We don’t cook from scratch all the time. We use Annie’s macaroni and cheese from a box. We even heat up canned soups sometimes. It is totally fine to do this in moderation. There are those days that you are simply exhausted, or there’s nothing else in the house, and that’s ok. But we try to make that the exception and not the rule. I think what makes that possible for us to do is that we not only understand the importance of cooking from fresh ingredients but we also love it, rather than feeling like cooking is a chore.

The time excuse:

According to a few somewhat-reputable polls, a good number of Americans seem to believe that cooking takes too much time. That fast-food and take-out are more time-efficient is a big deal for the faceless masses of this twenty-something percent of Americans. But I don’t think the time excuse really holds water. There are certainly some people for whom it is true. Again, working two jobs and caring for a family will take a lot out of a person. But I think overwhelmingly the issue is one of motivation. We find time for things that are important to us. Sometimes it is a struggle, but we do it. And the key is to recognize that cooking is important to us, for our health and our well-being. We’ve got to leverage that importance as motivation to get ourselves into the kitchen.

I read an opinion piece that took issue with Mark Bittman’s conclusion (in a New York Times op-ed) that real food is actually cheaper than junk food, since Bittman didn’t take into account the cost of the person’s labor. If you add in the hourly rate for your average office worker times preparation time to the cost of home-made food, it is cheaper to eat fast food, the commentator said. I take issue with this challenge on several levels. You can’t count the time spent preparing food as income lost. You weren’t going to be paid for that time anyway. There was no income there to lose in the first place.

If you want to take that tack, you’ve got to start looking at it more generally. Using my normal hourly rate it costs me $5 to get dressed in the morning: better go to work in a jumper. Using my normal hourly rate I lose $180 a night when I sleep: better throw out my pillows. Using my normal hourly rate that hour of reality TV just cost me $35: better add that to my Comcast bill. Things get silly quite quickly when you start viewing all your time as being worth money. You work what you work. The rest of your time is free to use however you wish. You can’t claim that you could have spent it getting paid.

In two of the above cases (clothes and sleep) I think nobody would argue that the long term costs would be greater than the short term gains anyway. Wearing a zip-up jumper to an office job might get you noticed, but probably not in the way that would get you a promotion. Cutting your sleep time to zero because it is just too expensive is going to, quite literally, kill you later on. The same goes for food. If you want to charge yourself for food preparation by the minute as an excuse not to cook, you need to add in the potential (but well-documented) long-term health costs of irresponsible eating such as diabetes and heart disease. As a nation we spend hundreds of billions of dollars a year on health care for diseases related to diet and nutrition. That view starts to make healthy home cooking look cheaper again.

The time solution(s):

If time spent in the kitchen seems like a waste, there are some ways to fix that. Cook with your family (spouse, partner, kids, friends). Make time in the kitchen a collaborative experience. When you are cooking alone, multitask:  I’ve started (on the advice of my aforementioned best-friend from college) listening to audiobooks while I cook. I can “read” and cook at the same time, and I feel like I’m getting more out of my time than just enjoyment. I thoroughly recommend this to anyone. (If you don’t want to buy audiobooks, but you’ve got a laptop or smartphone, start listening through the books available on LibriVox.org. These works are all public-domain for people here in the United States, so they are completely free. There’s enough material there to last you a long time. Start using cooking time as an excuse to listen to the classics, or some of those books you always meant to read but never found the time for.)

Put music on and turn cooking into fun time. Or, if you have to do this, put on the TV. If that’s what it takes to get you to feel like cooking is leisure time rather than work, it’s a good idea.

Basically, bring your life into the kitchen. And pick things that are easy and require minimal prep work, at least to start. Consider making large batches of soup, chili, or stew; freeze some and save it for quick meals later. Make little changes one-by-one. Use a slow-cooker, the fire-and-forget missile of the kitchen world, if you can afford one. Realize that cooking isn’t hard. Sometimes you are going to fail and need a backup plan, but with some smart food choices the cost will likely still swing in your favor even with the occasional waste of fresh ingredients. And, honestly, in over two years of cooking I’ve only ever cooked 1 thing that was actually inedible. And that was something that took us a long time to make and which we both knew was kind of a stretch. Easy stuff is pretty safe.

