Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Confession: I used to burn water

OK, roll up your sleeves, kids. Let’s talk about cooking.

I am not a natural-born cook. I know that when I start casually tossing off that I baked bread the other day, and fed forty-eleven people on nine minutes notice and oh yeah, I spent sixteen minutes in my kitchen and made 3,527 meals for $0.80 and then went to yoga class before drafting a new peace treaty for the warring nations in Kahplutiburg, you might think that I’m one of those people who was born with a copy of the Joy of Cooking in my wee, oven-mitted hands.

I was not.

When I was first married, I couldn’t make tea without burning the water. A large driving force behind our $65,000 in credit card debt was incessant eating out – in a stroke of coincidence, there is an article about Stop Eating Your Way into Debt! on the Dollar Stretcher today. Actually, it makes me feel better, because I always thought the fact that we had racked up a ton of debt eating out was an example of my personal, private stupidity.

Nice to know I have company.

ANYWAY. I’m going to quote Jill, because she says it quite succinctly. Among the list of excuses:

“I don't know how to cook." So learn. Start simple. Even my 9-year-old grandson could boil himself a hot dog. You don't have to produce a gourmet meal to make your family happy, and in most cases, they would prefer you didn't.

I understand that man can't live on hot dogs alone, but after a week or two of simple dishes, you can move on to more complicated things like frozen French fries and frying hamburgers.

You know what? It really is that simple.

I had a few…uh…well, let’s call them “less than wonderful” meals along the way. The meals I produced in my early days in the kitchen were way less than spectacular.

But they got better. Slowly. The hardest part was getting over…myself. Mankind has been cooking meals for centuries – am I retarded? Am I, like, some kind of monkey-throwback? I can’t figure out how to make rice, for Pete’s sake?

People in the freakin’ Stone Age knew how to make stew and flat breads. C’mon. You can, too, cook.

Here’s one. Meatloaf. Do you know how to make a basic meatloaf, that staple of the red-blooded American family?

2 pounds ground beef
1 large egg
1/3 cup milk
1 cup bread crumbs
1-2 teaspoons onion salt
3/4 teaspoon pepper (more or less as you like it)
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
1/4 teaspoon garlic powder

FANCY ALTERNATIVES: put in 1/2 cup of diced onions and two or three cloves of fresh minced garlic. Add a chopped bell pepper. I like to use a dollop of Pepperplant hot sauce (it isn’t “HOT” sauce, it’s actually fairly mild with a nice bell pepper flavor).

Smoosh it all together, put it into a loaf pan and bake it at 350 for about an hour.

Hard? Naw. Buy yourself some potato buds and make instant mashed potatoes, open a can of green beans and viola. You’re eating a decent meal for a fraction of the cost at Applebee’s.

Start with the easy stuff. Yes, the frugal community yelps and screams and carries on about the “high cost of convenience foods” – but if you are comparing eating at Outback with grilling a store-bought steak, whipping up some potato buds and following the microwave directions on the package of Birds-Eye ‘steamers’?

You’re saving money even with convenience foods.

OK, you’re really at a loss? Look for places like My Girlfriend’s Kitchen. Per serving, they are still cheaper than eating out, healthier, AND! MOREOVER!! They can get you started. Pretty soon, you’ll start figuring out how these things go together. You’ll get bold! DARING, EVEN! And before you know it, you’ll find yourself saying, “I could do this at home. I don’t know why I’m paying them to cut up an onion…”

Taken one step at a time, getting into the kitchen really isn’t that hard. Sometimes I wonder if Food Network isn’t doing us some harm, frankly – we watch these shows where Rachel pops out some forty course thing in thirty minutes and it’s all fabulous!, and we feel like if we don’t do the same thing, well, it just isn’t worth doing.

So we don’t do it.

And then we never do get to the level we’d like to be.

I think cooking is a lot like learning to play the piano. You don’t just sit down and do it, no matter how good the instruction book may be. You sit down and fumble a bit. You start simple. You practice, practice, practice. You get good at the simple stuff, and start pecking away at the harder pieces.

Just get in there. Just do it. Don’t be afraid of your kitchen. Keep it simple, and honestly if your choices are ‘eating out’ or ‘Eggo’s’?

