Most cooks cook because it is expensive and impractical to eat out every night especially with a family. We can make healthier, less expensive meals at home, but it does require some effort. There is the meal planning, the grocery shopping, and then the actual getting it done after arriving home from our day jobs. What can a cook do to make that daily chore feel less like drudgery?
My answer to that question has been to embrace cooking as my favorite hobby, a hobby I take time for every day. Admittedly, it took some creative re-thinking and plain old work to reinvent myself into being a happy cook.
In her memoir The Ungarnished TruthEllie Matthews describes how she won a million dollars in a cooking contest. I love that Matthews terms herself an “adequate cook” because that is all that I am. Although I do not plan to enter any contests, her terminology allows me to feel better about how I cook.
Based on a few things I gleaned from Matthews’ book and my own experience, here are some tips for reaching adequacy in cooking.
Step One: Start with what you know.
Gather recipes from your childhood. Chances are if you liked to eat it then, your own children will like it now. Add the favorite meals of your family members.
These meals will be the back bone of your family menu. Mine include lasagna, spaghetti, breakfast-for-dinner, macaroni and cheese with hotdogs, meatloaf and mashed potatoes, and pork roast with sauerkraut and applesauce.
A vegan would not fare well in my house, but the point is that I can do all of these meals without opening a cookbook or consulting a recipe card. When my brain is too frazzled for anything complicated, I cook one of these staples and throw a vegetable into the microwave.
By starting with what you know, you will build a base of cooking knowledge. For example, macaroni and cheese from scratch requires the cook to make a basic white sauce first before adding grated cheese. Lasagna, spaghetti and macaroni all need to be cooked according to the package directions so the pasta does not get mushy. Mashed potatoes are a staple in American homes. Be sure to start with cold water so that the potatoes do not end up lumpy.
Step Two: Learn from other cooks.
Every adequate cook must own a decent standard cookbook. My mother had a well worn Joy of Cooking. I use Better Homes and Gardens.
If the index of this all purposeful cookbook of choice includes all the back bone recipes of your menu, consider buying it. Also check it out for clearly explained recipe steps and a wide variety of recipes. Then use your new cookbook to try other meals that sound good.
Cooking shows can be a great resource for inspiration. Although some of the recipes may be too complicated for a beginning cook, the shows do teach cooking techniques. I recently decided to try kale for the first time because I saw Rachel Ray demonstrate how to prepare it for cooking.
If someone feeds you something you like, ask how he or she made it. If the recipe sounds simple enough for you, get a copy of it. Put the ingredients on your shopping list immediately and try it out as soon as possible.
You can even get ideas from a restaurant meal. A local restaurant serves delicious Southern Mustard Fried Catfish. I like it so much that I looked for a recipe on-line. Mine does not taste like the restaurant’s fish but my family loves it anyway.
Step Three: Use familiar ingredients.
Having the same ingredients on hand on a regular basis simplifies both the shopping and cooking experience. Once you have built a repertoire of about a dozen to twenty recipes, you will notice that you use the same spices, herbs and flavorings over and over again. If running low on any of these, you will want to add them immediately to your shopping list.
Other ingredients that are essential to the well stocked cook are butter, oil, flour, sugar, vinegar, milk, eggs, rice, corn meal, pasta, potatoes, garlic, onions, corn starch, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and pepper. These ingredients allow you to pan fry pork chops or fish; make breakfast for dinner; whip up vinegar and oil salad dressing; and round out meals with a side dish.
Not essential to cooking but definitely handy: mustard, ketchup, Worcestershire sauce, soy sauce, cheese of all kinds, dry or canned beans and peas, broth or bouillon, coconut milk, peanut butter, cumin, coriander, chili powder, cayenne pepper, white pepper, garlic powder, oregano, basil, dill, and parsley. I am sure to have left out something I use often.
Vegetables and fruit are also essential to a well balanced diet. Fresh is best, but buy frozen or canned if your budget limits you. I usually have fresh carrots, green onions, Romaine lettuce, spinach, oranges, apples, bananas, and whatever items my meal planning calls for.
Step Four: Plan your meals.
Planning meals may seem time consuming; however, in the long run it saves you time and money. It also helps you to feed your family healthy meals that they like.
I usually plan for five or six days of meals at a time. You may wish to plan for fewer or more meals depending upon your proximity to grocery stores, time limits, storage space, and budget.
Since I like to use fresh ingredients, I find that planning for more than six meals at a time means that some of my produce spoils before I have a chance to use it. I freeze meat that I do not plan to use until the third day.
Another advantage to planning meals is that it cuts down on stress. I severely dislike coming home after work and not knowing what to cook. My brain cannot take it. If I plan ahead, my husband and family can help with the shopping or the prep work. I can arrange meals to take into account the busy evenings of sports and other activities. Life is much saner.
Step Five: Cook with a conscience.
Cooking with a conscience means cooking healthy meals. Certain health conditions like heart problems or diabetes demand a stricter diet; but we can all benefit from healthier food choices.
Elle Matthews rails about what she calls “cooking without a conscience” (249). She is referring to cooks who dump loads of butter into their sauces or deep fry everything including the vegetables.
The adequate cook looks for recipes low in fat and high in vitamins. If competent enough, the adequate cook can modify recipes to cut the fat out of meals. Vegetables, for instance, can be steamed or blanched, quickly cooled to retain their vitamins, then tossed with lemon and herbs or vinaigrette. If a recipe asks for onions to be sautéed in butter, use a small amount of olive oil instead.
The more you cook, the more you learn and the more you enjoy the whole experience of cooking. If you can involve your children, spouse, significant other, or roommates in the process, it is even more enjoyable. Reinvent yourself into a happy cook and let the drudgery cease.