Use the lack of time to your advantage:

A lot of boxed mixes don’t actually save you that much time. I encourage you to try making a cake from scratch if you haven’t done so before. I promise you it isn’t hard. Find a no-frills recipe and it’ll take at most 5 minutes longer than making it from a box. And boxed mashed potatoes? Sure mashed potatoes take 30 minutes or so to make, but most of that is down time waiting for the potatoes to boil anyway.

But there are times pre-packaged food really is faster. I can in no way make a batch of cookies as fast as I can unwrap some I bought at the store. But I embrace this fact, and I think everyone should. It means I’ve got to work for dessert. If I want cookies, I’ve got to make them. If I want brownies, I’ve got to make them. And once I’ve made them, I want to make them last. There’s a certain ownership that comes with baking things for oneself.

I’ve read again and again during my research about how cooking at home, being able to control ingredients and portion sizes, is the most important thing anyone can do for their health. And I think this may be especially true for desserts and high-calorie, high-fat items. If you really don’t have time to make cookies from scratch, then try not eating them at all. You will be healthier, and after a while you won’t miss them anymore. When you do have the time to make them, you’ll have a vested interest in making them stretch, and you’ll have done some work (read: gotten some exercise) making them yourself.

Just buy a pot; or, why nobody needs All-Clad:

To be able to cook at home, you really do need some more equipment than just a microwave. For some people, cost is a real barrier to entry. For others, it may just be fear of not knowing what to buy. Let me try to attack both problems at once.

I love All-Clad pans. I also love my $130 Japanese gyuto. It’s true that I have expensive tastes. I’m a gear head, and I want everything I own to be “the best.” But I would cook just as much with any old pans (in fact Joanna and I don’t own any All-Clad at the moment, my love of that stuff comes from my mother’s kitchen back at home, and it hasn’t stopped me cooking). That said, really cheap gear can be frustrating and I honestly think that next to being raised by a generation that bit the packaged-food bug, growing up in kitchens where parents primarily used impossibly dull knives when they did actually cook is the next leading cause of a cultural disenchantment with cooking. Chopping fresh veggies is easy and takes less than 5 minutes with the right equipment. With the wrong equipment, it becomes scary, time-consuming, and downright dangerous.

So what do you really need? One cheap but good chef’s knife, like a Forschner Victorinox (and maybe a paring knife if you want); two to three pots and pans (a big pot or dutch oven, a small pot, and a skillet if you have space and money); one to two wooden spoons, a cutting board (maybe a second, small one for meats only), and maybe a prep bowl or two. You’d be amazed at what you can make with just that. Anything else (blender, food processor, mixer, juicer, rotisserie) is just a bonus. You can get all the essentials for less than $200 with your eyes closed, and probably squeeze in under $100 with some judicious shopping-around.

And you don’t even necessarily need a cook-book. There are so many free resources on the internet that you can make use of.

And the rest:

I can’t address everyone’s problems here. For some people that $100 is still a lot, but if you could save even 50 cents a day on food by making it yourself, you could have made up the value of that investment in less than a year. Some people really can’t reliably get to a grocery store because they are simply too far. But I don’t think this is going to be the case for most readers of this blog. For those of you who suffer from these issues, we need some sort of real social change. But I can’t accomplish that here.

What I can do is say that for everyone else, there’s really no excuse. Maybe we can get away with eating poorly while we are young, but at some point it is going to catch up to us. And I shudder to think of what might happen to this generation’s children if we don’t change our ways. The statistics about the rise of obesity and nutrition-related illness really speak for themselves. I know a lot of you reading this already take care of yourselves when it comes to eating right. And I don’t want to chastise anyone unfairly. But we can all take steps, even just little steps, toward eating healthier or getting our friends to do so.

I recently saw, in the freezer aisle of my local grocery store, pre-made frozen peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Why do these exist? How long does it take to put together a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Really? Truthfully? Can we, as a culture, not even put two pieces of bread together any more? What’s with that? I’m not against easy food or packaged food (I don’t necessarily want to have to make stock from scratch every time I make soup, though I’m leaning toward doing that more). There are canned and bottled pantry basics that I have no problem with, especially when used in moderation. But there’s a limit where convenience just becomes absurd. And I think at the very least that line needs to be drawn before frozen PB&J even comes into the picture.