Take the Eggo’s. They are still cheaper than McDonalds.

You can work your way up to homemade waffles. Which, by the way, you can make on a lazy Saturday, freeze, and then pop into the toaster just like the frozen version…


Marty52 said...

Great post... and yes, the key is to practice, practice, practice. You have to learn the basics and once you are over that hurdle, you can start branching out. Get a good basic cookbook (Joy of Cooking, Betty Crocker, Good Housekeeping, etc) and just pick a simple recipe and go for it.

Be prepared to eat several "courses" because you may not be able to get everything done at the same time for awhile.

Be prepared to have the smoke alarm go off a couple of times.

Be prepared to be frustrated... it will get better as you PRACTICE.

Be prepared for compliments from your family.

Be prepared for a great sense of accomplishment as you feed your family on good, nutritious, homemade meals.

Be prepared to have fun!!

Anonymous said...

Another point in favour of cooking-
if your children see you cooking meals and you teach them to cook, they will not have fight the battle of eating out versus cooking.

Jan said...


I do not understand it when people say, "I can't cook." Because to me that means they can't read or they can't follow directions, because, hello, most of us that cook do it by following a recipe!

I second marty52's advice to get a basic cookbook. I have Betty Crocker and Better Homes and Gardens ones and between them I can find a recipe for just about anything basic. I use them all the time -- how long should I boil the green beans? what temperature do I use for baking a roast? I don't know this stuff in my brain and I don't need to -- Betty is always available to tell me.

I also recommend one (not too many, but one) of the cookbooks for non-cookers -- I have a "six ingredients or less" one and I've heard good things about one called "Help, my Apartment Has a Kitchen" or something like that.

It does take awhile to become a capable cook. There's some trial and error, some getting to know your own kitchen (which number does "medium high" correspond to?) and yes, yes, yes, learning to get everything done at the same time is seriously tricky! At some point you get where you can figure out substitutions if you discover at the last minute that you're out of something. And you know where you can take shortcuts (raise your hand if you actually mix the dry ingredients together in a separate bowl when you make cookies).

Anonymous said...

If you can read and follow simple directions, you can cook. If you really can't cook, you most certainly should not be driving a car!! (Not to mention raising children, voting, or painting your fingernails.) It's sort of like sewing, to me - anyone can do it if they want to, although I will admit that some have more of a natural "knack" than others.

When we got married I knew how to make Chicken Rice-a-Roni and Kraft mac & cheese. Period. Yet, amazingly, both hubby and I are still alive (and looking quite well-fed), and the kids are all still growing like weeds too. It's amazing what you can do with a little persistence. And it definitely gets easier with practice! I've progressed to the point of "experimenting" now, much to my family's horror. :-) I'm never going to be like my mom - "oh, please, let me cook!" - but I keep us all well-fed, and that's good enough for me!

Anonymous said...

I think Food TV is what you make of it. I like that watching Rachel and Emeril demystifies the process of making meals. My two favorite quotes of Emeril's are "Don't Panic!" and "This isn't rocket science".

We can make Rachel's meals in the promised 30-minutes, give or take a few because she's a much faster chopper than I am.

Now, I'm lucky that my DH is the primary cook in our house and he learned how by being a broke bachelor and learning to make do with what he had. I can cook such that I won't starve, but I certainly don't get any style points. I do have my specialties, though.

I'm anxious to try the bread recipe you posted. I can bake desserts like a champ, but bread has never been my strong point.

Science PhD Mom said...

Hmmmm a new bread recipe! I will save it and try it later, given that I have eleven loaves of bread in my freezer right now. That is definitely one commodity we are not short of in this house.

It's amazing what you pick up cooking-wise once you start to deviate from recipes, too. I used to be a recipe cook, and my DH has corrupted me so that I rarely use an actual 'recipe' any more. I generally consult a recipe for the proportions for baked goods, but I am even branching out and making up my own recipes there too. That is the ultimate step in cooking or baking, I think--being confident enough to step out of cookbooks and just whip up something out of your head. And believe me, that has its share of failures, too! But it's all a good learning process.

Amy Lane said...

I throw a bunch of crap into a pot and call it food. Sometimes food good. Sometimes food crap. But food always food.