Social pressure has its uses, and it seems to me that any aversion to industrial foodstuffs has largely fallen out the window outside of “elitist” foodie circles. I’m all for freedom of choice, but I think a society that doesn’t look down on industrially-produced frozen sandwiches with aversion, and that doesn’t view consumers of such products as pariahs, cannot be a healthy society.

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§ 5 Responses to Please don’t be afraid of your kitchen

  • Aditya says:

    Once again, thanks for the shout out! I had no idea my lentils and potatoes gave you a “kitchen epiphany”, but I really have to thank you for such a nice comment.

    I agree with everything in this post, and I even know some of the articles and philosophies you are referencing. I think we are both lucky that at the end of a long day, I would rather chop and stir than sit and watch TV.

    My aunt and uncle cook together all the time, and it is just their way of spending time with each other, and their daughter (who sits in a high chair in the corner). My aunt said something really interesting once. She told me she reached a point in her late twenties when food prep stopped becoming “fun” and just “something she did.” Cooking from scratch just became automatic, and that was when she felt like eating out more since she found cooking boring. She pulled herself out of the slump by differentiating between “everyday” cooking, and “special” cooking she did for social occasions.

    Never heard anyone who loves to cook tell me they got bored of it and had to pull themselves out. I am dreading the time when I hit that phase in a couple of years.

    • nombudsman says:

      Thanks for the comment! And seriously, those lentils are the best.

      I think everybody probably hits that wall where cooking just becomes a thing they do automatically. I think my parents experienced something like that, and I think Joanna’s parents did too. But there are ways to deal with it and I think your aunt’s plan is a good one—though I might even broaden it to doing special cooking for weekends or something like that. Being adventurous and trying new things can, I think, be reinvigorating for one’s enjoyment of the kitchen.

  • Allie says:

    Loved the entry, Erik! As always, an intelligent and interesting take on our culture’s view of food.

    On a similar vein as Aditya’s, this summer, my mother and I experimented with vegan cooking using Alicia Silverstone’s cookbook The Kind Diet, which was a great experience for us both. We spent time together in the kitchen, and we discovered some great recipes. This is something that I thought made Silverstone’s cookbook such a success for us: She doesn’t use a wild assortment of ingredients. She uses many of the same ingredients, in new ways, throughout the book, so when she asks you to buy something like barley malt syrup, you can actually use it in more than one recipe. She really made vegan cooking 1) accessible, and 2) affordable.

    Perhaps in part people view home cooking as too expensive, because of TV shows and cookbooks that ask us to buy pretty wild ingredients, which we can’t incorporate into our daily cooking lives. I’ve had this thought before, but I wanted to know your ideas on the matter.

    How much have you ventured into cookbook-land? If you’re interested in veganism at all, I would highly recommend Silverstone’s book (although I think you’ll find the commentary a bit tedious–still, the recipes are excellent).

    • nombudsman says:

      We’ve gotten some stuff from cookbooks, and I’m certainly interested in getting a few more. Joy of Cooking is my favorite standard at the moment, but somewhere in my house there’s a Moosewood vegetarian & vegan cookbook that I need to check out. My overall goal is to be at least vegetarian 6 days out of 7 (we are probably about 4-5 out of 7 at the moment), though I will try just about anything once, including meat products.

      I like the idea of using the same ingredients in different ways, and I do think that’s really important for day-to-day cooking. What’s also important is getting some of those recipes and ideas in your head, so you can make them quickly and without thinking. Then you can always throw in some new twists to make things interesting, but you have a good base of recipes to go on. And certainly, searching down expensive, weird ingredients you can only use in one thing is not sustainable for quick home cooking.

      Thanks for the cookbook recommendation, and we will definitely check it out!

      • Aditya says:

        The Moosewood cookbooks are awesome! I have cooked from a couple and the recipes NEVER disappoint.

        When I get back to the States, I would love to check out Silverstone’s book. Thanks for the rec Allie!

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